How Lidia Bastianich's Difficult Childhood Inspires Her Today

A new episode of Lidia Bastianich's PBS show "Lidia Celebrates America" premiered this week, titled "Overcoming The Odds." In her trip across the country, Bastianich shares with viewers stories of incredible perseverance in the face of tragedy and trauma, and also looks at how food fosters connection as people rebuild their lives. One such story is that of Yannick Benjamin, who used to work for Bastianich as a sommelier until he lost the use of his legs after a near-fatal car accident. Benjamin came back from the tragedy to open his first restaurant in New York City, Contento, with a mission to create a barrier-free dining experience for people with disabilities. 

As Bastianich shares this and other stories of survival with viewers, she often reflects upon hardships she and her family experienced when she was young. In an interview with News Center Maine (via YouTube), Bastianich shares that when they lived in communist Yugoslavia, her father was imprisoned and her family was forbidden from practicing their religion or speaking their native Italian. They eventually fled to Italy and lived as refugees in a former Nazi concentration camp for two years before being able to immigrate to America. In an interview with Pitch she said, "Along the way a lot of people helped us. I know what it means, and I appreciate it." Bastianich is inspired by a similar generosity in the people she meets in her special.

Despite experiencing hardship, the people Lidia Bastianich meets want to give back

Lidia Bastianich's childhood experience gave her an appreciation for her parents' strength in holding their family together, and a great deal of empathy and understanding for the experiences of the people in "Overcoming The Odds." She sees her own family's strength reflected in them. What seems to impress her the most, however, is how after receiving help from various sources to get back on their feet, these folks are now giving back to others. For instance, Jarrett Adams of Los Angeles, who was wrongfully imprisoned, is now an attorney fighting for others in the same situation. Kristen Thomas of Raleigh, North Carolina, who grew up without a family, opened her home to foster children. And Tony Hillery of Harlem, New York lost his business, but then started a community garden to give children and families free and nutritious food. "I got to know a lot of people and their difficulties, and ultimately how they move on and share it with others," Bastianich says at the end of the episode. "For me to be there ... and acknowledge that and thank them for it was a special gift to me."

After finding success as a restaurateur, cooking show host, and author, Bastianich follows this principle herself by giving back: She has raised money for causes that support women and families (according to National Italian American Foundation) and for education for refugee children (via United Nations Association of the United States of America).