Joe Bastianich was never supposed to become the Simon Cowell of the food world. He was never even supposed to be on television. The son of accomplished restaurateurs, Bastianich was always the consummate back-of-house guy, the one who counted receipts after hours and fired servers who stole from the tip jar. He prospered—he now oversees a 20-restaurant empire on two continents—but when he was younger, he lived under the shadow of two culinary giants: his mother Lidia, the matriarch of Italian food in the U.S., and his friend Mario Batali, the virtuoso front man for their restaurants.
Now Bastianich, 43, has become an improbable but compelling TV personality. On Sept. 4, Fox is set to air the third-season finale of MasterChef, which has quickly become one of the most popular cooking shows in the U.S.—and, if you consider its iterations in more than 20 other countries, probably the most popular cooking show in the world. (See examples here and here.) MasterChef pits home cooks against one another in various culinary matches. The winner gets a $250,000 prize.
Hands down, Bastianich is the show’s most entertaining judge. Against the predictable ranting bluster from Gordon Ramsay, Bastianich is perceptive and quiet. He can also be brutal: earlier this season, he said one contestant’s rice pudding was “inedibly disgusting.” After the contestant said the pudding reminded him of his mother’s kitchen, Bastianich coolly replied, “That’s a place I’m going to avoid.”
Outrage gushed from MasterChef fans. Online, Bastianich was called not only “cruel” and “petty” but an “ignorant small-minded prick.” All of which leads to a question: why would Bastianich, who worked so hard to get from Queens busboy to aloof mogul, want to expose himself to the maw of reality TV?
The answer lies partly in a personal transformation: by the mid-’00s, after Bastianich and Batali had gambled on a $12 million restaurant, Del Posto, that ended up winning four stars from The New York Times, Bastianich was verging on obese. Years of eating too much from his restaurants, drinking too much from his vineyards in Italy, and smoking heroic amounts of pot caught up with him. A doctor diagnosed sleep apnea, which helped explain why he couldn’t recover from his usual excesses. “I would wake up, and especially after a couple glasses of wine—or bottles of wine—I would feel like someone had beat the shit out of me,” he says.
Around the same time, his father Felice was declining in health. His mother Lidia—whose restaurants and PBS shows changed how Americans think of Italian food—wanted to spend more time with her grandkids. Batali was writing cookbooks, dreaming up far-flung restaurants, and hanging out with Bono.
And so, finally, Joe stepped up. He began jogging—not even a mile at first—but he persisted. It was like upending those tip jars: annoying but necessary. One mile became two—and he eventually got to marathon distance. He also started drinking less, and now he smokes pot only rarely—”it’s like an Easter and Christmas kind of event now,” he says. Last year, Bastianich completed the Ironman triathlon in Hawaii.
Better health enabled him to work as never before. He, his mom and Batali convinced investors to help them fund Eataly, a 50,000-sq-ft food emporium that occupies an entire Manhattan block. Eataly wasn’t a new concept—there are several Eataly stores in Italy and Japan—but the Bastianich-Batali version was bigger and riskier than anything the trio had attempted before. Bastianich says it cost $80 million to build and that it paid for itself in a year. He is working on an Eataly Chicago that is set to open later this year.
Bastianich also spent part of this year promoting his new memoir, Restaurant Man (Viking), which includes highly entertaining tales of how he succeeded in the food business. When he was a boy in Queens, his parents ran a modest restaurant called Buonavia, and Joe and his sister Tanya had to help out. One of Joe’s least favorite memories: riding in a car with his dad in Bronx traffic as a steel tray of chicken carcasses slowly warmed in summer heat. The tray began to leak juice—”real butcher-shop effluence,” Bastianich writes—which left him with a lifelong distaste for poultry.
In the early 1990s, after Lidia got her first PBS show, she introduced her son to a young, red-headed, round chef who was getting some attention for his cooking at a small Greenwich Village restaurant called Po. Bastianich and Mario Batali became friends and spent a lot of time in the mid-’90s drinking and eating—sometimes until 5 a.m. At some point during one of these nights, they decided to open a high-end place. They named it Babbo, which means, sort of, “daddy”—they had just each had kids. Babbo eventually led to Del Posto and all the other restaurants, including a steakhouse in Hong Kong and a high-end osteria, Mozza, in Singapore.
In 2009, when Bastianich was busy getting ready to open Manhattan’s Eataly, he heard that Fox was developing a U.S. version of MasterChef. Now lithe and as self-assured as he had ever been, he saw a role for himself as a judge. “Between my mother and Mario, I spent my whole life dealing with chefs and their eccentricities,” he says. “I knew that I would be a good yin to [Ramsay’s] yang.”
MasterChef has worked out well for Bastianich. It not only confirmed the benefits of limiting his appetites but also offered a chance for him to reconnect to Italy, where he is a judge on MasterChef Italia. As a judge, Bastianich is expected to taste dishes made by scores of contestants. He has become famous for spitting out food onscreen. People think it’s an act of showmanship, which is partly true, but it’s also an act of will. Eating less means eating better.