“What’s up?” Italian-born chef Lidia Bastianich asks the rooster that lightly pecks at her sandals. “You know, you’d make a good sauce!”
At the start of the week she was cooking risotto for Pope Francis and by the end hosting her third annual benefit dinner at the Boys Grow Farm in Grandview.
Bastianich grew up on a farm plucking chickens and milking goats. She’s equally enthusiastic to learn of her namesake, Lidia, a goat frolicking in a nearby pen. Farm director John Gordon Jr. explains that goat Lidia had a fling with billy goat Jay-Z. Beyonce, the other female goat, is reportedly none too happy.
“I really love Boys Grow because it brings kids from the city and puts them in touch with the earth. If children think you get chicken in plastic wrap, well, we’ve lost a lot along the way,” she says. “And what I love is John doesn’t stop there. He turns them into entrepreneurs. They have an almost 360-degree view of growing, picking and selling food to the public.”
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The not-for-profit youth vocational program is designed to teach boys ages 14 to 16 how to grow food and take it to the next step by creating a product — their salsas, salad dressings and sauces are for sale around town at stores, including Whole Foods. Their newest product is tzatziki, a yogurt-based sauce with Greek origins.
Bastianich spent the day at the farm on Oct. 1 as host of the third annual $150 a person farm-to-table benefit dinner. As the sun began to set, three of the boys led goat Lidia on a rope through the outdoor cocktail party to meet the 170 guests.
Later more boys eagerly gathered around Bastianich as dinner was served. A popular question for the celebrity chef: “What did you cook for Pope Francis?”
Pope Francis likes melba toast for breakfast. Bastianich prepared light desserts, including a Concord grape sorbet with angel food cake and a rustic apple tart. But the biggest hit was her risotto bianco — only onions, good chicken stock and a shower of Grana Padano cheese.
Bastianich looks down at the risotto just served and says she served a version of the dish for the pope, but with fresh pear instead of onions and without the 12-year-old balsamic vinegar reduction, because “the Pope has simple tastes.”
Bastianich was in charge of two breakfasts, a lunch and two dinners during the papal visit. At first she assumed that since the pope was from Argentina he might like meat — maybe prime rib — but soon discovered he preferred his meals “very reserved, simple and straightforward.”
Making a tasty risotto with so few ingredients was a challenge, but one Bastianich relished. “I just wanted to nourish him the way he gives spiritual nourishment to all of us,” she says.
As dinner winds down, Tyson Hicks, who plucked up courage to speak in front of the crowd about what the Boys Grow program has meant to him, asks Bastianich for a critique of his speech — and a selfie.
Not wanting to be left out, Brandon Lane, a high school saxophone player who performed on the didgeridoo, puts his Australian musical stick down and throws an arm around the famous chef for a candid group shot.
Someday Bastianich hopes to spend more time with the boys, but for now plans for the addition of a culinary center on the farm grounds are in the works.
Jill Wendholt Silva is Chow Town’s food editor, restaurant critic and blog curator. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org and @kcstarfood.