Food

Joe Bastianich gets personal

The MasterChef US judge on his no-nonsense attitude, mental health in the culinary world, and high-pressure working conditions in restaurants

I am a bit nervous before my call with Joe Bastianich, the no-nonsense television judge known for binning a bad dish without blinking an eye. In May, the celebrity chef and winemaker returned to Season 9 of MasterChef US along with co-hosts Gordon Ramsay and Aarón Sanchez.

Yet, contrary to his television avatar, he is chipper on the phone. We start with his early days as a bond trader on Wall Street. “Imagine, if I had stuck to that, I would have been retired, super rich and living on a yacht,” Bastianich, now 49, says. He was no stranger to the restaurant industry; born in Astoria, he practically grew up in a restaurant run by his parents.

The first in his family to go to college, he was determined to make it big. “I had humble beginnings. I didn’t want to be poor like my family,” admits the chef, adding, “I worked on Wall Street and hated it. My mother suggested I quit and spend some time in Italy for a few years and develop my already existing passion for food and wine. I travelled around the country and returned to New York in 1991 to open my first restaurant.”

Hard talk

Today, Batali & Bastianich Hospitality Group — which the chef founded along with his mother, and celebrity chef Mario Batali — owns 30 restaurants worldwide, including the Michelin-starred Babbo and Del Posto in New York.

In May, his company released a statement saying it would end all ties with Batali in the wake of multiple sexual harassment claims made by women, many of whom had worked in the B&B Group’s kitchens. Earlier this year, the MasterChef judge also apologised for racist and sexist comments he had made in Italy. When I bring up Batali and three of the group’s restaurant closures in Las Vegas, Bastianich chooses not to comment. We talk about the show instead.

Joe Bastianich gets personal

Constructive critic

Bastianich agrees that the MasterChef franchise has had a huge impact on our palates and culinary travel aspirations. “The show opened horizons and changed perspectives. People feel it can change their lives,” he says. What about his brusque manner and sometimes harsh criticism onscreen? “Reprimanding them is part of giving them genuine feedback,” he responds. “My main role as a judge is to steer a contestant’s journey. We become vested in them and we put effort into their food journeys.”

Glocal is the way

With appearances on MasterChef Italia, Bastianich’s fame extends to his country of origin. “Similar to India, where family and food are the two most important things in life, Italian families too are close-knit. Food is a way to relive our culture, especially for immigrants living away from home,” he says. Part of his inherited culinary heritage is an emphasis on local, sustainable food. “The essence of Italian cuisine is hyper-regional, and a cook in Milan will always use seasonal produce. It is part of our cuisine culture,” he explains, finding parallels in the contemporary culinary world. “Campaigns like #unwaste are great, and heirloom food is finding its place across the globe. We should eat responsibly and adopt sustainable practices.”

Feel the pressure

Our conversation steers towards the recent suicide of Anthony Bourdain, a friend and mentor. “I didn’t say much about his death because I had no words to express my feelings. He was a great legacy. I even did a chapter in his book, Kitchen Confidential,” he says, describing how he turned to the late chef when he decided to write his own memoir, Restaurant Man. “I was trying to write something really honest and personal. He showed me the way to ensure each page had an impact on the reader.”

Depression in kitchens has become a talking point, with more media attention being given to the harsh working conditions at many elite restaurants. “We work in an environment of high pressure and long hours,” agrees Bastianich. “The problem of alcoholism is a reality of the industry. This is a good time to alter people’s mindset about mental health issues, and let them know there is help available.”

A recent trend finds the culinary world’s renegade citizens eschewing accolades and ratings. Last year, legendary French chef Sébastien Bras was one of many to return the Michelin stars awarded to his restaurant, Le Suquet à Laguiole, citing anonymous reviews and pressure to perform as a reason. “Yes, there is a lot of pressure to maintain standards,” Bastianich agrees, “but I think people who are drawn to that kind of restaurant want to be judged, they want a name, by customers and journalists and they do the hard work they do,” he concludes.

MasterChef Junior US, also hosted by Bastianich, airs every Saturday at 8 pm on Star World and Star World HD in India

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Printable version | May 25, 2020 8:20:11 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/food/joe-bastianich-gets-personal/article24289364.ece

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