We've all fallen for Flo from Progressive or the State Farm guy and his khaki pants. It's time to fall for a real person who has made many of our childhoods more delicious. Believe it or not, Chef Boyardee was a real live chef, and Chef Boyardee's history is pretty amazing. Whether you loved his lasagna or his spaghetti dinners, the man's history is fascinating.
He was born Ettore Boiardi (or Hector as he was called in English) in Piacenza Italy in 1897. By age 11, he was working at a local restaurant. He was called an apprentice chef even though he spent his time peeling potatoes and taking out the garbage. As a young teenager, Hector moved on to Paris and London, where he really began cooking. In 1914, the real Chef Boyardee sailed into Ellis Island at just 16 years old.
Hector Boiardi went to work with his brother Paolo, who was already cooking at the Plaza Hotel in New York City. Not surprisingly, Hector eventually became the head chef. He was a mover and shaker in the kitchen. He moved on to a hotel in Greenbrier, West Virginia where he catered President Woodrow Wilson's 2nd wedding. When 2000 soldiers from WWI were served a homecoming meal by President Woodrow Wilson at the White House, Chef Boiardi was asked to supervise the whole operation. This was a great honor for the patriotic Italian-American and a milestone in Chef Boyardee history.
In 1926, he opened his first restaurant in Cleveland, Ohio at the corner East 9th Street and Woodland Avenue. It was named Il Giardino d'Italia which means "The Garden of Italy." And from there, like a garden, Chef Boiardi's business really began to grow. He was a true people person and wanted to make his customers happy. When they would ask for recipes or to-go containers of a little spaghetti sauce, the chef cleaned and filled empty milk bottles and sent them on their way. Would Gordon Ramsey do that? Probably not.
Chef Boiardi had many happy customers at the restaurant and luckily one couple just happened to own a chain of grocery stores. Max and Eva Weiner helped the Chef and his brother Paolo start canning their sauce in 1927. The Weiners used all their connections to help get it distributed throughout the country's grocery stores. Only a year later in 1928, they needed to open a factory to keep up with production and distribution. The chef quickly became the largest importer of parmesan cheese and brought in almost as much olive oil from Italy.
Fun Fact #1: Chef Boiardi knew non-Italians would have trouble with his name. So, he became Chef Boyardee with a much easier phonetic spelling and pronunciation.
In 1929, Boiardi told America we needed to eat his inexpensive and delicious canned pastas, and America agreed. In fact, we agreed so strongly that in 1938 the factory needed to be moved to Milton, Pennsylvania to keep up with the growing need for tomatoes.
In 1942, Chef Boyardee joined the World War II war effort and his plant in Milton, Pennsylvania began operating 24/7 to keep up with production of war rations for our soldiers overseas. Chef Boyardee employees were known for their patriotism. Patriotic parades throughout the town of Milton that read "Keep 'em flying! Keep 'em rolling! Keep 'em well-fed!" kept up their morale during long production days and nights. Chef Hector Boiardi was awarded a Gold Star by the US War Department for his company's hard work.
Chef Boyardee had 5,000 workers and made 250,000 meal rations per day. When the war ended, he didn't want to lay thousands of workers off, so Boiardi sold his company to American Home Foods in 1946 for $6 million. He stayed on as a consultant and most importantly as the beloved face on the can. American Home Foods became International Home Foods which was eventually purchased by ConAgra Foods, Chef Boyardee's current owner of all that ravioli, beefaroni, and spaghetti and meatballs.
Fun Fact #2: Chef Boyardee is one of the only brand names that didn't like the free advertisement on a Seinfeld episode. In the episode called The Rye, Kramer was allowed to drive a Hansom cab for a week in Central Park. He fed the horse cans of Beefaroni, which caused frequent and foul smelling gas. Chef Boyardee asked the name to be changed and now Kramer says his horse ate delicious "Beef-a-reeno".
Chef Hector Boiardi died of natural causes in 1985. He left behind his loving wife Helen, his son Mario, two grandchildren, and his timeless Chef Boyardee history. He was 87. Thank you Chef Boiardi. Your delicious Italian food will always be in my pantry and you will always be the real person who made Chef Boyardee history.