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Into the Fire: Giada De Laurentiis on Her Las Vegas Gamble and How She Came Out Smokin'

Elena North-Kelly

November 09, 2015

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Emmy Award–winning chef Giada De Laurentiis is known for many things: her celebrated Food Network shows, elegant California-inflected Italian cooking, and contagious smile, among them. Now with an eponymous Las Vegas restaurant under her belt, the petite powerhouse’s brand continues to grow ever more fierce—and New York City diners will be treated to an evening of Sin City decadence when the celebrity chef brings her iconic fare to the Beard House at the end of this month. In anticipation, senior editor Elena North-Kelly caught up with De Laurentiis about her favorite recipes, biggest on-screen disasters, how she overcame her greatest personal and professional hurdles, and more.

JBF: What inspired the menu for your upcoming Beard House dinner? Are there any particular dishes that you’re most excited about?

GDL: My main goal for this dinner was to translate the flavor and style of my Las Vegas restaurant to New York City and Beard House diners. I know that people have a general understanding of what my food is, but I think we’ve done a great job of setting ourselves apart in Vegas and making ourselves unique in that market. One of the dishes I’m serving at the Beard House is one that I had to fight long and hard to have on my restaurant menu, and it’s now become one of the most popular: rigatoni with vegetable Bolognese. It’s not your classic Bolognese, because it’s entirely vegetable-based. I know there are skeptics out there, but the depth of flavor is unique, and it also shows a wide range of flavor profiles that we have in Italy that go beyond just what people traditionally think of as “Italian food.”

Another dish I’m especially excited about is my lemon–crab arancini. This particular arancini recipe is a departure from the classic, with a great mixture of the citrus and the wonderful surprise of fresh crabmeat in the center. It’s very unique and has become one of the signature dishes at my restaurant. I’m also giving guests a little taste of my lemon–ricotta cookies: we’re going to send everybody home with those, so they can eat them at their leisure.

I love the intimacy that we’ll have at the Beard House. My restaurant in Las Vegas has about 275 seats, so it’s lovely for me to do this kind of dinner in New York and create a more intimate atmosphere with the dishes that are special to me. Every dish will be special, but those three are the nearest and dearest to my heart.

JBF: You're one of the first women to have a restaurant in Las Vegas with your name on it. Does that resonate with you? 

GDL: I was actually quite surprised to find that out! I only discovered that about six weeks before we opened, and it hadn’t really occurred to me before then. I’m so happy to have the opportunity, but at the same time I’m very careful, because I feel like it carries a lot of responsibility. If I’m not successful, that says something. And if I am successful, it says something. I just have to be proud of what I do at the restaurant: the food, the service, and the atmosphere at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. An added challenge was the fact that I’d never had my own restaurant—I went from zero to 100 in a very short amount of time. Even though it’s a smaller boutique hotel for Vegas, we have to work really hard on the strip. When I see my name on the marquee next to the Flamingo, which is an iconic spot, it sort of gives me goose bumps. When I first came to this country, I was 8 years old and didn’t speak any English, and I flunked the first grade because of it! So it’s meaningful to me to have come a long way.

JBF: Has there been anything surprising for you about running a restaurant in Las Vegas?

GDL: Yes, absolutely. Even though I knew this just from working on the line in restaurants, what has been most surprising to me is how difficult it is to be heard and taken seriously as a woman in this business. I know that sounds cliché, but it’s the truth. I found that I had to become tougher and more direct. You know, Italian women tend to be very passionate people! I learned that I had to choose my words wisely and carefully, so that they really made an impact and that people understood that I was serious. I control my brand in a different way than a lot of other people do, and I don’t sell my name out. If you make a deal with me, I will be there. I always say my restaurant in Las Vegas is like a child to me. I don’t abandon it. I take care of it. I check in on it. I respect it and I try to grow it in the right way, and so I think that being hands-on wasn’t necessarily anticipated. It’s been a learning curve for everyone, and there have been growing pains. I had to learn to stand up for myself and stand by my beliefs no matter what everybody told me. 

I think I've learned a lot about myself, which is wonderful. At the beginning, I thought I’d made a big mistake, and I was very fearful of what the outcome would be. Luckily, I had some really great chef friends in the community that supported me and gave me advice. It was a lot and it affected my personal life, which I was surprised about. It rocked my world, but I have to say I came out the other end. Through a lot of learning, I came out stronger and more knowledgeable, and probably better at what I do because of it.

