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For Find Out Friday Week 30- Putting the Chef Back into Chef Boyardee

Courtesy of Mental Floss 

Although today is St. Patrick’s Day I am not writing about anything Irish. Rather since I am half Italian, you know the good half, I am going in that direction. My family has never celebrated this day with anything Irish except maybe a green beer. Ironically my Italian relatives are more likely to be the ones eating corn beef and cabbage. So this Find Out Friday is dedicated to an Italian chef who I believe has been under-appreciated, Chef Boyardee. 

For starters the man behind the face on the can was Ettore “Hector” Boiardi who was born in 1897 in Italy. By the age eleven he was working in a local restaurant. He moved to America in 1914 at age sixteen and went to work at the Plaza Hotel where his brother was maitre d’. Within a year Hector was promoted to head chef. A clear indication of this young man’s talent was that he catered President Woodrow Wilson’s second wedding in 1915 at The Greenbrier Hotel.

In 1924 Hector and his wife moved to Cleveland and opened their own restaurant known in Italian as “The Garden of Italy”. It was so successful people waited on line to get a table. Boiardi’s signature sauce, tangy cheese, and cooked to order spaghetti was a nuance people could not seem to get enough of. In order to keep customers happy he started preparing kits for purchase that would include all of the ingredients with instructions for easy replication at home. Before he knew it this would become his primary business.

The Chef Boiardi (later changed to Boyardee for easier pronunciation) Food Company opened in 1928. 

Their signature product can be seen here in this vintage commercial:

The plant eventually moved to Pennsylvania so that they could farm their own brand of tomatoes and mushrooms for their signature sauce. They also continued to import olive oil and grated cheese from Italy to keep their products authentic.

This plant is still in existence even after the company was sold to American Home Products in 1946 with the promise that everyone working there would keep their jobs. Since that time American Home Products has become International Home Foods, which is now currently ConAgra. If you happen to pass by this plant you will see a statute of Chef Boyardee like the one above. There is also another in Omaha, Nebraska outside of the ConAgra headquarters. 

What I think is almost as impressive as catering a presidential wedding at age eighteen, is the fact that during World War II Boyardee closed his plant for civilian production and kept it open twenty-four hours a day just to provide food for the troops. Boyardee was one of the largest suppliers of meals during the war. If there is a more noble, selfless cause I haven't heard about it, especially not from any of the celebrity chefs of today. He was one of the very firsts and led by example. 
After selling his company off in 1946, the Chef remained a consultant to the brand until 1978, passing away in 1985 at age eighty-seven. 

Full Disclosure: I have never had a Chef Boyardee product in my life. My Italian relatives would turn over in their graves. But my Irish father has, for that matter his family use to eat pasta with ketchup on it before he married my mother. Now that is a bigger sin in my family than eating meat on a Friday during Lent (of which I hear Catholics got a special dispensation for today). 

For those of you that crave more personal stories about the Boyardee/Boiardi clan, see the second to last link below for an interview with Hector’s great niece Anna. She has decided to pass on her family’s traditions in her cookbook “Delicious Memories”, which is sold on Amazon using the last link below. 

I am just sharing a little known story I find interesting that I was reminded of when I walked past an entire aisle of these products in the grocery store tonight. So I dedicate this post to the man on the can who brought Italian cuisine to the masses.

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