Natural History of the Kitchen: Chef Boyardee
Let’s talk about guilty pleasures. What self-professed gourmand doesn’t love a bag of Doritos now and again? Is there a foodie out there so devoted to the cause that they can’t appreciate a bag of M&M’s and popcorn at the movies? I, for one, have a deep love for Chef Boyardee beef ravioli. Not spaghetti and meatballs, not cheese ravioli, not dinosaurs or Dora the Explorer shape. Ettore Boiardi was born in Piacenza, Italy, in 1898. He immigrated to the United States, arriving in Ellis Island in 1914 and joining his older brother in the kitchen of the Plaza Hotel. The young Boiardi was something of a culinary wizard, working his way up to head chef and later catering a dinner for President Wilson. Still the youngest man in every kitchen he entered, Boiardi (now going by the name “Hector”) grew his famous mustache to make himself look older.
At 24, Boiardi moved out to Cleveland to open his own restaurant, Il Giardino d’Italia. His spaghetti dinners were so delicious that customers asked the Chef to sell them his red sauce. He obliged, first distributing the sauce in glass milk bottles and then going through a local cannery. By 1928 the sauce was so popular that he devoted himself to selling it full time. His first products included a ready to heat line of spaghetti dinners – just open the box, and pasta, sauce, and grated cheese were at your finger
Boiardi moved the family business to Pennsylvania in 1938. He claimed it was to increase quality control over his product: in Pennsylvania he could be closer to tomato fields, and even grew tomatoes and mushrooms in his factory basement. At the same time, a more visible change was made to the Chef Boiardi line. Tired of having to instruct every new customer on the pronunciation of his name, and ready to make a big national debut, the Chef renamed his sauces and pastas “Chef Boy-Ar-Dee”. [Photograph: Found in Mom’s Basement]
The Chef’s dinners gained even more fans during WWII, when his company made troop rations. The popularity of the Italian-lite food grew, and Boiardi sold his company in the 1950s for $6 million. He kept his hand in company affairs, appearing in television commercials and acting as an advisor until just a few years before his death in 1985. Since then the Chef brand has branched out into Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles pasta, overstuffed ravioli, and vegetarian options. A far cry from a meal at Il Giardino, sure, but a satisfying and comforting guilty pleasure nonetheless.