The Italian American Dream

Wolfgang Puck, Guy Fieri, Giada de Laurentiis. Just a short list of some of today’s most famous celebrity chefs. But who was one of the first-ever celebrity chefs? In 1897, in the town of Piacenza in the northern Italian region of Emilia-Romagna, Ettore “Hector” Boiardi was born. By age 11, young Hector was working as an apprentice chef at a local hotel restaurant called La Croce Bianca. He spent some of his teenage years in the restaurant industry in Paris and London before setting sail to Ellis Island at age 16. On May 9, 1914, Hector arrived in America. 

It did not take the talented young chef long to find work. By age 17 he was working in the kitchen of the Plaza Hotel in NYC, where his older brother, Paolo, was a maître d’, eventually becoming its head chef. Hector was so good, in fact, that he catered the meal for President Woodrow Wilson’s wedding reception at The Greenbriar Hotel in WV in 1915. In his twenties, Hector left the big city for Cleveland to become chef at the then-famed Hotel Winton where his spaghetti dinners became the talk of the Midwest. 

Boiardi married Helen Wroblewski on April 7, 1923. In 1924, the couple opened their first restaurant, Il Giardino d’Italia (The Garden of Italy) in Cleveland. It quickly became a town favorite as people formed hours-long lines waiting for a taste of the chef’s delicious cuisine. Many customers began asking for samples and recipes to cook at home. Hector obliged by assembling take-out meal kits that included dried pasta, cheese and clean milk bottles full of sauce along with instructions on how to cook, heat and assemble the meal. Demand for his take-out meals grew quickly and exponentially. So much so that Hector needed to scale his business to satisfy requests. 

In 1927, Hector met Maurice and Eva Weiner who were patrons of his restaurant and owners of a local self-service grocery store chain. The Weiners helped Boiardi to develop a process for canning his sauce at scale and procured distribution across the U.S. through their grocery’s wholesale partners. Boiardi’s sauce was stocked in markets everywhere and it was a hit. To meet the demands of national distribution, Boiardi and his brothers opened a processing plant in 1928 effectively launching the Chef Boiardi Food Company. The company’s first product was a pre-packaged spaghetti dinner in a carton that included a canister of grated parmesan, a box of spaghetti and a large jar of sauce. 

While business was booming, Hector quickly noticed one major problem – his American salesman and customers struggled with the pronunciation of his last name. So, Boiardi became the phonetically spelled Boy-Ar-Dee. Today, we know the famous Hector Boiardi as Chef Boyardee. “Everyone is proud of his own family name, but sacrifices are necessary for progress” Boiardi said.

During the Depression, Chef Boyardee’s low-cost but tasty meals became very popular helping make Italian food a mainstay in the U.S. Hector Boiardi was awarded a Gold Star order of excellence from the U.S. War Department for producing rations supplying Allied troops during WWII. The Boiardi’s sourced high-quality ingredients and were among the largest importers of parmesan cheese and olive oil from Italy. In 1938, the company moved from Cleveland to Milton, PA where local farmers agreed to grow a particular type of tomato for the chef’s sauce. The company also grew mushrooms onsite. 

Eventually, the rapid growth of the company became too much for Boiardi to handle and he sold the company to the American Home Products conglomerate for nearly $6 million in 1946. He remained a consultant for the company until 1978 and continued to be the face of Chef Boyardee products. Hector appeared in many print ads and TV commercials for the brand, effectively making him one of the very first celebrity chefs. 

Today, Hector Boiardi’s legacy lives on through his beaming smile on cans of Spaghetti & Meatballs, Beef Ravioli, Lasagna, Pizza Makers, and more. The young, talented cook from Piacenza, Italy, a town name with an etymology of “to please,” certainly carried that meaning with him to a new country. Chef Boyardee became a household name pleasing children and adults through the Depression to modern times. Hector Boiardi’s Italian American dream lives on.