JBF: You’ve written eight cookbooks, the latest of which, Happy Cooking, just came out. Can you tell us about the inspiration behind this book, and what readers can look forward to?

GDL: To give you a little backstory: I have a weekly digital magazine, which I’ve been doing for about two years now. It’s a way for me to connect with my fans and talk to them on a regular basis. Because of the way social media functions in our lives now, we talk to each other directly every day. I started realizing that I loved the conversations I was having on social media and it was a wonderful way to connect, but it was limited. Obviously it had to be done in little sound bites, so I thought if I could create a digital magazine that would allow me to really talk about the things that are timely and important to me, that maybe it would start a new conversation with my fans—and it did.

Working on the digital magazine, I got recipes and material from other chefs and I realized that collaboration is such a big part of what I love to do, and it wasn’t all about me. So, my new book has recipes and material from chefs, friends, and family—all people who have inspired me. For example, there’s an interview with Mark Bittman about veganism. I’m not sure I’m on the vegan train, to be honest. I’m not sure I believe in it and so I had a lot of questions for him, and there’s a conversation in there that could inspire readers to like it or not like it, but at least they’ll be more knowledgeable about what it is, exactly.

Also, I think the book represents my journey of self-discovery, now that I’m a single mom and I have even less time to cook than I had before. I learned to focus on making quicker meals, or using things slow-cookers, where I can just put it on in the morning and then have dinner on the table for my daughter when I’m done with work at the end of the day. It’s a journey about my life, and this one has been probably the biggest one so far. I realized that cooking is really where I am the most peaceful, the most creative, the most at home and the happiest—and that’s why I called the book "Happy Cooking." There are almost 200 recipes, so it’s jam-packed. 

JBF: What are some of your favorite restaurants in your current hometown of Los Angeles, and what do you order there?

GDL: Definitely Capo in Santa Monica. It’s tiny, understated, and they have a great rotisserie and grill area, where they make the most unbelievable steaks. I really love the ambience; it’s intimate and romantic. I usually order steak and this wonderful burrata they do with tomatoes and basil. I would also say Giorgio Baldi by the beach in Santa Monica, where they have the most unbelievable sweet white corn tortellini that I get every single time I go there. 

Another would be Gjusta in Venice. They have a porchetta sandwich with pesto that is unbelievable! They only have a bar area with no seats—you just stand and eat, very European-style. It’s open, so you can see them baking and doing all sorts of things. They also have a to-go section, which I love. It’s owned by the same people as the very popular Gjelina, and this is their casual spot. It’s not fancy-schmancy in any way, but it’s a little slice of heaven and it’s still sort of under the radar.

JBF: Those are great tips, thanks! Speaking of tips, as we start to approach the holiday season, do you have any helpful hints for home entertaining?

GDL: It’s funny, I was just in Washington, D.C. doing some demos and talks, and everyone was asking me about easy, make-ahead recipes for Thanksgiving and the holidays, and I said, “You know, beyond just recipes and dishes, think of including your family by letting them bring something that they like to make.” Everybody has something they like to make during the holidays, whether it’s a cookie recipe, a salad, or even just assembling a nice cheese plate if they don’t cook a lot. Allowing your family and friends to bring something to your house includes them in the celebration, and I find that takes a lot of pressure and stress off of you. If you can ask them and know ahead of time, you can plan your menu around what they're bringing, and that’s the way to really make the holidays inclusive. Then everybody feels like they’ve been a part of it, and that’s the best way to create lasting, wonderful memories.

JBF: Your Emmy Award–winning television career has made you a household name—and you’re also a classically trained chef, having studied a Le Cordon Bleu in Paris and worked on the line at Wolfgang Puck’s renowned Spago early on in your career. What has been the biggest shift for you during your professional trajectory?

