Close to the Earth

I drove out to the BoysGrow farm, located roughly 20 miles south of downtown Kansas City (do NOT trust Siri to find this place), to conduct an interview with restaurateur and culinary superstar, Lidia Bastianich. I was nervous. If you’re unfamiliar with the name Lidia Bastianich and therefore clueless as to why I would be nervous, shame on you.

Lidia (she’s so down-to-earth, you quickly move past ‘Ms. Bastianich’ formalities) is not only the owner of Lidia’s Kansas City and Lidia’s Pittsburg but the owner/chef of four acclaimed New York City restaurants as well: Felidia, Becco, Esca and Del Posto. In the same category as Giada de Laurentiis and Ina Garten, Lidia won the 2013 Daytime Emmy for Outstanding Culinary Host for PBS’s Lidia’s Italy. Her extensive line of cookbooks include Lidia Cooks from the Heart of Italy, Lidia’s Italy, Lidia’s Family Table, Lidia’s Italian-American Kitchen, Lidia’s Italian Table and La Cucina di Lidia. Together with her son Joe, she even produces award-winning wines at their Bastianich Vineyards in Friuli, located in northeastern Italy. So when I say “shame on you” for not knowing who Lidia Bastianich is, I mean it!

After getting completely turned around 3 times, I finally arrive at the BoysGrow farm for what is supposed to be a brief interview. An hour later, I had met countless smiling faces, been entertained by chickens, befriended goats and been absolutely put at ease by Lidia’s warm, maternal countenance. She had even insisted that I take her chair because the other seat was a bit dusty and she thought I looked “too nice to sit in a dirty chair.”

Lidia is proud to inform me that BoysGrow is a not-for-profit agency that provides mentoring, entrepreneurship skills and positive male role-models for inner-city boys ages 12-15. The boys do everything around the farm from tending crops to carpentry to designing labels for their products (if you haven’t tried their Avocado Hot Sauce, you are definitely missing out).

The fondness Lidia feels for BoysGrow fills her heart and topples out every time she mentions its origins and accomplishments. As she says, “[BoysGrow] just makes sense.” Since 2010, BoysGrow has been using farming and agriculture as a way to instill pride, discipline and an understanding of business practices in young teens. This resonates with Lidia. She grew up in Italy when every household had a small farm—an “around the house food supply” as Lidia puts it. Eating local wasn’t a trend then, it was the way of life for her family.

“We had chickens, we had rabbits, we had geese. We always had two, sometimes three pigs. November was slaughter time, so we made bacon, we made prosciutto, we made our sausages. We had goats and drank goat milk, made panna cotta and goat cheese. We had rabbits—they turn around fast, so you have fast food.”

Listening to how connected Lidia had been to food as a child, it doesn’t surprise me that she still feels so passionately about it today. It also makes me realize how lazy we are about food now. I thoroughly enjoy cooking but I’m embarrassed to say that sometimes even the act of tossing dried pasta into boiling water and heating a jar of sauce seems tedious. Hearing Lidia’s grandmother’s process of collecting wheat kernels, loading them into burlap bags and carrying them to the mill to make flour takes my embarrassment to a whole new level.

With the utmost sincerity, Lidia states, “I’m all about food. And the closer I get to the earth, the better I feel.” Gesturing to the surrounding fields on the BoysGrow farm she adds, “…so this is great.” It’s difficult not to agree. From the farm manager, Josh, and owner, Jon, to each boy I meet and even Lidia herself, everyone seems genuinely happy to be a part of BoysGrow. No ones seems like “staff,” they all feel—as cheesy as it may sound—like a *family*.

Lidia leans in close, “I get asked to do so many fundraisers and dinners but to get involved, I have to feel really good, because if I do it, I’m going to give it my all.” A more powerful testament to BoysGrow could not be given.

Realizing that I’m taking up so much of Lidia’s time, I thank her and get up to leave. Kindly but firmly, she insists that I stay for the evening’s five course benefit dinner,“Where else would you go?! No, no, we will make room.” Who could say no to that?!

from Lidia's Kansas City: Lidia Bastianich, Executive Chef Dan Swinney, General Manager Matt Green, Chef De Cuisine Cody Hogan
from Lidia’s Kansas City: Lidia Bastianich, Executive Chef Dan Swinney, General Manager Matt Green, Chef De Cuisine Cody Hogan

The dinner experience that Executive Chef Dan Swinney, Chef De Cuisine Cody Hogan and numerous BoysGrow volunteers created did not disappoint. Passed hors d’oeuvres by the pond began the evening soon followed by a candlelit walk to long tables dressed simply but elegantly in white linens and seasonal gourds. A delicious salad comprised of greens from the farm proceeded the most amazing mushroom risotto I’ve ever had—every bowl in sight was scraped clean. The main course included braised short ribs and seasonal veggies and the evening was capped off with a heavenly version of pumpkin pie surrounded by an almost addictive caramel sauce. Bonfires were ignited, auction items went to the highest bidders and guests reveled in the crisp, autumn air.

I have to admit that I’m quite taken with both Lidia Bastianich and the BoysGrow farm now. It’s incredibly easy to get lost in pretense and superficiality, so when I’m introduced to real people who aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty—literally and figuratively—my heart swells. My interview was not what I expected … and I could not be more pleased.


Lidia’s Kansas City is located at 101 West 22nd Street in the Crossroads. Visit boysgrow.com to learn more and get involved.

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