Lidia Bastianich On The Skills Boomers Bring To The Kitchen In The New Season Of MasterChef - Exclusive Interview

Lidia Bastianich is well known for her delicious and classic cooking. Bastianich comes from a generation that made hearty classic meals that were simple, elegant, and filling. Now, she has teamed up with her son, fellow chef and TV show personality Joe Bastianich, as a guest judge on the hit TV show "MasterChef." This year, she was a judge in the audition round, assessing her fellow boomers and deciding on who would go on to represent a generation in "MasterChef: Generations." 

The battle to see which era had the best chefs is on. Will the seasoned baby boomers and their traditional cooking take home the trophy? We got the chance to sit down with Bastianich in an exclusive interview to discuss what the boomers bring to the table and what she thinks the experience boomers have that can't be beaten. She also gave us some of her best tips learned from decades in the kitchen. 

Cooking for the family

This season of MasterChef features people from four generations, but it also features two generations of your family. What was it like judging alongside your son, Joe, for an episode?

Well, I think the idea of the four generation, that was great. Because, you really can see the difference in the mentality and the flavors and the sort of recall of recipes from the different generations, too. Between working with Joe, my son, I've done that before, we worked in the kitchen together. So, we have our differences and I think he appreciates and kind of remembers his growing up and the flavors of my generation and I guess my mother's and grandmother's. And also, he add his newness to it. It's great to collaborate with him understanding that there are differences, and that we each have our space in these differences and giving each other space.

What sort of differences do you see between the generations?

Well, I see that certainly I have only judged the old generations, my generation, so I only did the boomers, I did not the younger generation, but I had met them. I've seen them and some of the ideas that came up. My generation, I think what I noticed is that we grew up right next to the war at the time, having enough food, and the innovation into going into the future and growing.

What I noticed was that my generation, they did mashed potatoes with sour cream, they did try pork chops and breaded pork chops. These are all my kind of generation today; these new generations don't do mashed potatoes in any way, or they like breaded — but baked or something, it's not fried.

I think that the flavors of what I remember and of my generation, of the boomers, were evident, even though they tried to be innovative when they were presenting. I think one had the pork chops with jalapeño sauce, so they get the jalapeño in there maybe because of the regions that they come from. There's those kind of little differences. But the younger generation I think is much more romantic, much more inclusive of different ethnicities, whereas our generation is more rooted to the earth of the area that they come from and of their home.

Classic meals well executed

What made the difference between the dishes you voted forward and the dishes you didn't? And were there any consistent mistakes or elements across the board for the ones who didn't make it?

Well, I think it was just the technique, maybe not reducing the sauce right, not enough of the right seasoning, overcooking certain proteins. Those are basic, should I say, mistakes in technique. The combination of flavors, I think they stuck pretty — they weren't flavor combination like you might encounter in the younger generations — they were constant with the flavors. It's just the techniques in a lot of them. And some of the combinations I would say. 

Let's see, there was one salmon that did good with the asparagus. I think certainly salmon was not as abundant or as evident in the cuisine of the boomers, but that's going into the future, the boomers going into the reality of what's happening today. You saw some of that in the boomer situation. And of course there was [one contestant], he was Japanese, and he brought his culture, so that was interesting to see. The thing that I found quite different was he pickled red dragon fruit. It doesn't always work unless you really have a base for it.

There's a great moment in this episode where you and Joe disagree on a dish, the chicken piccata, and Gordon Ramsey basically tells him off for being disrespectful for you, which I thought was hilarious.

Well, I think that being another of ... And I didn't expect my children to follow suit there, I always used to say to them, "No, go get them an education, get an American job," and yet they came into my world. And what's important I think as a mother, and as a mentor if you will, to realize is that especially as a mother, that you have to give them the space to grow and to be innovative. We had many discussions on different things. I explain my way, he explains his ... We are professionals on that level, it's not a kind of a mother-and-son situation.

Cooking with the family

What are some of the foods that you enjoy making with your family?

