Story by Dave Eckert | Photography by Rose Duong from Paper Crane
Through her television shows, her cookbooks, and her restaurants, Lidia Bastianich has become one of the most popular and most recognized celebrity chefs in the country. With her restaurant in The Freight House District of Kansas City celebrating more than two decades, Bastianich is much beloved here. Recently, Bastianich came to town for a ribbon cutting, opening a new outdoor space in the back of the restaurant. I had the chance to sit down with her for a wide-ranging chat covering topics from Covid, to The American Dream, to what drew her to Kansas City in the first place.
Let’s start there. “I had a partner back then who was from Kansas City named David Wagner. He said, ‘let me show you Kansas City,’ and so he did. We looked at a lot of spaces downtown, but they didn’t have the character of this location. When I came here, this was just abandoned, but I liked the look and feel of it with the trains going by heading west just like America did. As an immigrant, that resonated with me,” Bastianich shared. Now, 23-years later, Bastianich runs one of the most successful restaurants in town, and The Freight House and neighboring Crossroads District are flourishing. Lidia told me she’s happy to have played a role in that, and so pleased that Kansas Citians have responded so positively.
With Thanksgiving and Christmas rapidly approaching, I wanted to get Lidia’s take on the holidays, especially the very American celebration that is Thanksgiving.” I love Thanksgiving. Christmas and Easter are very Italian in my home, but for Thanksgiving, we celebrate the American tradition with turkey, ham, stuffing, and all of the other sides. For me as an immigrant, Thanksgiving represents part of The American Dream that I’ve had the good fortune to achieve,” Bastianich said. “My kids were born in America, and my grandkids are Americans, so Thanksgiving is a chance for us to thank America for all it has given us.”
Bastianich immigrated to The United States in 1958. I asked her if she ever took time to reflect on her accomplishments in one generation? “I think about that all the time. We came here when I was 12 after fleeing a part of Italy that would become Communist. So, we escaped communism, and, after spending two years in a refugee camp, we were given the opportunity to move here, get an education, and start a career. My daughter has a doctorate from Oxford. My son has a master’s degree. To achieve what we’ve been able to achieve in one lifespan is just amazing to me. I have so much to be thankful for,” Bastianich recalled.
On the subject of Covid, Bastianich said she and her businesses suffered like everyone else, but she prefers to look forward rather than back. “It was a chance to make a plan, and now that we have the vaccines and the boosters, we can start moving ahead. You know, throughout history, there are incidents like this that teach us lessons. It’s important that we learn our lesson from this,” Bastianich said.
Turning the conversation back to Kansas City, I asked Bastianich her impressions of our fair city – “I love Kansas City. It’s a city, but it feels like a small town. Everyone is so friendly and so genuine, every time I come here, I just love it. It’s a simpler style of life in many ways that I really appreciate,” Bastianich told me. And, in the end, I asked Bastianich what she wants Kansas Citians to know about her and her restaurant? “First of all, I want to say thank you to Kansas Citians for opening the door for me and making me feel like family. I just want them to come to Lidia’s and feel like they’re at home by allowing me to share some of my heritage through my cuisine with them. And I really do hope they come check out this new space, which is going to be heated, so the perfect place to hang out no matter what season it is!” Bastianich exclaimed.
Bastianich says she’s turning over the running of the restaurant to her daughter, but I’m guessing Lidia will remain a big part of this place for a long time to come.