"I wanted people to show the other side of Chef Boyardee, not just what they knew from the can."
You won’t find recipes for Beefaroni or canned lasagna in Anna Boiardi’s new cookbook, Delicious Memories (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2011). Instead you’ll learn to make gourmet dishes like ravioli with ricotta and squash filling, cotechino with lentils, and baked fennel with butter and Parmesan.
Boiardi (BA ’94), whose great uncles and grandfather founded canned pasta king Chef Boyardee, knew she had a bit of a challenge on her hands when writing a book whose subtitle is Recipes and Stories From the Chef Boyardee Family.
“I wanted people to show the other side of Chef Boyardee, not just what they knew from the can,” Boiardi says. “I wanted them to understand this is the food that I grew up on. My grandfather passed away before I was born, but I knew my Uncle Hector very well and he actually was a very accomplished chef: a James Beard Award winner who ran the kitchen at the Plaza Hotel in New York City. Everyone in my family cooks, so food was not just a family business, it was the way we shared our traditions, the thing that connected us.”
Food has gone on to be a major part of Boiardi’s life as well. After a stint in Los Angeles producing TV shows for MTV and VH1, she returned to New York City — where she had grown up — and started throwing gourmet dinner parties that attracted all kinds of New Yorkers, including actors, models, artists and musicians. She got written up in Vogue and The New York Observer. A morning show segment on the dinner parties led to a gig selling frozen desserts on shopping channel QVC. When she started compiling family recipes and family stories as a memento to pass down to her kids (her son, Jack, just turned 1), her husband suggested she try to get it published.
“The backdrop of the book is the story of how my grandfather, my [great] uncle Hector and their older brother started Chef Boyardee,” says Boiardi, who originally came to DU to pursue a degree in hotel and restaurant management but ended up switching her major to communication. “They came from a very poor family, they started working at 8 years old, they were working in kitchens, and food is what they knew their whole life. And they came to this country and started a brand that’s still the No. 1 best-selling canned pasta in the United States. It’s 80-some years later, and the brand still resonates and is hugely successful. I felt like it was a really inspirational story to tell about immigrants and American ingenuity.”
That story begins in the early 1900s, when the three Italian brothers came to America and started working at restaurants in New York. Hector opened his own restaurant in 1924 and began selling jars of his tomato sauce to customers who wanted some to take home with them. He partnered with his brothers to start the Chef Boiardi Food Co. — later changed to the more phonetic Chef Boyardee to aid Americans in the pronunciation of the Italian name. Delicious Memories describes how in the 1930s, just a few years after they started the company, Boiardi’s ancestors were the largest importers of Parmesan cheese and olive oil in the world.
“I think it’s fair to say that those three men, with no formal education and very little money, can be credited with bringing Italian food to America,” Boiardi writes in the book.
And their love for food was passed down through the generations.
“My mom is an amazing cook, and that was just the way I was nurtured and the way I grew up,” Boiardi says. “I think it would almost be impossible to grow up in my family and not have a love and an appreciation of good food.”
Check out Boiardi’s recipe blog at www.annasdish.com.