A restaurant mogul, best-selling author and TV personality best known as a judge on the MasterChef franchise, Joe Bastianich is putting his money where his mouth is on the second season of CNBC’s Restaurant Startup, where he and chef Tim Love compete to invest in new food ventures.
Bastianich—pictured above with Love and Chef Antonia LoFaso—is the son of chef, television host, author and restaurateur Lidia Bastianich and executive producer of the Shark Tank-like series (Tuesdays, 10/9c).
We picked his brain about everything from eateries to kitchen must-haves to what you must know to impress a date…
“I delivered papers to the Bagel Bin and Ernie, the bagel baker, said he’d pay me more, so I went to work baking bagels. That was my first legitimate paying job in the food industry.”
What do you look for in the restaurants you invest in?
We’re looking at people who are not only talented in the hospitality and food business and create delicious food, but people who know how to create profit margin, how to run a business, how to deliver dividends. This is a business show. It’s about making money. I think keeping up with current themes in the world of food is important in a show like this. We want to know where our food is coming from. Food needs to be sustainable. People want to eat healthily. We’re hitting on all the themes that are very important in why you go to eat at a restaurant.
Did Shark Tank’s success inspire it?
Of course. When you watch Restaurant Startup, not only do you get an hour of entertaining television but you get an education, and that’s the Shark Tank effect. We have to pay respect where respect is due. They’ve created a category of television that’s huge. You’re being entertained but you’re also learning.
How many restaurants are you up to now?
A lot, like 40 restaurants, all over the world. We’re mostly growing now in Southeast Asia—Singapore, Macau and Hong Kong. I have steakhouses, some Spanish restaurants, mostly Italian. And two Eataly markets. Eataly is coming to Los Angeles. We’re opening up in Century City, late 2016.
How much time are you actually spending in all of your different restaurants?
I spend as much as I possibly can. You know, the real secret is my restaurants are better when I’m not there.
Is Italian your favorite cuisine?
Depends on the day. Today I’m thinking Korean, kimchi.
What do you think of food trucks?
The food truck is very viable because it’s a lower capital entry level into the food world, and then if you’re good, it’s a launching point.
You started in your family’s restaurant as a child—was going into the business inevitable?
No. I tried to do other things. My dad said, ‘You don’t need to work in the restaurant. You need to have an important job like be a dentist or an accountant.’ In the seventies, being a restaurateur was like a servile, blue-collar job. It was immigrant work. He passed a couple of years ago. But it was in my DNA. I grew up in restaurants. I always wanted to be in control of my own destiny, and restaurants are very entrepreneurial.
You always had a head for business?
I did. I learned from my father. I started with a paper route; I delivered two papers. I delivered to the Bagel Bin and Ernie, the bagel baker, said he’d pay me more, so I went to work baking bagels. That was my first legitimate paying job in the food industry.
Where did you go from there?
I studied finance, worked on Wall Street. I worked briefly in Italy, on mentorships. I opened my first restaurant when I was 22, literally when I came out of school. I opened Becco Restaurant in 1992 in the theater district, on 46th street, which is still open. I lived upstairs. I opened for $110,000. I had $30,000 of my own, and I made a deal with my grandmother. She gave me $80,000. I opened the restaurant. I paid her back in six months, and I’ve been paying her a dividend check for the last 23 years. She’s 94 now. She’s moving a little slower these days, but she still wants to know where the money is.
Your mom Lidia is a famous chef and author. How much of an influence was she?
Huge. She lived through food television from the beginning, you know, she came out of the Julia Child school of stand and stir. Look how far we’ve come from that kind of programming to now.
What was her best advice?
‘Never make decisions on your best day or on your worst day. Make your decisions on your medium days.’ Which is a very good idea.
Do you cook at home or do you leave that to your wife?
I leave it to my wife. I cook sometimes, if I have to.
Are your kids interested in cooking?
They are 15, 16 and 17 and at this point, categorically reject anything that I’m interested in.
Unlike like those young chefs on MasterChef Junior.
Amazing, right? These kids grew up watching food television, they grew up in the world of restaurants, of foodies. It’s a new generation. They have a new aptitude and knowledge about food.
What essentials should every guy always have in his kitchen?
Champagne, caviar, and eggs—three things you must have in your refrigerator at all times.
What dining-out tip can you offer?
Learn to pronounce French wine names fluently. It’s the best thing you could do to impress a lovely young lady, like, ‘I’ll have the Pouillly Fuissé.’
You’ve done a few triathlons—what got you started?
I’m a little OCD. They’re very difficult. The Iron Man is very long. I did my first Iron Man four years ago. I finished in twelve-and-a-half hours. It was the greatest day of my life.