All the technology that you need to produce a good quality video is readily available and affordable, making things pretty easy to start. My job is to stay in front of the camera, while Francesca, sets up the shoot in my kitchen. She films on an iPhone and post-production is done using free apps on an iPad. We did purchase a halo light off Amazon to brighten up the area, and I’m sure we’ll uncover other pieces of equipment, but the entry to production has been relatively simple and inexpensive. I would encourage anyone or any age to consider jumping in.
The COVID19 pandemic has disrupted all of our lives. But sometimes disruptions can be times of opportunity. Many people’s livelihoods have been hurt by the pandemic. But some saw this as an opportune time to take their lives in a new direction.
As a part of this series called “How I Was Able To Pivot To A New Exciting Opportunity Because Of The Pandemic”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Chet Lazzarino
Born in 1932, Chet Lazzarino is the charismatic father, grandfather and great grandfather to a large family. Locked down by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, his grandchildren urged him to launch “Cooking with Chet” on YouTube where he brings his favorite Italian recipes to life for a growing number of viewers. Despite being a social media novice, Chet saunters around his kitchen like a celebrity TV chef, preparing dishes he’s enjoyed cooking for his family and friends for decades.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
I had a great childhood growing up in the 1940s in a multi-generation Italian family. We lived in a neighborhood of San Jose, CA, called Goosetown, which was made up largely of first generation Italian immigrants, like my parents. As a young man, I married Vivian “Babe” Rotolo, who grew up across the creek from me. I was friends with her brothers, but it wasn’t until after I joined the Navy and received a letter from Babe, that I fell in love.
It was a very happy, but humble upbringing. As a young kid there were lots of ways to work and make money to contribute to the family needs, and maybe catch a movie, or buy new clothes. I shined shoes, unloaded watermelons off trucks, and when I was in high school, I landed a great opportunity in a local butcher shop. I mostly worked in the backroom, cleaning and sweeping the sawdust off the floor, and sometimes they would let me help the customers. The butcher shop was next door to my Aunt and Uncle’s pizzeria and across the street from the USO Hut, where I frequently shined the sailors’ shoes.
As I look back over the years, there are several things that I have always been passionate about. The love for my wife and family, good food, and classic cars pretty much top the list! My first car was a 1932 Ford that I bought for 100 dollars. The price was pretty steep for me, but I managed to talk the owner into putting a new paint job on the car before buying it. You always remember your first car purchase, and I was beyond excited!
I joined the Navy after graduating from high school. The executive officer of the USS Thompson DMS38 assigned me to baking and cooking given my experience in the butcher shop. My years in the Navy played a big part in shaping my future, I learned a lot and enjoyed everything about it.
Babe and I got married while I was in the Navy and started our family which has grown considerably over the years. Our family gatherings now include 21 of us and they all need feeding!
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
The Italian saying, “Tutti a tavola a mangiare” (Everyone at the table to eat), is something my mother would say when it was time to gather for dinner. As I reflect on this, to me it means so much more than, “it is time to eat”, or “dinner is on the table.” Gathering to share a meal with loved ones is at the heart of the Italian culture. And we are happiest when everyone from grandparents to grandchildren are around the table. A family meal is the time to share upcoming events, good news and bad, and sometimes engage in an argument. But it doesn’t matter, because when you push your chair away from the table everyone kisses and ends the conversation talking about when we will meet again.
Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
The Jimmy Stewart movie “It’s a Wonderful Life.” I believe we have a destiny, but it is up to each of us to meet the conflicts that are thrown at us head-on, and to make the best of our lives. As I reflect on my own long life, there have been hurdles that my family has helped me to overcome. As they say, we all have 2020 vision when it comes to hindsight, and in hindsight problems are not nearly as monumental.
Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. Can you tell our readers about your career experience before the Pandemic began?
I retired from the Teamsters Union after 33 years of service. I’m now 88 years old, blessed with good health and a very active social life. Before COVID-19 hit us, I enjoyed many activities with my street-rod buddies, car clubs, Italian Clubs, The Elks and the VFW. My early love for classic cars has never waned. Today I own a 1934 Ford Victoria Coupe and a 1964 Cadillac Sedan De Ville. My friends and I love to get together for car-runs and picnics, social gatherings and philanthropic work. My favorite event is when a group of us prepare a spaghetti and meatball holiday dinner for the guests of Hope Services. We weren’t able to do this in 2020 due to COVID, but I hope to return to this and other live events in 2021.
What did you do to pivot as a result of the Pandemic?
For me, this wasn’t about pivoting a career, instead it was about channeling some energy and finding a way to stay busy and connected with friends, when we could not meet face to face. Trying to make the very best of a bad situation.
When the pandemic hit, our opportunities to socialize and get together were taken away. Like many other people I started making sourdough bread, and jams and experimenting with new recipes in the kitchen and then with the encouragement of my family, I launched Cooking with Chet.
Can you tell us about the specific “Aha moment” that gave you the idea to start this new path?
As a family, we were talking about the different things we were all doing to stay busy and someone made the suggestion “We should start a YouTube cooking channel with Papa!” I had no idea what that involved, or how we would get started, but it sounded like fun to me, I was “all-in” immediately. On the show I am able to virtually invite people into my kitchen and demonstrate making some of my favorite recipes.
This is really an extension of what I have been doing with my own family, and now I’m sharing it with an unlimited audience of people who love authentic Italian food. One of our family traditions is to make gnocchi together, which is a small pasta that you roll off a fork to give it a little curl, which catches the sauce. Young to old, everyone has their own technique and we sure have fun, turning out 9 or 10 lbs. of pasta for the holidays.
