Food is central to who we are: MasterChef Junior US judge Joe
With his suave suits, one may mistake him for a venture capitalist, but do not let that fool you.
For celebrity chef Joe Bastianich, that ship sailed long ago. Born in an immigrant Italian family, food was the core ingredient of Bastianich's childhood story, so much so that he recalls spending days in his parent's restaurant in New York.
"My family were immigrants that came from Italy after World War II and they came to New York and worked in restaurants as waiters. My mother was a waitress and then they got married. They opened their first restaurant together in 1968, which is the year I was born. So, as most immigrant children, I grew up in the restaurant every day of my life," the restaurateur told PTI in a telephonic interview from New York.
Being a second generation immigrant in America came with some unsaid 'to-do-list' for him, quality education being one of them. He studied finance at Boston College. "I was the first person from my family to go to college. Then I went to work on the Wall Street because that's what you're supposed to do once you graduate college."
The aroma of the kitchen soon caught up with him as Bastianich decided to quit his job of three years later as a bond trader. "I realised that I didn't like it, it wasn't for me. And so I went back to the family business but I didn't go back to the business straight away."
He says his mother asked him to live in Italy for some time and find his feet. Bastianich moved to Italy in 1989, where he went around and worked in wineries and restaurants. Two years later, he returned to New York and opened his first restaurant, Becco. Coming from a family of restaurateurs, he had his heart in the right place and his short stint on the Wall Street helped him channel a number cruncher in him.
But Bastianich says failure was not an option, especially when one is starting their first venture. "I had an education from Wall Street so I already had that advantage. And then the success. I mean failure is not an option. I opened my first restaurant, I borrowed 80,000 dollars from my grandmother, I did everything myself. So I did whatever I had to do to make sure I was successful. I worked tirelessly night and day in the restaurant," he says.
Bastianich, who serves as one of the judges on "MasterChef Junior US", says the food is not merely a biological need, it is a part of one's identity.
"India and Indian culture and for me being Italian, food is just so central to who we are, to our families, everything about our lives. So even in our show, we try to find contestants that have the same sensibility, people who are really passionate about food and they have to really be ambitious. And the best contestant is the person who feels that they can change their life with their passion for food and cooking. Finding cooks with that kind of passion has always been my focus."
Bastianich, who owns around 30 restaurants around the globe, says fine dining may be a standard in the culinary world but without the soul, food remains tasteless.
"The food stories are more important than the fine dining part. It's a double-edged sword. Sometimes the restaurant quality dish with Michelin stars may set a bar but it may or may not necessarily blow you away. We are looking for food with soul, meaning and significance."
The restaurateur believes reality cooking shows like "MasterChef" have been a positive force that has made people believe that they should change their lives through their passion and ability. "Having the real desire to feel like one can be on such shows can change your life. That's more important than even knowing how to cook sometimes because that is something you can acquire along the way."
"MasterChef Junior US" airs every Saturday at 8 p.m. on Star World and Star World HD in India. The other two judges on the show are British celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay and Christina Tosi, who is known as the queen of desserts.