Few people are aware that Chef Boyardee, the iconic mustached man on the can of ravioli, was a real person with an amazing story. Ettore (Hector) Boiardi came from Piacenza, Italy to New York with his brothers, where he became the head chef of the famous Plaza Hotel at the age of 17. When Hector opened his Italian restaurant in the 1920s, Italian food was foreign to Americans. You can thank the Boiardis for making Italian food the ubiquitous cuisine it is today. Hector’s spaghetti sauce became so popular that his customers would ask to bring some home. He packaged his sauce in empty milk bottles for the customers, until the family opened a factory to make the sauce in cans, and the rest was history.
Hector’s grandniece Anna Boiardi, a TV producer, cookware designer and food-lover, is devoted to preserving and sharing her family’s story. Anna (pronounced Ah-na, just like my name!) took on the role of family historian when she published Delicious Memories: Recipes and Stories From the Chef Boyardee Family in 2011. I interviewed her at a preview event for the latest project she has been part of: National Geographic’s miniseries, EAT: The Story of Food. Anna is featured in the episode titled “Food Revolutionaries,” in which she reveals the incredible story behind Chef Boyardee. I chatted with her about her great-uncle Hector, growing up a Boiardi, and cooking tips for busy college students.
Better Than Ramen: Who is Chef Boyardee?
Anna Boiardi: Chef Boyardee, the face on the can, was my great-uncle Hector, my grandfather’s brother. To me, he’s not really the man on the can. I just know him as my beloved uncle Hector. My grandfather died before I was born so he was like a surrogate grandfather to me. He was the person who reminisced about food and what it was like coming to the United States at the turn of the century. I would also say he is probably the person who sparked my interest in the food world.
BTR: What was it like being Chef Boyardee’s grandniece?
AB: In Italy, we don’t have Chef Boyardee, so I really was not aware that it was such an iconic brand until I came to the United States [at the age of six] and whenever I would say my last name, people would say, “oh, like Chef Boyardee?” In my family, we didn’t really talk about the family business so much even though it was obviously such a successful business. Food was incredibly important to our family. It was the thing that connected us, and the way that we lived out our traditions. The brand was sort of a secondary thing in the family and was not in the forefront of our conversations. It’s not my achievement and it was my grandfather and my uncle Hector and my uncle Paul who started the company. It’s certainly a family I’m very proud to be a part of. I’m always amazed at what they were able to achieve. You would never know that they were not educated people. They had achieved such success but they were also incredibly humble and had a very strong sense of community. They were just really incredibly successful but humble and amazing people with amazing stories to tell. When I say that my uncle Hector ran the kitchen of the Plaza Hotel in New York City when he was 17, think about the 17-year-olds you know and where they are and what they’re capable of. These are three brothers who started working when they were eight-years old. That’s hard in today’s world to think about. So I’m just really in awe of everything that they were able to achieve given where they started.
BTR: How do you continue the Boiardi legacy?
AB: I think it would be impossible to grow up in our family and not have a love of food. I think it’s ingrained in our DNA. So for me, I really started working in television production and what I always found myself drawn to was food programming and I was pitching a lot of food programming ideas. So even though I was trying to get away from food, it was always like this reoccurring theme in my life. Now I just started my own food blog and I have a line of cookware that’s on QVC and other retailers. I just developed a line of food that I’m going to launch on QVC next quarter. I feel like I took all of my experience in television, my education, my background and it’s all culminated at this point that makes sense for me. I feel connected to my heritage through what I’m doing.
BTR: What is your favorite family recipe?
AB: I wrote a cookbook [Delicious Memories: Recipes and Stories From the Chef Boyardee Family], and a lot of my favorite recipes are in that book. One of my most favorite, favorite, favorite dishes in that book — which is a little bit complicated if you’re not an experienced cook — is a dish called tortelli. It’s very germane to Piacenza, which is where I’m from. Pretty much only in Piacenza do you find tortelli the way that they’re pictured in my book [with a braid on top]. You could order tortelli in Rome and they’d be completely different. That is one of my all-time favorite recipes because it brings me back to so many childhood memories and they’re so delicious.
