Many people are familiar with the Chef Boyardee brand of canned pasta. However, the general public seems to lack knowledge about the man who founded it, Italian immigrant Ettore Boiardi, who played a major role in popularizing Italian cuisine in the United States.
Born in the northern region of Piacenza, Italy (part of Italy’s “food valley”), Boiardi took an interest in food at an early age. He supposedly used a wire whisk for a rattle and by age 11, he was working as an apprentice chef at “La Croce Bianca,” where he mostly peeled potatoes and took out the garbage. At the age of 16, Boiardi arrived at Ellis Island by ship and eventually found work in the kitchen at New York City’s prestigious Plaza Hotel, where his older brother Paolo was a maître d’. After a year on the culinary staff, he assumed the position of head chef at age 17.
It was at this point that Chef Boiardi started to gain notoriety. In December 1915, he directed the catering service at the wedding reception of President Woodrow Wilson at The Greenbrier Hotel in West Virginia. The President was so impressed with his cooking that he chose the chef to supervise the homecoming meal of 2,000 returning World War I soldiers in late 1918.
At this time, Italian restaurants were yet to be seen as a “fine dining” experience, which was a designation that was synonymous with French cuisine. However, that soon changed when Boiardi and his wife Helen moved to Ohio and opened up a restaurant called Il Giardino d’ Italia, or The Garden of Italy, in Cleveland. His cooked-to-order spaghetti and mouth-watering sauce were enough to get customers lined up around the block, acting as one of the first instances where Italian cuisine began to penetrate American life.
In fact, the dish was so popular that patrons would beg Boiardi for his recipe or samples to take home. As a result, Boiardi began to create take-out meal kits that included the pasta, cheese, and his signature marinara sauce that was bottled using cleaned containers of milk. Eventually, the demand for his ingredients became so great that factory space became necessary, which led to the launching of the Chef Boiardi Food Company in 1928 and the opening of his factory in Milton, Pennsylvania.
While his products were selling, Boiardi soon realized that his customers were struggling to pronounce his name. As a result, he chose to rename the brand after the Anglicized version of his name, Hector Boyardee, and the Chef Boyardee brand was born. “Everyone is proud of his own family name,” said Boiardi. “But sacrifices were necessary for progress.”
The success of his company ran parallel to the popularization of Italian food, as spaghetti and other pasta dishes offered people an inexpensive way to feed the whole family during the Great Depression. The ease of production and affordability of pasta and sauce also led to a visible change in the offerings on grocery store shelves. With Boiardi being the largest importer of parmesan cheese and olive oil from Italy in the US, the desire for these high-quality ingredients from his restaurant also extended into supermarkets as customers wanted to replicate these newfound Italian recipes in their own kitchen.
Outside of his substantial impact on how Italian food was viewed and consumed in the early 1900s, Boiardi was also an American War Hero. He played a major role in the war effort at home during World War 2, extending his factory’s hours to run 24/7 in 1942 in order to produce rations for the Army and keep up with production demands.
When they weren’t occupied with food production, Chef Boyardee employees could be seen participating in patriotic parades and displays that inspired wartime support. Banners that read “Keep ‘em flying! Keep ‘em rolling! Keep ‘em well-fed!” were often carried by these individuals.
Almost all of the troops on the ground carried can openers around their necks so that they could eat Chef Boyardee foods, which also served as a reminder of what awaited them upon their return home.
When the war had ended, Boiardi was awarded the Gold Star from the US War Department, the highest honor that can be given to a civilian in support of the country’s military.
Due to the increased production that Boiardi had to maintain during the war, he was employing 5,000 people and producing more than 250,000 cans per day by the war’s end in 1945. This level of production was not sustainable long-term, meaning that he would need to lay off a large number of employees to make ends meet. Yet, in another act of selflessness, Boiardi decided to sell the company he had worked so hard to build to a larger conglomerate, as it was the only way to protect the jobs of his entire workforce.
The company was sold to American Home Foods in 1946 for about $6 million and was eventually purchased by Conagra Brands who still operates the brand today.
While a can of Chef Boyardee spaghetti and meatballs hardly resembles the dish that Boardi was preparing in his Cleveland eatery in the 1920s that helped introduce Italian cuisine to Americans of all ethnic groups, the history behind the brand is something that should be known by all Italian Americans given the magnitude of its contributions to American and Italian American culture.
To learn more about Ettore Boiardi and the impacts of the Chef Boyardee brand on food in America, you can watch Season 3, Episode 12 (“Pasta Party”) of the series The Food That Built America on the History Channel.
- CHEF HECTOR BOIARDI, A TRUE AMERICAN HERO [Chef Boyardee]
- Chef Boyardee Was a Real Person Who Brought Italian Food to America [Food & Wine]