You’re probably already familiar with Chef Boyardee: whether you were a fan of his famous spaghetti sauce or ravioli, this brand has touched the lives of countless people. Opening up a can of this sauce is reminiscent of childhood, and we love it. Have you ever wondered where this company came from, and how it became famous? Well, here are the Top 10 Untold Truths of Chef Boyardee.
10. He’s a Real Chef
You know what they say, behind every successful company is a successful person. Well, we’re not sure if they actually say that, but it was certainly the case for Chef Boyardee. Born in 1897 as Ettore Boiardi, Mr ‘Boyardee’ was from Northern Italy. According to rumors, he loved cooking from a young age, and would use a wire whisk instead of a rattle! When he was eleven, he was already apprenticing in a restaurant called ‘La Croce Bianca’, though he was usually confined to odd jobs such as peeling potatoes or dealing with trash. As he grew older, he learned more about cooking, and in 1914, when he was only sixteen, he moved to Ellis Island. He and his brothers worked in American kitchens, and a year of hard work later, he was declared the head chef at the Plaza Hotel. A year after that, he was put in charge of catering the wedding of President Woodrow Wilson at the Greenbrier Hotel in West Virginia. After these ventures, he decided to settle down and open his first restaurant, which he called ‘Il Giardino d’Italia’ (The Garden of Italy). Because people had such trouble with his name, he decided to Americanize it, which is when he became Chef Hector Boyardee. While it wasn’t easy, he’s quoted as saying that some sacrifices are necessary for progress. He died in 1985 at the age of eighty-seven.
9. The Beginning of the Sauce
Unsurprisingly, Chef Boiardi knew exactly what he was doing in the kitchen. Because of this, he was recognized pretty much everywhere he went, as we saw with his quick promotion in New York. Shortly after opening his first restaurant in Cleveland, many of his customers began asking how they could cook Italian cuisine of their own. Keep in mind, back then, Italian cuisine wasn’t as widespread as it is now. In today’s culture, you wouldn’t dream of asking a chef to give away their secret recipe, the same way you wouldn’t ask a magician to reveal their secrets. Well, it appears that Chef Boiardi felt the same way because instead of telling them, he decided to sell it instead. He would take old milk bottles and fill them with his sauce, just for his customers to take home. Eventually, he started charging for a takeaway service that included uncooked pasta, a bottle of sauce, and some cheese. In 1927, with the success of Il Giardino d’Italia, Boiardi collaborated with two restaurant patrons, Maurice and Eva Weiner, owners of a self-service grocery store chain. Boiardi and his brother Paolo began to process sauces, then other foods, at a canning plant for distribution across the United States. The popularity of Boiardi’s products led to an expansion of the factory in 1928. The company’s first product was a pre-packaged spaghetti dinner in a carton that included a canister of grated parmesan cheese, a box of spaghetti, and a large jar of spaghetti sauce. By 1929, Boiardi had introduced his spaghetti products to the country, and so, the roots of his soon-to-be massively successful company had been planted.
8. He Popularized Italian Cuisine in the US
Even before Chef Boiardi’s company got to the level of success that it’s at today, it was still one of the largest importers of both olive oil and Parmesan cheese. On top of that, the increasing popularity of his restaurant meant an increasing appreciation for Italian cuisine. By the time the chef opened up his restaurant, Italian cuisine was already on the rise on the East and West coasts, largely due to the influx of Italian immigrants. However, it hadn’t hit middle America yet. Boiardi swooped in and changed that. His Northern Italian cooking had people lining up around the street, and because most of the population had never tasted real Italian food, it was one of the most popular and most unique restaurants in the city. By 1936, after his business had outgrown his factory, Boiardi decided to expand. He moved to Milton, Pennsylvania in order to grow his own tomatoes. By that point, they were smashing up to 20,000 tons of tomatoes per season, which averaged out to around 250,000 cans of sauce a day. Using his brother’s connections at a popular hotel, Chef Boyardee’s meals ended up on the shelves of A & P grocery stores around the country, one of the largest food retailers of all time. So while not everything can be credited to Ettore Boiardi, he played a very big part in bringing Italian food to America.
