Men’s Health Month Hero: Joe Bastianich, Restaurateur, TV Personality, Author

June 27th, 2016


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Photo Credit: DSG Fotografi

If you haven’t eaten his food (he owns 30 restaurants and markets worldwide), you probably know his face. He’s been a judge on the reality TV shows “Master Chef” and “Master Junior Chef” and the host of “Restaurant Startup.” He partners with famed chef Mario Batali and has written two award-winning books on Italian wine as well as Restaurant Man, a saucy, no-holds-barred look at the restaurant industry. But most importantly, Joe Bastianich is a hero for us at Meatless Monday. Surrounded by rich Italian food all his life (his mother is famed chef Lidia Bastianich), Joe experienced a wakeup call a decade ago that inspired him to change his ideas about eating meat and create a healthy new lifestyle for himself. In our exclusive interview with Joe below, find out how he did it.

Joe, you are a real New York City boy born into an esteemed culinary family. What are some of your earliest food memories from your home and the streets of New York?

From a very young age I was enamored by the everyday NYC classics that most kids enjoyed regularly during the 70s. I didn’t have the constant access to them that my friends did, as we ate very ethnic foods at home like tripe. I used to daydream of McDonald’s hamburgers and dirty water dogs. Of course, what I was learning from my family, both at home and abroad during our summers spent in Italy, was real Italian food sensibility, regional cuisine, the art of winemaking, etc.

You were just a little bambino when your Italian mama Lidia Bastianich became famous for her many cookbooks and cooking show. What’s the best thing she instilled in you about food and serving others?

In our house, cooking and serving food was seen as an act of love. It is how you showed that you cared for one another. The importance of being a good host is definitely something I got from my mother. It never leaves you.

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Get Joe’s recipe for Spaghetti Pomodoro.

As you were developing your restaurants around the world, your days and nights were jam-packed with activity. What happened to your health that inspired you to change your lifestyle?

It’s easy to overindulge when you have access to great food and wine 24/7. But eventually it catches up with you. About 10 years ago, I took my doctor’s advice and started running. I ended up falling in love with it and the intense runner’s high and energy it brings. It changed my life. My first marathon was the 2008 New York City Marathon and it was unforgettable. I run it every year. Marathons turned into triathlons, and in 2011 I was fortunate enough to compete in the Iron World Championships in Kona, Hawaii. It was the most physically intense experience of my life and very emotionally rewarding.

What changes did you make in your diet? And how do you stay on track when you’re surrounded by delicious temptations all day? Do you have an on-off philosophy?

I don’t believe in diets. Deprivation is not sustainable for most. You have to find a balance. It’s really about using common sense and being realistic about what will work for you. I modified the foods that I was already eating—smaller portions, olive oil instead of butter, more vegetables, less red meat. I love cheese and pasta, so instead of heavy butter-fat cheeses, I choose Grana Padano, which is lower in fat than many cheeses and has more protein per ounce than most meats. Fettucine Alfredo became Spaghetti Pomodoro, made with the best pasta di gragnano, San Marzano tomatoes, and extra virgin olive oil. High-quality ingredients prepared simply make the most gratifying meals.

“A love of food doesn’t mean sacrificing one’s health, you just have to be smart about the choices you are making.”

Why did you become a partner to Meatless Monday and how have you incorporated the program into your restaurants?

Meatless Monday is a good way to bring attention to the health crisis we face in this country while simultaneously helping the environment. The focus is also on moderation, which is easier for people to integrate into their behavior.

What’s your best advice for making vegetables mouth-watering?

First and foremost, it begins in your grocery cart. Look for quality products. If you buy the best produce you can afford, then you really shouldn’t have to do much to them. Take the time to check out the produce at your area markets and spend a little more for the best vegetables. A pantry staple that you can almost use on anything is extra virgin olive oil, and again, quality is key. Take the most expensive bottle you can afford, add $20, and buy that one. It is worth it.  Not all olive oil is created equal. The best ones will have the harvest date on the packaging and are at their freshest when consumed 6 months after this date. A plate of raw or steamed vegetables drizzled with a great olive oil and a little kosher salt can be extremely satisfying.

Since you’re someone who can cook anything and knows food inside out, please share with us two of your most favorite dishes. First, what’s your best pre-marathon meal?

A simple Pasta Primavera (pasta with vegetables) or Pasta Scoglio (pasta with seafood).

Second, what’s the meal you’d love to eat on your last day on earth?

There are so many options, but why not go out with gusto?! Maybe White Truffles over Agnolotti dal Plin (pasta filled with a lush mixture of veal, pork, and cheese), paired with a great Barolo (considered one of Italy’s greatest red wines, made from the Nebbiolo grape).