The untold truth of MasterChef's Joe Bastianich

If ever someone was destined to be a celebrity chef, it's Joe Bastianich. Born in Queens, New York, Bastianich grew up in a family that celebrated food — not surprising given that his parents owned and ran their own restaurant. After learning the ropes from his folks, Bastianich partnered with his mother, Lidia Bastianch, and fellow chef Mario Batali to found Batali & Bastianich Restaurant Group, a wildly successful venture that oversaw numerous successful restaurants in New York City and beyond.

In 2010, Bastianich's burgeoning fame as one of Manhattan's top restaurateurs led him to television, where he was tapped to be one of the judges — alongside Gordon Ramsay and Graham Elliot — on Fox's MasterChef, in which talented (but non-professional) home cooks compete in a series of culinary challenges. Bastianich went on to appear on the show's pint-sized spinoff, MasterChef Junior, ultimately spending five seasons on the original and three on Junior before exiting the franchise — only to return to both MasterChef shows in 2018.

Fans of MasterChef have watched the TV judge render his typically blunt culinary verdicts for years, but how much do they really know about him? Find out by delving into the untold truth of MasterChef's Joe Bastianich.

MasterChef's Joe Bastianich is also a rock star

Joe Bastianich is not only a celebrity chef and television personality, he's also a musician. But, Bastianch is far beyond jamming with buddies in a garage band. In fact, he and his group The Ramps have performed in Italy, and In 2014 he hosted his own mini-music festival at his restaurant and B&B Orsone in the Italian village of Cividale del Friuli.

Bastianich has also performed on Italian television, appearing on Amici Celebrities and rocking a cover of Prince's "Purple Rain" on Italian music series DopoFestival. Bastianich even recorded his solo debut in 2019, an album titled AKA Joe.

For Bastianich, music isn't just a creative outlet, it's also a form of relaxation. "When I'm not managing my restaurants, I play guitar and sing to unwind," Bastianich told The Wall Street Journal in a 2014 interview. In that same interview, he also identified one of his favorite songs to play. "When I strum the chords to Elvis Costello's 'Man Out of Time' I get goosebumps," he said.

Bastianich says Costello and his wife frequently dine in his New York restaurant. "I've never had the courage to say hello. I wouldn't want to disturb his privacy," he explained. "I suppose I'm also secretly afraid that if things didn't go well, the experience might ruin how I feel about a favorite song."

A frightening health scare changed the life of MasterChef's Joe Bastianich

Joe Bastianich was just in his 30s when he received a medical diagnosis that spurred him to give his lifestyle a complete overhaul. He told Epicurious, "Food was always the main focus of what we did." While that may seem like a delicious way to live, he experienced the downside of his food-centric way of life when he was was diagnosed with sleep apnea, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure.

His doctor advised him to eat less, exercise more, and start taking medications (which he no longer needs). He did, and the result was a whopping 50-pound weight loss and a new outlook. "When I stopped looking at food as a reward or a celebration and began looking at food as energy to fuel my athletic ambitions, that really kind of changed the whole world for me," he said. "That was the real aha! moment."

This philosophy also bled into his restaurant business by leading him to offer healthier alternatives along with the old standbys. "That's been a big thing for me: allowing people to make healthy choices in our restaurants, as well as training the staff to be responsive to people with dietary issues," he explained.

MasterChef's Joe Bastianich is a marathon runner

Joe Bastianich's health scare placed him on a new path built upon health and fitness, which eventually led him to take up running. According to an interview with Runner's World, within four years after he started running he was logging 10 miles a day, and had completed the New York City Marathon twice and the Los Angeles Marathon once.

Despite Bastianich's newfound passion for running, he admitted it did not come naturally. "I come from a family that loves to eat, not exercise," he quipped. Yet he persevered, and as his endurance grew, so did his ambitions. On the recommendation of a friend, Bastianich competed in a 5K. "That was a high for me," he admitted. "I loved the way it felt to compete. I loved setting a goal and working toward it."

When Bastianich was interviewed by Mic in 2016, he had completed the NYC Marathon eight consecutive times, and was gearing up for his ninth. He revealed one thing that kept him going was knowing that an icy cold pilsner was waiting for him at the finish line. "I'm not a big beer drinker and it always surprises me, but post-marathon all I want is a cold, crisp pilsner," he admitted. 

MasterChef's Joe Bastianich made his acting debut in a straight-to-DVD movie

Joe Bastianich made his acting debut in 2015, playing himself in a straight-to-DVD movie based on the American Girl line of dolls. At the time, Eater reported that Bastianich appeared in American Girl: Grace Stirs Up Success. The premise of the movie involves a girl named Grace, described as "a promising pre-teen home baker" who journeys to Paris in order to learn to make authentic French pastry. 

While Grace is studying in Paris, a crisis hits: her family's bakery is in financial jeopardy, and money is desperately needed to keep the place afloat. This gives Grace the genius idea of applying to compete on MasterChef Junior — with judge Bastianich delivering a cameo, playing himself.

