TV chefs: The good life at the dinner table

Amid the swirl of TV cooking shows, there's one to hate ("Hell's Kitchen") and many to like (especially "MasterChef").

The chefs themselves, however, are thoroughly likable. The good times around dinner tables seems to have served them well. Here's the story I sent to papers, timed to the start of this summer's "MasterChef":


For many people, meal time is merely
OK. We have it – quickly and casually – quite often.

And for some, it's much more. “It
becomes a part of life,” said Joe Bastianich, one of the
“MasterChef” judges. “It's when you interact with other
people; it's a key part of your existence.”

Especially for the Bastianichs. Joe has
co-founded more than a dozen restaurants, many of them with his
mother Lidia. He has four wineries; she has a food line. Both write
books; both do TV:

For Joe, it's “MasterChef” on Fox;
for Lidia, it's PBS – “Lidia's Italy” and now “Lidia
Celebrates America.” Both savor what she calls “this magnet that
pulls family and people together.”

And occasionally, famous oursiders drop
in. Consider:

– Graham Elliot, a fellow
“MasterChef” judge. In 2010, his Chicago restaurant was chosen
for Barack Obama's birthday. Guests included Rahm Emanuel (now
Chicago's mayor) and Oprah Winfrey.

– Lidia Bastianich. In New York, she
was in charge of preparing a dinner for Pope Benedict XVI and 50
cardinals. It was a striped bass (this was a Friday), she said, with
a hardy vegetable soup.

“He has a sort of a guardian, if you
will,” Lidia said. “So I was pouring the soup out and (the aide)
said, 'Oh, that's too much.'”

“I said, 'No, the Pope has been
traveling. He needs to eat.' And he ate the whole thing.”

These chefs don't spend all of their
time with popes and presidents, of course. “MasterChef” gives
judges a peek at the regional food choices of blue-collar America.

Last year, it was alligator; they were
not fans. This year, they ate python; “it was gross,” Joe said.

They also ate squirrel, which tasted a
bit like rabbit; Elliot admired the effort involved. “You can't
always go down to your grocery store when you want food. You have to
shoot it, clean it, cook it.”

Even for experts, there will be gaps.
“I don't love Cajun cooking,” Joe Bastianich granted.

It helps, of course, if you've traveled
the world. For Gordon Elliot, that came because his dad was in the
Navy. He went to 15 schools on three continents. “It makes you more
open-minded,” he said. “You're eager to hear the stories.”

Lidia Bastianich is also much-traveled,
but not by choice. She grew up in an Italian region that had been
taken over by Yugoslavia. She was 9 when her family fled to Italy, 11
when it came to the U.S.

All of this, she said, created a
longing for the people back home. “I never said goodbye to my
grandmother, because you didn't tell a child that you were leaving;
it was dangerous …. I longed for her and food was my connection.”

She created Italian-style restaurants,
where her kids grew up. “Restaurants look like fun to a kid, (but)
I told them, 'No, you're in America. You have to get an education.'”

So her daughter got a doctorate in
Renaissance art and researches her books and shows; her son graduated
from prep school and Boston College and became a Merrill Lynch

That's Joe, who wouldn't stay on Wall
Street for long. He returned to the world of food, wine and people
taking their time around a table. “I'm a lucky guy,” he said.

– “MasterChef,” 9 p.m. Mondays
and Tuesday, Fox.

– In the two-part opener, June 4-5,
judges meet 100 contestants and choose 18 finalists

– “Lidia Celebrates America”
specials appear occasionally on PBS; also, “Lidia's Italy” reruns