Colonel Sanders was real. Betty Crocker was not. And, despite rumors to the contrary, Chef "Boy-Ar-Dee" was more Colonel than Betty - although that wasn't the correct spelling of his name. While we may think of him as the man on the can, Ettore "Hector" Boiardi was, in fact, one of the top culinary talents in America who even cooked for a president. From Italian immigrant to selling his company for millions, Boiardi's story is the very embodiment of the American dream.
Born 119 years ago this month (October 22nd, 1897) in the northern Italian city of Piacenza (part of Italy's famous "food valley"), legend has it that cooking was so ingrained in Boiardi that he used a wire whisk as a rattle. By 11, according to his great-niece Ann Boiardi's 2011 book, he was already a chef's apprentice at a restaurant called "La Croce Bianca," where he mostly peeled potatoes and took out the garbage. He eventually took jobs in Paris and London, learning various restaurant skills to complement his Italian upbringing. But his goal was always to sail across the Atlantic and join his brother Paul in America. Paul Boiardi had moved to America when Hector was a small boy and had quickly found a job waiting tables in New York's Parisian Room at the famous Plaza Hotel. Soon, he moved up to the ranks of maître d', becoming one of the most well-known hosts in the city.
In 1914, Hector Boiardi made the trip to America on the French ship La Lorraine, landing at Ellis Island. With his brother's help, he got a job in the kitchen at the Plaza. Fairly quickly, it became clear that the young Boiardi he was a prodigy. Cooking up recipes from his hometown, he so impressed customers that he was hired away to be the head chef at Barbetta on 46th Street (where it is still located to this day). He also garnered a summer job cooking at the historic and ritzy Greenbrier Resort in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia (for 30 years, it was also the site of an underground bunker for Congress in the case of nuclear war). While in this job, he took on the immense responsibility of catering the 1915 wedding reception of President Woodrow Wilson to Edith Bolling Galt. So impressed with Boiardi's cooking, Wilson chose him to supervise the homecoming meal of 2,000 returning World War I soldiers in late 1918. Soon after, he was offered a job he couldn't turn down - to be head of the kitchen at Cleveland's famed and very popular Hotel Winton.