Bastianich also appeared — again, as himself — in Untraditional, an Italian television series starring and created by actor Fabio Volo, who plays a heightened version of himself as he relocates to New York City in order to launch a new project.

MasterChef's Joe Bastianich is even more popular in Italy than he is in the U.S.

Joe Bastianich's high profile on TV — including Fox's MasterChef and MasterChef Junior, and CNBC's short-lived Restaurant Startup (which ran from 2014 until 2016) — has lent him a certain degree of fame in his native America. Yet as famous as he is in the U.S., he's far more popular in Italy, where he has even more television shows under his belt. 

In Italy, Bastianich can be seen on MasterChef Italia (an Italian version of the Fox series), Celebrity MasterChef (a spinoff of MasterChef Italia in which celebrities, not home cooks, undertake kitchen competitions), Top Gear Italia (an Italian version of the popular U.K. automotive series) and Jack on Tour, a "rockumentary" sponsored by Jack Daniels whiskey that followed Bastianich and Italian singer-songwriter Giò Sada as they perform music and meet with people as they journey from New York City to Jack Daniels' historic distillery in Lynchburg, Tennessee, driving in a black Jack Daniels-branded truck. 

In January 2020 he added another entry to his IMDb page, shifting from evaluating food to critiquing performers as the newest member of the judging panel on Italia's Got Talent.

MasterChef's Joe Bastianich cooked up controversy on Italian television

Joe Bastianich's fame on Italian television proved to have a dark side when, in January 2018, he made some comments on MasterChef Italia that restaurant news site Grub Street deemed to be racist and sexist. In a segment in the episode, Bastianich is seen popping into a nail salon in Milan's Chinatown. According to a translation provided to the site, Bastianich began by correcting a woman's speech and then asked if she'd ever dated an Italian man, informing her that Chinese men are "inadequate in certain situations."

As the backlash grew, Bastianich was quick to offer an apology. "This was a scripted segment shot in a Milan nail salon that I've gone to regularly. I know the women, and we were given the questions to discuss in advance," Bastianich told Grub Street. "That said, it's clear that some of what I said was in poor taste and not reflective of my views. I'm sorry I said those things."

MasterChef's Joe Bastianich wrote a memoir

In 2012, Joe Bastianich opened up about his life by writing a memoir, Restaurant Man. The book talks about his journey from working at his parents' restaurant to becoming one of the country's most successful restaurateurs.

Speaking about the book with the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Bastianich admitted that the double whammy of turning 40 followed by the death of his father provided the impetus to delve into his own life. Writing Restaurant Man, he said, was "cathartic and therapeutic" — and "cheaper than going to the $475-an-hour therapist."

Asked to summarize the "overall message" of his memoir, Bastianich said he wanted to present an unvarnished look at his life, "the good, bad and ugly. Some people might glean some life lessons... I think if you read the book you can understand what has made me, the son of an immigrant: People who left everything behind and worked hard, a sense of frugality and respect of earning money and how that's changed to this very media-driven entertainment business."

The biggest mistake Joe Bastianich thinks MasterChef competitors make

After all those seasons as a judge on MasterChef (and let's not forget MasterChef Italia and MasterChef Junior), Joe Bastianich has witnessed numerous home chefs in action, people who have managed to develop keen culinary skills without the benefit of the kind of training received by professional chefs. 

Interviewed by TV Insider, Bastianich was asked to identify the biggest mistake that he sees MasterChef contestants make. "When they don't listen. You have to listen and evolve to win," Bastianich explained. "The biggest mistake they make is when they try to think that they're going to outsmart us, that we're giving them information just for the sake of giving it, when we're actually trying to help them. When they think they've got that figured out better than we are, that's usually where it goes wrong."

Bastianich also singled out the one dish he advises MasterChef contestants avoid at all costs. "Risotto," he declared. "Risotto is always very tricky. Everyone wants to make risotto but the only person who can really make it is my mom."

Joe Bastianich decided to exit MasterChef

Joe Bastianich joined Gordon Ramsay's MasterChef on the Fox network in 2010, and in November 2014 he announced he was exiting the show. "After several gratifying years as a judge on MasterChef and MasterChef Junior, I have decided to step down from my role on the show," Bastianich said in a statement, according to The Hollywood Reporter, explaining his plans to focus on his restaurant empire's "continued global expansion." Christina Tosi of NYC bakery Milk Bar was brought in to replace Bastianich behind the judging table for the show's sixth season. 

A few months later, Bastianich appeared on a panel during the Television Critics Association press tour to promote his new series for CNBC, Restaurant Startup. During the panel, reported E! News, he was asked why he left MasterChef after the show's fifth season. According to Bastianich, he simply felt the time was right. "I had a great experience," he said. "It was a show that changed my life. I stepped away."

However, he clarified that he hadn't abandoned the franchise entirely. "I continue to do MasterChef Italy," he said, adding that he was "looking for more opportunity to do television."

