Renowned celebrity chef Lidia Bastianich runs a culinary empire—she owns 11 Italian American  restaurants in the United States. She has her own television series, Lidia’s Kitchen. She has written 16 Italian cookbooks, and created a line of Italian pastas and sauces. She is a member of the international woman’s culinary group, Les Dames d’Escoffier, and was a founding member of the national group, Women Chefs and Restaurateurs. Not surprisingly, she has won countless culinary awards and honors that number well over 70. And throughout her successes, she thanks her two children, Tanya and Joe, for their loving support.

Bastianich has achieved all this by linking her love of food with her Catholic faith. Born in the then-Italian (now Croatian) town of Pula, Bastianich grew up in a Catholic household, and one that celebrated food and family. “I grew up in a Catholic family,” she said, “and we honored our family members. In Italy, cooking is something that is more of a tradition and a family need. I was always helping Grandma. I guess it was ultimately my way of expressing and nurturing myself.”

When Bastianich was 10 years old, her family migrated to the United States. That is when, she said, she really reconnected to her faith—she attended a convent school and became really excited to learn about life and about what her Catholicism meant. “I had my first Communion and confirmation at the age of 12,” she said. “Then I saw how the nuns helped my family and taught me. All this gave me a sense of spirituality as I traveled around America.”

At first, she was not vocationally directed, and at school she studied science and math. “But to help my family, I gravitated towards food,” she said. “I helped in their bakery on weekends, and people loved it when I did something with food. I got good feedback.” 

With her former husband, who was in the restaurant business, the couple opened their first small restaurant in 1971. “I told him I would help him,” she said. “I wasn’t the chef, but I cooked and ultimately I realized what I wanted to do. For 10 years, I worked as a sous chef. Then I went back to school and traveled back to Italy to cook with chefs there.” When the couple sold that first restaurant, they opened Manhattan’s famous Felidia restaurant, and that was when, said Bastianich, she became the chef and brought forth her culinary talents.

True, her passion for and success with the cooking life has brought her universal recognition. But Bastianich said, her Catholicism has always inspired her. “My faith plays into my philosophy and into my life,” she said. “It is about the importance of family, of connecting with people, and about giving and nurturing.”

As a way to use her culinary knowledge and skills, Bastianich gives back to others with her food. “So many people took care of me,” she said when she was a refugee coming to America. To give thanks, she donates food for fundraisers and works with refugees. “And I do fundraising to help inner city kids who want to get educated,” she said. “That makes me feel good. When you think of how I felt when people at Catholic Charities helped us when my family had no home. They brought food for us and showed how people really cared. I cannot forget that.”