7. He Catered a Presidential Wedding
It’s undeniable that Chef Boiardi was destined for greatness from a young age, but that becomes even more obvious when you consider the fact that he catered for a presidential wedding when he was only seventeen. At the time, he was working at the Greenbrier in West Virginia, a resort that was frequented by the American elite, which also happened to house an underground bunker for Congress in case of a nuclear war. In 1915, it was the venue for President Woodrow Wilson’s to Edith Bolling Golt. President Wilson was the 28th president of the United States and served from 1913 to 1921. He was most popular for leading America through WWI, as well as crafting the Versaille Treaty’s ‘Fourteen Points’, the last of which was creating a League of Nations to ensure world peace. Chef Boiardi impressed President Wilson and the First Lady so much that he was asked to cater to the White House. In late 1918, the chef was asked to perform the daunting task of supervising the homecoming meal of 2,000 returning World War I soldiers, something he did flawlessly. Soon after that, he was offered a job as head of the kitchen at Cleveland’s famed and prized Hotel Winton.
6. He Helped in the War
By the time World War II started, Chef Boiardi ‘s company had been up and running for many years. The increased pressure on those at home meant that everyone had to chip in to do their part: women started doing jobs that had been originally reserved for men, people were volunteering, and food had to be rationed. When the war erupted, the company was put to work making Army rations. In 1942, Chef Boiardi increased his factory hours so that it was running twenty-four hours a day, ensuring that there would be enough food for those on the frontlines. He also encouraged his employees to participate in acts of patriotism, such as attending parades. By the time the war ended, the company had employed over five thousand people and was producing far more than they ever had in the 1930s. While, ultimately, this was the thing that led Boiardi to sell his company (though he still remained a consultant for many years), he still played a major role in ensuring that the soldiers got their meals and that those at home had cheap, ready-to-eat food waiting for them. At the end of the war, Boiardi was awarded the nation’s Gold Star – the highest honor that can be given to a civilian in support of the country’s military.
5. He Moved to PA to Grow Tomatoes
Considering Chef Boyardee’s reputation of being unhealthy for you, it’s hard to imagine that years ago, Ettore Boairdi was so committed to creating quality products he moved all the way to Pennsylvania from Ohio! That’s a long way to go! And what was the reason for this move, you ask? Well, to grow tomatoes, of course! Boiardi was so adamant to grow a certain kind of tomato that he moved to Milton, in Pennsylvania. The town had been devastated by the Depression, so when Chef Boiardi came in and asked a little group of farmers to grow tomatoes for him and his massively successful company, it was the beginning of something new for the little town. The farmers agreed to help the chef, and Boiardi acquired an abandoned hosiery mill to create his own production facility. The facility wasn’t just for mixing and bottling his famous sauce, they also grew mushrooms right there on-site! Boiardi helped the struggling town immensely by providing jobs to those farmers, and his efforts didn’t go unnoticed. In 2013, the town erected a statue in his honor. And it’s not just Milton that benefitted from this Italian immigrant. During the Great Depression, Chef Boyardee products were essential to many people’s diets, because his pre-made meals were low-cost but extra tasty! All in all, there are many people who are thankful for Ettore Boiardi.
