Editor’s Note: Jonathan Bender is founder of the Recommended Daily, a sponsor of Kansas City Restaurant Week. This is not a sponsored post.
Lidia Bastianich has been coming into people’s homes for nearly 20 years. But she doesn’t come empty-handed, she always arrives with an easy smile, a few encouraging words, and a bowl of cheese and sauce and pasta that viewers just wish they could smell through their television sets.
On a recent Wednesday, she’s been up since 6:30 am as part of a media barnstorming tour attached to a series of live events and dinners. Her day has begun in Wichita, Kansas, with a stop at a morning show here in Kansas City, before a media luncheon at her Freight House restaurant for her latest cookbook: “Lidia’s Mastering the Art of Italian Cuisine: Everything You Need to Know to Be a Great Italian Cook.”
Dressed in a red apron that bears her name, she’s busy prepping a salad for a segment on another KC show. After a brief demonstration, she exhorts the host to help out.
“It looks great,” said Bastianich of the dish. “It looks perfect.”
The host beams and the two women hug warmly after the segment. Diners smile unconsciously as they walk past Bastianich, who greets each of them in turn. Staffers carry cases of books and pasta sauce, all of which are part of the robust food machine that Bastianich has built alongside her two children, Joe and Tanya.
Five hours into this mini junket, she sits behind a granite countertop. She’s got dozens of copies of her book waiting for her signature. But, as always, there is one more interview to do. One more writer who wants to know what Bastianich thinks of this place and this town. The writer asks if she’d like a break or needs a minute, but she’s shaking her head before he even finishes.
“I’m here,” said Bastianich. “Let’s do it.”
It’s Restaurant Week in Kansas City (and in Pittsburgh, where the sister restaurant of Lidia’s is located). What’s it like for you as a restaurateur during this time of year?
For the restaurant, it’s an exciting time to connect with the neighborhood and the people of the city. It’s an exciting time for them to get to know us, and what we offer. The price is reasonable — it’s a welcoming sign. Besides all of this, part of those funds [10 percent of the proceeds from Kansas City Restaurant Week] goes to charities that are near and dear to my heart like Boys Grow.
You first began working with Boys Grow in 2013. Why have you remained involved with the nonprofit and what have you seen from Boys Grow in the past three years?
I think it’s a wonderful organization. [Founder] John [Gordon Jr.’s] vision and contribution and his dedication are great. He takes teenage boys out of the city center and gives them an opportunity to develop themselves as adults and entrepreneurs. They get their hands dirty on a farm and get to know where food grows. They’re managing the farm and turning that food into product. The many things they learn along the way makes them confident.
I viscerally connect with that in that we grew just about everything growing up. We ate everything we grew and took the excess to market. That cycle was very instrumental in making me who I am.
How has the local restaurant scene changed since you opened Lidia’s Kansas City in 1998?
Kansas City has changed an awful lot since I came here. The four corners … I loved it. It was a little bit desolate and there was a freight house across from where the trains were running. That’s what charmed me. The trains coming and going reminded me of Italy. And surely, 20 years later, it’s a hub as far as art and food and condominiums.
What do you tell people outside of Kansas City about the current culinary climate in KC?
For me, Kansas City represents the middle of America, the middle of the prairie. A lot of national businesses have their roots here. It’s a vibrant community financially. You have the Kauffman Center and the Nelson. That’s very important for me. Being Italian, culture always plays an important role.
Do you have a recent food memory of Kansas City?
It has to be barbecue. I associate my life through flavors and aromas. When I talk about Kansas City, the flavor and aroma of barbecue comes out … Every time I come back I try to sink my teeth into those ribs that are falling off the bone.
— Jonathan Bender writes about food trends for KCPT’s Flatland, and is the founder of the Recommended Daily.