Chef Lidia Bastianich celebrates the holidays by sharing culture and a love of home
The holidays are a time of family, tradition and an abundance of good food. When Italian celebrity chef, author and restaurateur Lidia Bastianich thinks of Christmas, her favorite time of year, she does so with a joyous heart full of fond memories of those very same things. In filming her latest TV special, “Lidia Celebrates America: Home for the Holidays,” Bastianich focuses on diverse holiday traditions among celebrity friends Christopher Walken, Rita Moreno, Carlo Ponti, Jr., Ann Curry, Padma Lakshmi and Marcus Samuelsson, each of whom share with her their own holiday memories and the food of their cultures.
“I wanted to celebrate diversity and different nationalities because I’m an immigrant. I wanted to show how people become part of this greater whole that is America and at the same time, how they keep their cultural identity,” said Bastianich of the one-hour special co-produced with WGBH public television and Tavola Productions. “It’s about getting under the skin of someone’s life, so I selected six of my friends and invited them to my house for Christmas dinner (at the end of the special), and at the same time, enter into their life and understand how they maintain their cultural roots.”
Bastianich shares her own story in the opening, which returns her to her roots in Istria, Croatia where she was born.
“We were in a refugee camp for two years before coming to America. It’s about how we return as a family and made a home with all of the opportunities we were given,” said Bastianich.
And what better way to tell someone’s story than food? Bastianich approached her friends about the special and all were more than happy to share their memories and traditions. Actor Christopher Walken has been a longtime friend of Bastianich’s, whose family owned a German bakery in Astoria.
“I met Christopher when I was 14 when I worked in his family’s bakery. His father was German and his mother was Scottish,” she said. “Christopher was going to acting school at the time, but he would work on weekends. He likes to cook too, and comes to my house periodically to cook with me.”
For his favorite dish, Walken chose scallops, which Bastianich served at the dinner, of which every course is a tribute to each celebrity. Next up was Rita Moreno.
“Although I didn’t know her that long, when I came here as an immigrant, I related to Rita very much,” Bastianich said of the Puerto Rican actress and singer. “She loves lechon, so in her honor, I made roasted pork shank.”
Carlo Ponti, Jr., a musician, conductor and son of Sophia Loren shared with Bastianich linguini and clam sauce, a dish that his mother made for him. In his honor, she made pizzette for the hors d’ oeuvres.
Ann Curry, who is half Japanese and half American, keeps her cooking contemporary, but always reverts to rice because her mother’s family were rice growers and gatherers.
“She reminisces about the difficulties that her mother had coming to America and her being bicultural,” said Bastianich. “She shared how she keeps rice as a carrying element for her memories that she shares with her children, and in her honor, I made risotto.”
Marcus Samuelsson, who owns Red Rooster in Harlem, is an Ethiopian adopted by a Swedish family, so naturally, he chose to share his recipe for Swedish meatballs.
“Marcus told me that he went back to Ethiopia and did some research on his origin, but in this he wanted to communicate Swedish, because that’s where his heart and Christmas feeling was,” said Bastianich. “My friend Padma Lakshmi is of Indian origin and we actually went to Chennai, India. It was a lot of fun getting to know the culture.”
Upon arriving in India, Bastianich heads to Lakshmi’s house—who is the host of Top Chef—and Lakshmi immediately changed into her sari.
“In Indian culture, there’s a lot of vegetables and spices; a lot of beans, potatoes, sweet potatoes and squash so for her, I made sautéed vegetables as a side dish,” said Bastianich, who shared her own memories, recalling her first Christmas in New York.
“We didn’t have a big tree because in Europe you don’t have big trees, we had edible trees. It was a juniper bush and then we filled it with apples, candies and caramels and other treats,” said Bastianich. “When we came here, we got a small tree and I remember the glitter and the lights. It wasn’t big but we wanted a real American tree, and the tree we had was reflecting of what Christmas is.”
And Christmas to Bastianich is all about family. She loves the seven fishes on Christmas Eve, going to Mass and coming home to a family gathered around a table filled with food and love.
“For us, Christmas Eve was solemn and important and spiritual, going to church, but Christmas Day was bigger,” said Bastianich, who usually cooks a roast, goose or duck. “Of course, you have to have pasta somewhere and the antipasto goes without saying, but as for the fishes, within Italy itself, the seven fishes tradition varies. You don’t have to have seven or 13 fishes, you don’t even have to have all of them, but you must have bacalao.”
For Bastianich, “Home for the Holidays” illustrates how food unites people and cultures, and it is during the holiday season, when family and traditions become so much more meaningful.
“It’s just such a great time to identify who you are as a person with your family, and food has a lot to do with that,” she said.
“Lidia Celebrates America: Home for the Holidays” premieres Friday, Dec. 11, at 9 p.m. ET on PBS (Check local listings).
Read more about Lidia Bastianich and what it’s like to cook for the Pope here.
Check out Bastianich’s Risotto con Pucini recipe here.
Read about Lidia Bastianich’s partnership with Mario Batali here.