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The Big Heart of Lidia Bastianich

In her new special, the celebrated chef shares her love (and food!) with America's first responders

spinner image Chef Lidia Bastianich
Manny Carabel/WireImage

Who could be more comforting and inspiring a figure than Lidia Bastianich? The beloved chef, cookbook author, restaurateur and TV personality has focused her annual PBS series, Lidia Celebrates America, on a very special community this year: America's first responders. After a year of hanging out (and cooking with) firefighters, cops and medical workers on the front lines of the COVID crisis, Bastianich got a pot of soup going on the stove and dished her irrepressible version of the American dream with AARP.

Watch Lidia Celebrates America: A Salute to First Responders (PBS, Fridays, Feb. 12, 10 p.m. ET, check local listings)

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How is your new show different from your previous cooking shows?

I've had my PBS cooking show for 20 years. But for seven years, I've been doing one-hour specials, Lidia Celebrates America, getting to know America — the different ethnicities, different cuisines. Because I am an immigrant, helped by people when we came here. Food is the connector!

But I thought: Are Americans really thanking our first responders enough? These are the people who guard us in time of peril: firefighters, EMS [emergency medical services] and ambulance workers, the hospital workers, the police. They put their lives on the line to protect ours. What was most interesting was connecting with them and finding out why they do these things, and seeing some of the action. Then we ended up cooking because food is comforting to all. It is about caring for each other.

New York police officer Eddie McNamara cooked for you, right?

Yeah. It was funny. He did it via Zoom. I was on my side of the screen, he was on his side, we tasted the same thing, and we connected. I taste the flavors, his philosophy. Through the food you get to understand what people feel about certain things. [Loud alarm rings and she hustles to the kitchen to check.] Oh, no! I had soup on the stove, it overflowed, oil fell on the flame, and the smoke alarm went off!

At least you know firefighters you could call. You also sent letters to first responders and our military members overseas as part of Operation Gratitude — what is it?

Operation Gratitude is a great way to say thank you to these people. They send care packages, along with a personal letter. So wonderful.

You appreciate America because you came here after your home in Yugoslavia was taken over by communists — and didn't you stay in a former Nazi concentration camp?

Right, in the aftermath of World War II. My parents wanted to find a place to migrate that would give us all opportunities. We came in 1958. One thing you remember as an immigrant is all the people that helped. The Catholic Charities and Red Cross people would bring bags of food, they would bring chairs, and they would bring towels. So that's why I am so aware of people that give of themselves to help others, and how they should be recognized. And I hope that in my own little way, I am thanking all these people.

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Where but in America could you wind up with your own restaurant and a TV show? You even cooked for two popes. You wrote about becoming American in your memoir, My American Dream: A Life of Love, Family, and Food. How does food relate to our society's melting pot?

America is the refuge. This great country is a patchwork of different cultures. And nothing shows that better than food. You walk down the street in any city and every place is represented with a restaurant, a food store, a bodega. Food tells the whole story about people: the topography, the climate. When you cook something that your grandmother cooked, it transcends generations. My father passed away about 20 years ago, and for Christmas Eve he always loved his baccalà mantecato [whipped salt cod], from Venice. Every Christmas, it's on my table, and I feel that my father is with us.

What was it like when James Beard and Julia Child came to your restaurant?

The ultimate kind of endorsement, you know! Here are two icons! I was very proud. Julia even came to my house. She invited me to do a show, and that's how I got my beginning on PBS. And here I am cooking Italian food.

Is this pandemic time an opportunity for all of us to do more home cooking and bond together?

This is the time maybe to stay a bit more together. Continue cooking, and enjoy yourself, guys!

How is that dish you've got on the stove doing? Did you put the fire out?

It's under control. It's going to be a good soup!

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