Restaurateur Joe Bastianich is a very busy man. Between judging both MasterChef, its Italian counterpart, MasterChef Italia and operating some of the nation’s top restaurants with culinary legends Mario Batali and his famous mother, Lidia Bastianich, it’s amazing that he has any free time on his hands. Joe was kind enough to allow TheCelebrityCafe.com’s Alec Campagna to interview him.
TCC: How old were you when you first got into food?
Joe Bastianich: My parents opened their first restaurant in Queens when I was just 3 years old, so pretty much all my life. Back then, we all helped out in the restaurant — my sister and I would usually head over there after school instead of home. Growing up we spent our summers traveling around all over Italy, exploring different restaurants and regional cuisines.
TCC: Gordon, Graham, and yourself are all world-renowned in the culinary world. What distinguishes you as a judge from Graham and Gordon?
Joe Bastianich: As a restaurateur I critique them from all aspects of the business. We see a lot of amazing home cooks, but cooking at home on your own terms and running the line in a big city 3 star restaurant are a different skill set — I look for, and expect them to deliver on both.
TCC: Being the son of Lidia Bastianich, can you tell us what the experience was like having the MasterChef contestants cook for her? (this episode airs July 19)
Joe Bastianich: Besides being extremely nervous for them? Lidia is a tougher critic than I am, believe me. For Gordon, Graham, and me, our moms played a major role in how we ended up in this business, and being able to share this with them was a great experience.
TCC: What made you pursue a B.A. from Boston College in lieu of attending a culinary school?
Joe Bastianich: It was the 80s, and back then things in the restaurant industry were different — it was a blue collar profession, no element of glitz or glamor like today. Even now, the restaurant industry is not what you pursue if you want to make money. I was raised with that immigrant mentality that the worst thing you could be was poor, so out of a need for security I went into finance. I love cooking, but my passion for the restaurant business is the whole package, not just the kitchen. I love the magic a good restaurant can create when it all falls into place — the music, service, lighting, and the food — we strive for that every night at our restaurants.
TCC: Many people are unaware that you are quite an athlete, running triathlons and are preparing for a full Ironman triathlon. Can you tell us more about that?
Joe Bastianich: I took it up 5 years ago and I’ve never felt better. For me, my day doesn’t really start until I’ve had a run. Finishing my first marathon peaked my interest in more extreme workouts, and triathlons seemed like a natural fit. I’m training for the Ironman World Championships in Kona this October. It will be the toughest thing I’ve ever done physically, for sure.
TCC: What is your absolute favorite dish?
Joe Bastianich: Speaking of my mom, my all-time favorite dish is one only she can prepare — fried calamari, prosciutto di parma, radicchio, kidney beans, red onion, and boiled egg.
TCC: Is there any food you would never dare eat?
Joe Bastianich: Deep fried Twinkies.
TCC: How has it been partnering with both your mother and Mario Batali in creating some of the nation’s best restaurants?
Joe Bastianich: I’m very lucky. The three of us are quite like-minded in that we share the same passion and respect for simple Italian food, and also in the experience we strive to create around that in our restaurants. Of course working with family can be stressful, but my mom and I have had a lot of time to work things out since we opened our first place together, Becco, in 1993. Practice makes perfect.
TCC: How does MasterChef Italia compare to its American counterpart?
Joe Bastianich: More of everything — more pasta and prosciutto.
TCC: Is white truffle oil your biggest cooking pet peeve? You seemed shocked when Tracy poured it all over her dish.
Joe Bastianich: In our industry most chefs do not use it. It is a synthetic product. It is kind of like putting perfume on you food, at least for me.
Watch more of Joe on MasterChef on FOX on Monday 9 p.m. EST and Tuesday 8 p.m. EST.