Stop me if you've heard this one: There is no real “Chef Boyardee.” Like “Betty Crocker” and “Mrs. Butterworth,” he's just a made-up marketing tool created by joining parts of the names of the company's three founders – Boyd, Art, and Dennis.
I don't know how these things get started, but this one belongs in the annals of urban legends, right up there with “Life cereal's Mikey ate a whole bag of Pop Rocks, slammed a Coke and died when his stomach exploded.” Or man-eating alligators lurking in the sewer.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, millions of Italians emigrated to the United States. One of them was a young man named Ettore Boiardi.
Ettore was born to Giuseppe and Maria Maffi Boiardi in Piacenza in the Emilia-Romagna region of northern Italy. Some sources list his birthday as October 22, 1897 while others cite 1898 as the year of his birth. All sources agree, however, that Ettore was an experienced hand in the kitchen when he and his family left Italy, bound for New York, in 1914.
Arriving at Ellis Island aboard the French-registered ship La Lorraine on May 9, 1914, young Ettore traded in his traditional Italian name for its more Americanized version, Hector. Calling on his already extensive culinary experience, Hector soon followed his older brother, Paul, into the kitchens of New York's Plaza Hotel, where Paul worked as a waiter. Brother Mario was also a chef. Hector followed his stint at the Plaza with turns at the Ritz-Carlton and at the historic Greenbrier Hotel in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. While at the Greenbriar, Boiardi supervised the catering of President Woodrow Wilson's second wedding reception in 1915. Quite an accomplishment for a teenage immigrant chef.
In fact, whether or not he actually encountered many questions about his age, he seemed to feel self-conscious about it. As a result, he grew a stylish mustache in order to make himself appear older, a look he sported for the rest of his life.
Hector married Helen Wroblewski on April 7, 1923. They had one son, Mario.
Eventually, Boiardi made his way to Cleveland, Ohio where he was employed at the new Hotel Winton before opening his own restaurant in 1926. Il Giardino d'Italia, or “The Garden of Italy” was located at the corner of East 9th Street and Woodland Avenue in Cleveland's “Little Italy.”
Bear in mind, this was an era in which the only way Americans could experience Italian cuisine was to seek out Italian restaurants, usually found only in immigrant neighborhoods in large cities. There were no Italian cookbooks for home cooks and no “Italian food” sections in neighborhood groceries.
The fare at “Il Giardino d'Italia” proved to be immensely popular. Patrons were especially partial to Hector's spaghetti sauce, to the point where the chef began sending portions of the sauce home with his customers, packaged in old milk bottles. Word about Chef Boiardi's spaghetti sauce got around and soon sales of the sauce outpaced overall sales at the restaurant. Hector acquired an adjacent building to serve as a production plant to meet the demand for his sauce.
Responding to customer comments about an inability to find good pasta for home use, Hector began packaging portions of dry spaghetti and packets of cheese to accompany his best-selling sauce, foreshadowing the product that was soon to make him famous the world over.
Inspired by local success, Boiardi began to think nationally. By 1929, he was marketing his packaged spaghetti dinner to the general public. Around 1936, as the product's popularity grew, so did the chef's frustration with people's inability to pronounce his name. So he began spelling it phonetically and “Chef Boy-Ar-Dee” was born.
Hector moved production to a factory in Milton, Pennsylvania in 1938 and began expanding the product line to include beef ravioli, which rapidly became one of the company's most popular products, a distinction it still holds today. At fourteen ravioli per can, Americans consume more than fourteen billion meat-filled pasta pockets each year.
Obsessed with freshness and quality, Boiardi started out growing his own tomatoes and mushrooms at the Milton facility.
Hector Boiardi is widely credited with introducing much of mainstream America to Italian food. He is also cited as a major supplier of comestibles to American and Allied troops during World War II. Boardi's company prepared millions of rations for servicemen, making it one of the government's largest military suppliers. His war efforts were recognized when he was awarded a gold star of excellence from the United States War Department.
Unfortunately, Hector's company rapidly outgrew him. Unable to personally control cashflow and internal growth issues, he sold his brand to American Home Foods (later International Home Foods) in 1946 for six million dollars. He invested his profits in steel mills, which helped produce materiel for the Korean War.
Boiardi remained associated with his former company for the remainder of his life. His face became an advertising icon and he appeared in numerous print and television advertisements for his eponymous brand throughout the '40s, '50s, and '60s. His last commercial as “Chef Boyardee” aired in 1979. He continued developing new Italian food products for the company, owned by ConAgra Foods since 2000, until his death in Parma, Ohio on June 21, 1985. His familiar likeness is still found on every package that bears his equally familiar name.
The venerable old chef who helped change America's eating habits is buried in All Souls Cemetery in Chardon, Ohio, beside his wife of more than fifty years, Helen, who died in 1995. Their only son, Mario, passed away in November, 2007. The Boiardi line is continued by Hector's two grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
A culinary legend and an American success story, at the time of his death the products he inspired and created were registering annual sales of around five hundred million dollars.