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Lidia Bastianich’s Immigrant Journeys

Lidia Bastianich

Lidia Celebrates America on Immigrant Food restaurant in Washington, DC on November 7, 2022.

The host of Lidia’s Kitchen and the Italian food legend discusses her new PBS special, Lidia Celebrates America, and her own experiences coming to the United States as a child, in part one of a two-part interview with Appetito.

It’s easy to think of Lidia Bastianich as a fortunate TV star, cooking delicious-looking pasta dishes in her kitchen for viewers. But rewind a number of decades and picture Lidia as a young girl, her family’s life upended as their region of Italy became part of Communist Yugoslavia. The terrified family escapes back into Italy, but without a home, they live in refugee camps until a fateful opportunity brings them to the United States.

That turn of events would allow a pre-teen Lidia to grow into the influential woman she is today. A best-selling author, acclaimed chef and restaurateur, and host of television shows like Lidia’s Kitchen, she is channeling her own experience in a new special for PBS. Lidia Celebrates America: Flavors That Define Us allows her to recount her own story while showcasing the ways that immigrants are coming to America today—and how food plays a pivotal role in assimilating them into their new communities across the United States.

The hour-long special features Lidia meeting newly arrived immigrants from Ukraine, Afghanistan, Cuba, Vietnam, and other countries, often cooking or eating with them as they discuss how and why they have upended their lives for a chance to live in the U.S. Aid programs like the one that brought Lidia’s family to New Jersey after World War II have helped these immigrants find homes in Louisville, Houston, and other American cities and towns featured in the show.

Lidia Celebrates America: Flavors That Define Us premieres Tuesday, May 30 on PBS.

Lidia recently met with Appetito at Eataly in Manhattan’s Flatiron District for a wide-ranging interview about her own arrival in the United States in 1958, the new special, and of course, her culinary career and love of Italian food. Below, in part one of an interview that has been condensed and edited for clarity, we focus on Lidia Celebrates America.

Lidia, congrats on the new special. How does it feel to get out on the road and do a show like this?

Thank you. I do my regular cooking show and we film 26 episodes a year. But I have done one special a year for the last 13 years and I enjoy it. I really do. Because it's my way of kind of thanking America and seeing the beautiful parts of America and what really makes it work. Sometimes, America is maligned and [it seems like] people are unhappy here. There’s no greater country than America. From a former immigrant, that’s what [I want people to see].

Your own background makes you the perfect host for this type of special.

Well, yes, because I relate. I relate. I know being one ethnicity and one religion being oppressed and then trying to escape that. [For us], there wasn't an opportunity to go back to our home because of the aftermath of the war, and then being in camps for two years and then ultimately being accepted here. You know, not speaking English, not knowing anything, my parents—four of us—not having anybody and being accepted here. We were brought here by the Catholic Charities. It was an extraordinary experience. And people tell me, Lidia Aren't you angry or mad? I say, No, it made me who I am. 

You were brought to New Jersey and then settled in Queens. What was it like for you? Were there immigrants from other places around as well?

I was 12 when I came. We didn't have anybody; later we connected with a cousin. In Queens, there was the Greek contingency, the Germans and there was the Italians, and slowly you develop friendships. Just like you see in the special, the communities pull for each other and help the immigrants. For us, it happened the same way. In Astoria, the Italian-Americans, they helped. When we first came to New Jersey, the community there filled up our home, you know, with chairs, with glasses, with shopping bags of food.

You showcase this kind of community support in Lidia Celebrates America, right?

Yes, it was amazing what I found in doing this special.It is so important to immigrants to feel welcome. To feel that you're not a complete stranger. 

You have a range of people from vastly different backgrounds, and you cook or share a meal with Punjabi immigrants in Bakersfield, CA and Cuban refugees in Louisville, to name a few.

Yes, and then we have Christine Hà, a blind Vietnamese chef [who won Master Chef season three], and that was interesting because she was born in the U.S. But she went back through food to [explore her ethnicity]. She says, in effect, At home, I was never Vietnamese enough. Outside, I was never American enough. So you get caught between. You have to learn to live these lives. And when you're young, you feel kind of odd being something else. But when you're an adult, that's such a plus, because you really understand, You understand your culture and you understand other people much better.

Next week, in part 2 of her interview with Appetito, Lidia recounts her experiences becoming a chef in New York City and then an ambassador for Italian food in America. But first, tune in Tuesday, May 30 at 9pm Eastern to your local PBS station or on the PBS app to Lidia Celebrates America. More details about the immigrants featured in the hour-long special are below, courtesy of PBS.

Individual stories featured in Lidia Celebrates America: Flavors that Define Us:

In Hartsville, SC, Lidia visits with Polina Frishko and her son Damir, who fled their Ukraine homeland when Russia invaded last year. After spending 12 days underground before escaping to Poland, they eventually arrived in the U.S. by way of Uniting For Ukraine, a federal program initiated by the Biden Administration. Lidia also visits with Kathy and Dennis McGowan, local Hartsville residents who served as the Frishkos’ sponsors.

At his U.S. naturalization ceremony in 2016, Nepali-Bhutanese immigrant Bhuwan Pyakurel heard the federal judge say new citizens had two responsibilities: to vote and to run for public office. Bhuwan took those words to heart and in 2020 became the country’s first elected Nepali-Bhutanese official as a city councilman in Reynoldsburg, Ohio. Lidia spends a day cooking with Bhuwan and his wife Dil, and they sit down to share a meal.

Louisville, KY, has the second-largest population of Cuban immigrants per capita of any other American city. There, Lidia meets with restaurateur Marcos Lorenzo, who is passionate about sharing his native food and music with others. Marcos teaches Lidia to make a classic Cuban dish, Ropa Vieja.  Lidia also meets with Jorge Castellanos, a local English teacher who sings a traditional Cuban folk song with Lidia.

In Bakersfield, CA, Lidia meets up with a community of immigrants from the Indian state of Punjab who are farmers and truck drivers. Frustrated by the unhealthy food options available to truckers, Balvinder Singh Sainis opened a “dhaba” – a small roadside restaurant ubiquitous in India and Pakistan – to offer heathier food choices for hungry truckers. Lidia also meets with Punjab families who grow and process almonds.

In Houston, TX, Lidia spends time with Christine Ha, the blind chef and winner of Master Chef season three. Christine, who was born in America to immigrant parents, talks about losing her mother – and her family’s Vietnamese food dishes - at an early age, and she teaches Lidia to cook one of her most beloved dishes. Lidia also visits with Khalil Arab, who worked as an interpreter for the US military in his home of Afghanistan before it fell to the Taliban.

Finally, Lidia travels to Washington D.C., a destination for many of America’s new immigrants, where she hosts a potluck dinner with notable local chefs who each bring a dish of their heritage. Held at a restaurant named Immigrant Food, chefs include Top Chef season 16 finalist Eric Adjepong, Mile Montezuma, Kevin Tien, Jeanine Prime, Kazi Mannan, Naz Ash, Toyin Alli, with dishes representing Ghana, Venezuela, Vietnam, Trinidad and Tobago, Pakistan, Iran, and Nigeria.

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