1. You cooked for Pope Benedict XVI when he visited New York in 2008. What did you make?
The first day we did a great roasted striped bass from Long Island. I made light soup with all of the spring vegetables and then risotto, and for dessert I made apple strudel. The next day was his birthday and the third anniversary of his papacy, so I wanted to please him as a person. And his mother—I did some research—his mother was a chef. So I cooked what I thought would be some of the flavors of his childhood. I made goulash, spätzle, sauerkraut, and when I asked him how he enjoyed it, he looked at me and said, “Molto buono, i gusti di mia madre”—the flavors of my mother. And I was pleased that I maybe gave him the pleasure of rejoicing in his memories. It was certainly the pinnacle of my career and my life as a person and a chef.
2. What makes a good cook?
I think what makes a good cook is what makes anybody good at what they do—except that food is something that we all approach, so it’s a common denominator. I think it’s about being comfortable with food and doing things you like. If you have a special talent for harmonizing flavors, that’s good, but it’s about education and practicing and having great mentors. Just doing it over and over and understanding the products. What makes a good chef is cooking. You’ve got to cook.
3. Most professional chefs and restaurateurs are men. What has it been like to be a woman in a male-dominated industry? What advice do you have for aspiring female chefs?
This is one of the questions that I get asked most, and the funny part is that I never focused on that. I was a professional. I needed to be good at what I was doing, and I think that transcends gender. Just do it. Just do it well. Be prepared. Go out there, and it will happen. Yes, 40 years ago the kitchen was all male, but it builds you stronger, if you take it the right way. It built my bones, and I’m strong. And part of it maybe was that little battering I had when I was a young chef.
4. What are the biggest differences between Italian food in Italy and Italian-American food?
Italian-American food is a new cuisine that comes out of immigrants adapting to their new land. At the end of the 1800s and the beginning of the 1900s, this big influx of Italian immigrants came to the U.S., and there were no traditional Italian products to be found. They didn’t find olive oil and prosciutto di Parma and Grana Padano, and so the cuisine they made was with the memory of the recipes that they used to make, with new products. So Italian-American cuisine really represents a part of American history.
5. You have an amazing immigrant story—your family fled Italy during World War II and spent two years in a refugee camp before arriving in New York. What stands out for you about adjusting to life in a new country?
Coming to a new country as a child of 12—my brother was 16—was very exciting. We were at that exploratory age. We did not speak the language, but nothing phased us. My parents, on the other hand, I could see the strain on them. We had no relatives here, so it was quite a different life. I think the whole experience is at the basis of who I am. I feel like I have two allegiances. I feel very strongly about being here and being an American and the opportunities that my family had. But of course, I appreciate the charm of Italy. I have two of the greatest cultures that make me who I am.
Lidia’s Beef Goulash Recipe—Gulasch Triestino
- 1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 or 3 large onions (1-1/2 pounds), peeled and cut in thick wedges
- 2-1/2 pounds trimmed boneless beef chuck or round, cut for stewing (1-1/2 inch chunks)
- 2 teaspoons coarse sea salt or kosher salt, or to taste
- 2 teaspoons Hungarian paprika
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- 1 branch fresh rosemary, with lots of needles
- 3 cups cold water
- 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
- 4 tablespoons tomato paste
- A heavy-bottomed 9- or 10-inch saucepan, such as an enameled cast iron French oven, with a tight-fitting cover
- A small saucepan, about 6-cup capacity
Pour the olive oil into the saucepan, set over medium-low heat, and drop in the onion wedges. Toss to coat in oil, season with 1/2 teaspoon salt, and cook gently for 3 or 4 minutes, until sizzling and softening.
Spread the onions out on the pan bottom and drop the beef cubes on top of the wedges, filling the pan in one layer. Sprinkle another 1/2 teaspoon of the salt, all the paprika and oregano over the meat, and drop in the rosemary. Without stirring or turning the meat pieces, cover the pan tightly. Heat the meat—with the seasonings on top and the onions below—so its starts to release its juices and stew. Check once or twice to see that the pan liquid is bubbling and that the onions are melting (not burning), but don’t stir.
After half an hour or so, set the cover ajar a couple of inches and adjust the heat to keep the juices bubbling and slowly reducing. As they thicken, stir up the onions so they don’t burn and tumble the meat in the pan.
Continue cooking, partially covered, for another half hour or so. When the juices are concentrated and thick in the pan bottom, prepare the goulash sauce: Pour 3 cups of cold water in the small pan and whisk in the flour. Set over low heat and continue whisking until the flour is dispersed with no lumps, then whisk in the tomato paste. Heat gradually, whisking often, until the tomato-flour water just comes to a bubbling boil. Pour it into the big saucepan and stir well, turning the meat chunks over—they should be nearly covered in sauce—and blending in the thick pan.
Bring the sauce to a gentle simmer, put on the cover, slightly ajar, and cook 45 minutes to an hour, until the meat is quite tender and the sauce somewhat reduced. Season with more salt to taste. Turn off the heat, and let the goulash cool in the pan for several hours before serving, or refrigerate overnight.
Reheat slowly, stirring now and then, until the meat is thoroughly heated; thin the sauce with water if it has thickened too much. Serve hot.