BTR: Was Chef Boyardee part of your childhood memories? Did you eat Chef Boyardee products growing up?
AB: When most kids had Easy Bake Ovens, one of my first forays into the kitchen was the Chef Boyardee pizza kit. It was like my favorite thing to do as a kid. In the box there was a can dough, a little can of sauce and a little can of cheese. So my mom would let us roll it out and put the sauce and cheese and whatever else we wanted on top. It was really yummy and one of my favorite things to make. A lot of people have asked me if they still make it, but I’ve only seen it in really random spots. I have all of these fond memories of making it as a kid, and it was something I really ate as a kid. When I went to college I remember ConAgra, who owns Chef Boyardee, would send me cases of microwavable meals, and other products ConAgra owned. They would just send me cases so I was very popular on my floor because I would share with everyone.
BTR: Cooking is such a big part of your family’s heritage, but your family’s name is recognized for its effortless-to-prepare canned foods. How do you reconcile this?
AB: It’s like only knowing Wolfgang Puck for his frozen pizza and never having experienced his restaurants and thinking that’s all that he ever did. It was a way for Americans to experience food that they had never had before. Especially in those days it was a way to experience a part of Italy you may never travel to. It’s all part of our family, it’s all their food, it’s all part of our history. It’s just that the brand name became this pop icon and no one ever knew anymore that there was a real family behind it or what it stood for. That was part of the reason why I did the cookbook.
BTR: I’m a college student, as are most of Better Than Ramen’s readers. College students often say that they don’t have enough time or money to cook. Do you have any cooking tips that could help us alleviate these problems (or excuses)?
AB: Some foods that people consider to be really fancy are really basic and inexpensive. Pasta is inexpensive. You can make a pound of pasta with a sauce, probably for under $5 and you can you make it taste really good and you can do it relatively quickly. Of course, if you’re a college kid in a dorm and you don’t have a kitchen, then that’s a whole separate issue. But, it doesn’t matter if you’re a college student or in your first apartment, or wherever you are in life, we are all time poor. When I was single, I would make big pots of vegetable soup and put in every vegetable I could find. You could find vegetables that are not expensive and fresh at a farmers market. I would throw everything in it and freeze it in portion sizes. I would have vegetable soup or I would make pasta sauce and if I didn’t use it, I would freeze it. If you’re time sensitive, it’s always good to have things on hand. I buy chicken cutlets and I pound them out and freeze them. I always have things on hand so I can make a relatively fast meal if I had to. You could do a chicken cutlet 10 different ways. The most important thing to do if you’re time sensitive is to be organized.
I come from the culture where the person in the kitchen is the most celebrated and that’s best place to be in the house. I think we have to change how we feel about cooking and the way we look at cooking and it opens up new windows of opportunity.
BTR: I completely understand. I live in a Serbian household and my grandmother would make me fresh soup and multiple courses when I would come home from school, and I have American friends whose parents don’t know how to cook. It’s just a completely different culture.
AB: Right. When I went to school, my mom made my lunch every day. And my lunch was very different probably than what other kids were having. My mom would make these amazing sandwiches with prosciutto and mozzarella and tomato. I remember if I was ever leaving early if I was sick, my friends would be like “oh that sucks. Can I have your lunch?” Everyone wanted my lunch. Everyone wanted to come to my house for dinner. I started to realize that what I had in comparison to my friends was really special and different. Where I come from, everybody’s mom cooks and we don’t rely on take out. That’s not part of the culture in Italy.
BTR: What do you think of Italian chain restaurants? Do you ever go to them?
AB: To be honest, not because they’re chains, but I rarely go out for Italian food because the best Italian food is pretty much in my mom’s kitchen or at home. If I’m going to go out for dinner, I tend to go for something completely different. I don’t want to go out and have pasta, I want to go out and have Japanese or something totally different than what’s going on in my own kitchen.