GDL: Well, I think that my biggest adventure would be the restaurant, for sure. But the biggest shift for me would be when I started working in television. I grew up in a family that made movies, but I was never interested in being in front of the camera. The biggest shift in my life was definitely learning to be in front of the camera—being so shy and then shifting to actually enjoying it. I've always said to people that my growth on camera was almost like therapy; it’s like looking at yourself in the mirror and, basically, facing yourself every single day, so you learn to be comfortable in your own skin over time. I've been doing television for about 13 years now, and I would say that it was incremental, slow growth. It didn’t happen all at once. The restaurant, on the other hand, was like a lightning bolt had hit me and it just sort of shook me to the core. I’d never had that happen to me before. 

JBF: What’s the worst experience you’ve had on TV? Any disasters? 

GDL: I think my entire first season of Everyday Italian was a complete disaster! I lost about eight pounds right around the pilot episode, just from fear. Fear can really take over your life in a way that you can’t even imagine, and it did both physically and mentally for me. It took me a long time to get comfortable, as I said, and it was truly all because of my brother’s help, who unfortunately died about ten years ago. He really pushed me to succeed—at the time he worked with my family and knew how to run a camera, and he told me, “I’m going to make you comfortable in front of the camera because you cannot continue like this. I think you actually have a shot, but you have to get more comfortable,” and then he would just follow me everywhere with a camera during my time off. It was like a reality show, before those really existed. And finally, over a span of three months, I started to open up. He peeled away at the layers and he was able to get to my core, and although he’s not around anymore, I will never, ever forget that that’s how it all came to be.

JBF: Your latest Food Network show is Giada in Italy. We know it’s hard to choose, but what's your current favorite Italian city to dine in? And what do you eat while you’re there?

GDL: Oh boy, that IS hard! Well, I’ve spent so much time in Positano, and I've never eaten better in my life, so I’m going to say that my current favorite would be Positano (although Rome is pretty amazing as well!). Everything you eat there is great, but I would say my top choice would be the eggplant Parmesan—it’s some of the best I've ever had in my life. And the arancini, the giant-sized ones with saffron and cheese that just melts as you pull them open. And then, of course, the limoncello is phenomenal. They have a limoncello granita that they sell on the street, which is pretty amazing. I could go on and on!

JBF: Is there a food trend or ingredient that you just can’t stand?

GDL: Truffle on everything! At my restaurant, they are desperate to put truffles on everything, and it’s something I fight tooth and nail. During the holidays I do it, because truffles are in season, but other than that, I do not. And you know what? I’m tired of seeing kale everywhere. It’s so overdone at this point. I feel like everybody’s got a kale salad. And, quite frankly, I don’t really like kale raw. It’s hard on your system.

JBF: Conversely, is there a technique or ingredient that you just can’t get enough of right now?

GDL: For Thanksgiving this year, I’m doing a spatchcocked turkey, and that’s something that I've really enjoyed getting to know how to do and cut down time in the kitchen, and I do it with chicken, as well. As for an ingredient, right now it’s pomegranate. We create specialty menus for the holidays at my restaurant, and the running joke is that I just want to throw pomegranate seeds on everything because they look like little red jewels.

JBF: Finally, do you have a simple, back-pocket recipe to share with our readers?

GDL: One of my daughter’s favorites is my stuffed chicken parm, so I’ve been making that a lot. Basically, just take a thin chicken cutlet that you can get these days at the grocery store, and layer it with a piece of prosciutto, Parmesan cheese, and a basil leaf. Then wrap it up, and put a little toothpick in it to hold it together, and dip it in a little bit of flour, egg, and Panko bread crumbs. Then just shallow-fry it—and I always make it in advance to leave it in a low oven (150 to 200 degrees, depending on the oven) and keep it warm because it makes it crispier. Make sure to keep it uncovered, because otherwise it makes the breading moist and then it gets soft. Then I just heat up some marinara, which I always have in my freezer. Sometimes I even keep marinara in little ice cubes, so that I can just pop out what I need… But you can always use your favorite jarred marinara, if that’s easier. And it’s also great for leftovers! The next day, I usually make my daughter little sandwiches on brioche bread. I slice the chicken real thin, and I top it with a little mayonnaise and avocado. That’s been my go-to lately. 

Get the full recipe for Giada’s Stuffed Chicken Parmesan.

Take a peek at what Giada will be cooking at the Beard House on November 24. For more inspiration from Giada, follow her on Twitter or visit her website.

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Elena North-Kelly is senior editor at the James Beard Foundation. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.