4. Their First Product
Today, you can head on over to the grocery store and see shelves and shelves of Chef Boyardee products. However, this wasn’t always the case. As you know, he had humble beginnings: his company grew from sauce in milk jugs, to little packages that he would send off with his customers. But when Ettore Boiardi kicked off the company that would become so widely renowned, their first product wasn’t either of these things, it was a ready-to-heat spaghetti kit. This ready-to-heat spaghetti kit was, of course, inspired by the packages his customers used to ask him for, once upon a time. The kit included uncooked pasta, a container of pre-grated cheese, and some of his renowned sauce. It launched in 1928, and at the time they were marketed as not only being a convenient and delicious meal but also an affordable way to feed your entire family. When the Great Depression hit a year later, thousands of people were scrambling for Chef Boyardee kits. These ready-to-heat spaghetti kits stuck around for a long time. A quick, thirty-second commercial from 1984 advertises these kits, saying that it’s easy and great for the kids. “Thank goodness for Chef Boyardee,” says the commercial, and we couldn’t be more in agreeance.
3. The Food Isn’t the Same
With all these tales of authentic Northern Italian cooking and moving to Pennsylvania to get a better product, it’s unsurprising that today, Chef Boyardee products just aren’t the same. It seems as though they went from high-end Italian cuisine to, well, something you pop open when you’re too busy to actually cook something healthy. When World War II started, Boiardi maximized his factory hours so that was open twenty-four hours a day, constantly pumping out products for those on the frontlines and those left at home. This meant that he had to hire a bunch of new employees. Well, when the war ended, his factory didn’t need to keep up those kinds of hours anymore, and Chef Boiardi was faced with a choice: cut down the hours and lay off those he’d employed, or sell the company. As you can probably guess, he went with the latter option. By that time, he was employing over 5,000 people, and his factory was producing 250,000 cans a day! Boiardi’s company, a product of the American dream, was bought by American Home Foods for nearly $6 million. It’s not all sad, though, because Boiardi stayed on as a consultant and as a spokesperson for the company until 1978. Today, members of the Boiardi family aren’t too stoked about what’s being sold under their family name. According to his grandniece, Anna Boiardi, the present products aren’t at all what Ettore Boiardi envisioned for his company. However, it is still a valid alternative for those nights when you’re too tired to make something from scratch.
2. They Were Hit With a Lawsuit
In 2015, Chef Boyardee, along with its parent company, ConAgra Foods, was hit with a lawsuit that claimed they were falsely advertising their products. At the time, Chef Boyardee was claiming that there were no preservatives in their products. However, they were using a preservative called citric acid. The plaintiff filing the class-action lawsuit was looking for $5 million in damages to be made available to anyone who had purchased Chef Boyardee products in the previous three years. Citric acid is found in all citrus fruits, such as lemons, limes, and grapefruit, and it’s even made by the human body. It’s included in a number of foods as both a preservative and a flavor enhancer, but the lawsuit claimed that “citric acid” is a non-natural, chemical ingredient that is manufactured by fermenting genetically altered strains of the black mould fungus. The plaintiff stated that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has loosely defined the term “no preservatives” as a product that “does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.” The suit was ultimately dismissed, leaving consumers to draw their own conclusions.
1. His Grand-Niece Released a Cookbook
Ettore Boiardi wasn’t the only one involved with his business. In fact, both of his brothers were part of it, and they were crucial in its success. One of his brothers, Mario, had a granddaughter, Anna Boiardi, who had the same love for Italian cooking as Ettore did. Maybe it runs in the family. In any case, she grew up around Ettore and his brothers, and she wrote a cookbook called Delicious Memories: Recipes and Stories from the Chef Boyardee Family. Anna says that the book is extremely personal, more of a memoir than a cookbook, highlighting the stories behind the success of the iconic food company. The book describes what the Boiardi brothers really grew up eating, as well as including authentic recipes for anyone who wants to try their hand at it. It even includes the recipe that started it all, the tomato sauce that launched Chef Boyardee into its success. In her book, Anna Boiardi says that while there’s no such thing as canned pasta in Italy, the people the Boiardi brothers left behind are extremely proud of what they managed to build. Ettore and his brothers set out and actually managed to accomplish the American dream. It’s not every day that that happens. The goal of the book is to teach people traditional recipes in an effort to preserve them, as well as to educate people about the Italian immigrants who made a huge impact on American culture.