I go back to tradition as well, being Italian, a lot of the pastas, pizza, soups, all of that, risottos, whatever is in season. We're not mega, mega protein, big steaks or roast beefs and all that more braised things, things that come from our tradition. The kids love it. Although ever more their kids, my grandkids, [eat] salads and crudos and whatever. I mean, my uncle was a fisherman, so we would go fishing and he would catch the shrimp still alive and we ate them, but it wasn't as per se a whole crudo kind of philosophy of eating. My grandkids, that's what they appreciate and love.

What skills do you think the boomers in particular bring to the kitchen?

I think respect for their tradition. I think the memories of this transition, of the aftermath of parents after war, and how conscious they were of not wasting. I think that's so important in today, going into the future in our universe, is that we appreciate food, that we don't waste, that we recycle, that we use seasonality as a guide, that we use locality as a guide, that we don't fly things from all over the world, but eat them locally. I think that the boomers have that in them from their grandparents and they automatically bring it to the table.

Meat and potatoes

Was there a particular standout dish from this episode?

I kind of liked the deep-fried pork chops with sour cream and mashed potatoes. Now, when I came here first to the United States, and I was an immigrant, I remember we were just like immigrants today, we were put in a hotel and there was a Horn & Hardart right across the street and that's where we would go and have our meals. I remember these mounds of mashed potatoes and gravy and breaded protein. So I kind of like this déjà vu situation of this deep-fried pork chop with sour cream mashed potatoes.

Do you have any tips for making perfect mashed potatoes or the perfect fried pork chops?

Just cooking the right potatoes, I think a nice starchy potato. Although, I like Yukon gold; they're a little bit more waxy, but I like that. You have to rice them properly and put in a little bit of just olive oil and butter, and in that case, one of the contestants put sour cream. I thought that brought a little bit of acidity to the mashed potatoes.

Getting to work in the kitchen

On your Instagram you recently called the frittata the quintessential Italian dish. Do you have any tips for making a perfect frittata?

Well, again, yes, eggs were the major source of protein, so a lot of feedback. I love it with a lot of vegetables. I also love it, my grandmother used to also use day old bread. They recycle the bread or the country bread, kind of cut it into pieces and let it soak in the whisked eggs. 

So, the whisked eggs, a little bit of salt, a little bit of the cheese, the Grana cheese, salt. I put a little bit of milk in there and then I put these pieces of day or two-day old bread and let it soak in the liquid egg. Then sort of fry the vegetables a little bit and pour all of that into a pan, so that this chunk of bread acts like bread. But they get toasted and dried and they have absorbed the eggs. It sort of completes the dish almost without any additional bread. I like it sort of formed in a skillet, non-stick skillet is best, and you let it form a base and then you finish it in the oven so it puffs up.

What tips do you have for upcoming generations who are learning to cook?

I think they have to roll up their sleeves, get in the kitchen and really cook. I think to have mentors, whoever they may be, whether it's grandma or great aunt, or if you want this professional, you meet people who you admire and stand by them and see: there's nothing like apprenticeship. I would recommend that. 

Certainly what we were talking before, seasonality. And look, don't go and fly over the earth to get things, use what's local, what's seasonal. And yeah, don't be afraid to be in the kitchen, try it. Everybody has this sort of a sensibility to food on different levels, but don't underestimate yourself.

The dish that represents the boomers (and will they win?)

What generation do you think is going to take home the trophy this season?

I'm not going to venture out there because first of all, I have not seen all of the dishes of all the other generations. But I'm curious, I really am curious of, will it be the millennials? They're sort of in between and I think their transition, forget the boomers and let's get into the future. So they might be interesting. 

The Gen Z, they're wild, they're into different, again, crudos, and so I'm not so sure about them. Generation X, yeah, sort of in between, I would say. I would say maybe I'm curious about the millennials.

If you had to pick a signature dish to represent boomers, what would it be?

Okay, so the boomers was the mashed potatoes, the pork chops were good. Grits, shrimps and grits, although it wasn't the best, but yes, shrimp and grits. And then, I think they begin to venture into like chicken piccata, that's a boomer one, that's sort of an Italian dish and it's much more elegant, it's a small piece, thin piece of chicken. 

I think all of that kind of was interesting to see how the boomers got into the old, what they remember and sort of trying to push for the new [of] what they grew up with.

Watch new episodes of "MasterChef: Generations" starting May 29th, 2024 on Fox.