How are things going with this new initiative?
It’s been a great success! I’m so enjoying it and it keeps me busy, thinking about what I am going to cook, shopping for the ingredients and then prepping for the show. My granddaughter, Francesca, manages the video shoot, and the entire family plays a role in the show’s production. The result has been fabulous, and it gives us all plenty to talk about. It has kept me engaged with my dear friends and family that I have not been able to socialize with. I have had so much fun seeing the comments and feedback from those who enjoy the show, with some people sharing photos of their recreations. It’s evolving in a fun way too, my production crew created and distributed embroidered “Cooking with Chet” sweatshirts to the family. It really puts a smile on my face to see everyone wearing these!
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
My dear wife, Babe, who passed away 5 years ago and is forever in my heart. Tiny, but mighty, she was a true matriarch, who always put her family first. Babe was always open and supportive to new ideas, and offered sensible and kind advice if some of them weren’t the greatest ideas. Being true partners in whatever we did was important to her.
When I came out of the Navy I had a difficult time landing a steady job. I had planned to go back to work for the butcher shop, but that was a time when butcher shops were closing and replaced by meat counters in grocery stores. So, I tried a lot of jobs, sometimes working two, sometimes not having one. Eventually I settled in with the Teamsters Union doing route sales. These were very difficult times for us, but with Babe’s support and confidence in me, we managed to get through them.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started in this new direction?
I think the most interesting thing for me is the encouragement I’ve received from so many people, including a lot of new “fans” I don’t even know. I have received notes, Facebook posts and phone calls telling me how much they enjoy watching the show, and I get lots of requests for upcoming episodes! I received a note in a Christmas card from one of my great nieces and her husband that said “….each time a video comes out we wait until the family is together and watch it. We can’t wait for Sunday Gravy recipe…”
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my organization” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- That I would have so much fun doing this. I am enjoying every aspect of the production, from the menu planning to the filming. My absolute favorite moment is when we premier the newest episode with my family, cheers and salutes all around, prompting excitement for the next episode.
- That the show would be on my mind….a lot. I find myself running through the plan in my head at night to prep for the filming. Thinking about how I will present the recipe and any little tricks I can share with my audience. For example, when I shared that my cookie cutter was an old tuna can, which provides the perfect size circle to cut the dough in the Cuccidati episode.
- How well received the show would be, and how quickly it would go viral. I get lots of feedback from my friends on how much their friends are enjoying the show, and lots of inquiries about what is in the queue for the next episode. So many people have shared how much they have enjoyed seeing the recipes being cooked from my home, in a real kitchen, using the tools and ingredients that many have in their pantry.
- All the technology that you need to produce a good quality video is readily available and affordable, making things pretty easy to start. My job is to stay in front of the camera, while Francesca, sets up the shoot in my kitchen. She films on an iPhone and post-production is done using free apps on an iPad. We did purchase a halo light off Amazon to brighten up the area, and I’m sure we’ll uncover other pieces of equipment, but the entry to production has been relatively simple and inexpensive. I would encourage anyone or any age to consider jumping in.
- It takes a community. Like anything, you need a community to help make something a success. From concept to production to engagement many hands touch Cooking with Chet.
So many of us have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. Can you share the strategies that you have used to optimize your mental wellness during this stressful period?
We must find enjoyment where we can, keeping a positive attitude will help us to overcome many hurdles in life. For me, launching a cooking show has been uplifting, for others it may be taking up painting, or learning a new language. There is a lot to make us anxious, but we must hit that head-on with something that brings us joy. I think it is also very important to “stay in touch” as much as possible, reaching out to say hello to friends on the phone, a quick text, or time on Facebook allows me to feel connected to those I miss. I also highly recommend planting a garden, the process of planting fruits and vegetables, watching them flourish and then preparing a meal with them is good for the mind and soul!
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
“Sunday dinner” where multi generations come together to spend time with each other and have a meal. As soon as we’re able to do so after the pandemic, I’d like to see families get back to this lost tradition. When our family was young, we went between my mother’s home and mother in law’s home on Sundays, they still lived across the creek from each other, so it was a quick drive! We would have dinner and play cards, and the kids would play with their cousins. As our family grew Babe and I started having our family dinners on Wednesdays, which seemed to work with schedules better. The day of the week isn’t important, it is all about coming together. I truly believe this tradition has a positive impact on the lives of both the young and old and can be the glue that helps keep a family together. I think that we would all have a better understanding of the things that are truly important in life. There will always be differing opinions on any given topic, setting aside differences and taking the time to enjoy a meal and a glass wine with someone dear to you puts so much of life into perspective. I know this isn’t feasible for many, since not everybody lives in close proximity of family, but today, more than ever before, we have options like Zoom that allow us to see each other, and if you can’t enjoy an entire meal, a virtual happy hour might be a good option.
Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have lunch with, and why? Maybe we can tag them and see what happens!
My wife, I don’t think it is possible to tag her, but I can’t think of anyone I’d rather have lunch with. We were married for 63 years before her passing. When I was a teamster I had Wednesdays off, which was our day to spend together while the kids were in school. We loved trying restaurants all over the Bay Area. When we were first dating, we used to share a BLT on toast and a cherry coke. Over the years, we had an opportunity to try lots of different kinds of food, It didn’t matter what we had for lunch, we always enjoyed our time together.
How can our readers follow you online?
Subscribe to Cooking with Chet on YouTube
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!