UCF Director of Orchestras Chung Park reflects on a shared a meal with chef Lidia Bastianich during UCF Celebrates the Arts 2022. Bastianich was invited to talk at the annual festival as part of the Neil R. Euliano Speaker Series, hosted by UCF’s Italian Studies program.
When you have the opportunity to have breakfast with a legend, you take it. I was the lucky person who shared a meal with world-renowned chef, restaurateur and entrepreneur Lidia Bastianich, during which we talked about the intersection between music and food and the shared culture that binds the two together.
Lidia, host of the Emmy Award-winning PBS show Lidia’s Kitchen, was in town for UCF Celebrates the Arts. Despite her busy schedule, Lidia took a morning out of her time in Orlando to meet with me.
During our two-hour conversation, we spoke about the things for which we share a passion: food and music, and especially their ability to evoke memories and a powerful sense of place. Lidia is a dynamo; openly passionate, quick to smile and laugh, erudite yet utterly down to earth. You can tell right away that she sees cooking and food as more than just business. For her, food is a way to connect to both people and her Istrian/Italian culture while sharing that culture with her clientele and countless fans.
Lidia described herself as a “conduit” numerous times during our meal, stressing that she is the keeper of a heritage and the beneficiary of hundreds of years of tradition passed down from generation to generation. In short, she is a visionary who finds inspiration from the past. At times she turned the tables on me, asking how I teach music to my students. I said it’s like a chef going back to Escoffier (culinary school) to understand the roots while reading Nathan Myhrvold to stay up to date with all the latest research. She met my feeble attempt at drawing parallels with a gentle laugh: “Now you’re speaking my language,” she quipped.
In her memoir My American Dream, Lidia writes of the foundational importance classical music has in her life. Classical music is not something she just has on in the background; rather, she is a true connoisseur with deep and avid knowledge. She sang a little snippet of an Italian pop tune that borrowed from Mozart and told me that she could hear the music of Rimsky-Korsakov in her head as she visited his grave in St. Petersburg. A lover of great venues — she made a trip to Buenos Aires just to visit the legendary Teatro Colón! — she was excited to hear the acoustics in the beautiful new Steinmetz Hall at the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts.
When we talked about what inspires her, Lidia spoke effusively about nature, the new products she finds from small, artisanal producers, the powerful effect that travel has in expanding and informing our worldview, and, of course, classical music. Throughout our conversation, I found Lidia’s generosity of spirit, time, and energy to be particularly moving. She is deeply committed to the upward social mobility of young people, speaking with great urgency about the importance of education in creating a better world. We both marveled at how blessed we were to come from incredibly humble beginnings as immigrants and, somehow, ending up doing what we love every day, which could only have happened with access to education and the good fortune to meet dedicated teachers.
Lidia Bastianich is a treasure and embodies so much of what we aspire to at UCF: access, learning, and community. Having breakfast with her is a memory I’ll cherish forever.