Joe Bastianich returned to MasterChef after leaving

Joe Bastianich's comments about his exit from MasterChef certainly didn't indicate he'd be returning, but neither did they shut the door on an eventual comeback. That was exactly what happened in 2016 when Bastianich made a surprise appearance in MasterChef's season eight finale. Coinciding with that appearance, the Fox network issued a press release to announce that, in addition to his Masterchef finale drop-in, he'd be back behind the judging table full-time for the sixth season of MasterChef Junior

But that was only the beginning. When the ninth season of MasterChef premiered in 2017, Christina Tosi — who replaced Bastianich and served as judge for seasons six, seven and eight — was out. In her place was none other than Bastianich, with the network trumpeting his return to the show after a three-season absence. Chef Aarón Sanchez also served as judge that season.

The personal challenge Joe Bastianich cooked up for MasterChef contestants

During his season nine comeback to MasterChef, Joe Bastianich served up a special customized challenge for contestants, one that was deeply personal for him. In the challenge, the home cooks were tasked with making three different pasta dishes — one of which followed a recipe Bastianich learned from his grandmother — all from scratch and within a strict one-hour time limit.

In an interview with Parade, Bastianich explained his thinking when he decided to develop this particular challenge. "This tests their manual dexterity, their cultural knowledge — not only do they have to make the different pasta shapes, they have to make the sauces," he said. "There are so many factors — we're covering the whole pasta world!"

He acknowledged that the challenge was, well, challenging, but said he though the contestants could take it on. 

"Every year the level [of competitor] gets higher, so all I could say is, Let's raise the bar," he explained. 

Bastianich also offered up why pasta is a special dish for him. "In an Italian home, pasta's the first thing you see in the kitchen. My grandmother was making pasta all day," he said. "It's kind of like the entry-level dish. Gnocchi was the first classic that I made."

MasterChef's Joe Bastianich's mom is a celebrity chef in her own right

When it comes to culinary talent and television-ready charisma, Joe Bastianich is an example of the proverbial apple that didn't fall far from the tree. His mother, Lidia Bastianich, is a celebrity chef in her own right. She's a proud Italian immigrant who teamed up with her son to parlay her family-run Italian eatery in Queens into a restaurant empire that includes such Manhattan hotspots as Becco, Del Posto, and her flagship, Felidia.

Lidia Bastianich, like her son, also demonstrated a knack for television, and has hosted several food-themed series for PBS: Lidia's Kitchen, Lidia's Italy in America and Lidia's Italy. As if that weren't enough, she's also won multiple daytime Emmys and is the author of numerous bestselling cookbooks, including 2019's Felidia: Recipes from My Flagship Restaurant.

During a 2018 interview with Terry Gross for NPR's Fresh Air, she revealed how her self-described "peasant food" came to be served in high-end restaurants in the Big Apple. "This is who I was," she explained, saying she connected her peasant food with great service to create something unique.  "We brought the simple dishes to a level of service and presentation that was above what would be in the home."

How MasterChef's Joe Bastianich was affected by Mario Batali's scandal

In 2017, B&B Hospitality Group became embroiled in scandal when Joe Bastianich's business partner, Mario Batali, stepped away from the company in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations. As The New York Times reported, accusations that Batali sexually harassed and even sexually assaulted female employees led Bastianich and B&B's other partners — including his sister and his mother, Lidia Bastianich — to buy out Batali. 

Joe Bastianich was not unscathed by the controversy. According to The Hollywood Reporterstaffers at the B&B-owned restaurants claimed the MasterChef judge encouraged a "boys club" atmosphere, and that he and Batali "were responsible for some of the most 'debaucherous behavior' they had ever witnessed," among other complaints.

"It has become clear that we need to improve our culture," said B&B in a statement to THR, putting the blame on "some employees" who "violated our policies." Admitting that the company had "fallen short in creating an environment where every employee feels comfortable reporting complaints," the company claimed "we are already taking steps to change." Those steps included the ousting of Batali, with Lidia Bastianich taking a larger role to help foster "a safe and positive workplace."

MasterChef's Joe Bastianich was investigated in relation to criminal charges against Mario Batali

The furor over Mario Batali's sexual misconduct allegations eventually died down, and Joe Bastianich and his restaurant empire continued to move forward in the wake of the scandal. In an effort to distance itself from the now-toxic Batali, in January 2018 B&B announced it was rebranding and launched a revamped website that scrubbed away all traces of the disgraced celebrity chef.

The controversy reignited in May 2019 when Batali was criminally charged with indecent assault and battery. In early 2020, New York state attorney general Letitia James held a press conference to announce her office had received "credible information" about Batali's "alleged actions." As a result, her office would be further investigating Batali, the company and Bastianich himself. 

While Bastianich hadn't been accused, Eater New York quoted the MasterChef judge as saying that he "heard [Batali] say inappropriate things" to staffers, and that he "should have done more" to counteract his ex-partner at the time. In the meantime, Eater New York also reported that Bastianich tried to mitigate the damage by visiting every one of his restaurants to reassure employees that restaurants would stay open and running as usual.