Giada De Laurentiis was born in Rome, where the culture of food was a staple in and of itself. After trying her hand in the movie industry, she realized her true passion was in the kitchen, and enrolled in Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. She's since become one of the most recognized chefs in the industry, with numerous Food Network shows under her belt, a recurring contribution to the Today Show and too many cookbooks to her credit to count. Her first eatery, Giada: The Restaurant, at The Cromwell, opened to great critical acclaim in 2014, and still is one of the most coveted dinner reservations on the Strip.
What first interested you in cooking?
My grandfather [Dino De Laurentiis]. He was from Naples and his parents owned a pasta factory before World War II. Although he was a movie producer he was very passionate about food and we would spend Sundays together to make pizza. My grandfather would set it up so that we all had bowls with sides and we could top our pizza with whatever we wanted. For me it’s where I felt the most at home and the most confident and the most empowered. I had the most fun when I was in the kitchen cooking. I think that is why, at the end of the day, I decided it (cooking) was going to be more than just a hobby, truly where I could be the best me.
When did you decide you wanted to pursue it as a career?
I wanted to do it when I was finished with high school, but my parents insisted that a teenager couldn’t possibly know what she wanted to do for her lifetime. Because my family’s in the movie business they wanted me to at least give it a try. Then, after having worked on movies and going to college, I said, “OK, I still want to go to culinary school. NOW can I go?” At that point they decided ‘fair enough,' so I went off to Paris.
Your “Everyday Italian” show focused on quick, healthy and satisfying dishes. What are the keys to cooking a healthy but flavorful dish?
Lemon juice is number one. At my restaurant, in most of the food, if you want to season the food you are basically to add some lemon juice to it. Lots of fresh herbs and extra-virgin olive oil, which I just love. Those are my three key ingredients. Really simple ingredients enhance the flavors of what you’re making. Also, not falling on too many crutches: pre-made demi-glaces and too many pre-made sauces and things that packaged. I don’t like it that kind of stuff. I grew up with it and you can’t taste the ingredients themselves when you muck up the waters with packaged stuff.
What are your favorite things to cook when you’re at home?
I like to eat small foods several times a day, so that’s why the inspiration for the antipasti bar came in, with lots of little tastes of foods. That’s kind of the way I cook at home as well. I cook a lot of little things. For instance, risotto balls, which are Neapolitan little rice balls, stuffed with whatever leftover meat, vegetables, fish we have. At the restaurant, we have lobster aroncini and lots of different vegetables. In fact, the antipasti bar is filled with different vegetables, from sweet and sour, cipolli onions to caponata, which is a Sicilian relish. I just love it straight and I made it so it could become more of a side. So, a lot of vegetables but with a twist, enhancing the vegetables themselves. And at home, we do a lot of pastas, so in the restaurant I’m doing all homemade pastas. That’s how I tie what I do at home for dinner and what I do at the restaurant.
What are some of the dishes and design elements that were crucial to your restaurant?
One is the use of natural light. We’re on one of the busiest corners of the Strip, so I have these hydraulic windows that open like garage doors. They create a little canopy or umbrella, if you will, that protects you from the elements but also reflects beautiful light over you. And then I was using a lot of neutral tones with the pasta colors. A lot of the fabrics that are used on the chairs and banquettes are Missoni-inspired prints. Missoni is one of those homeware lines and fashions that I adore and that I wear a lot of, but my home is very neutral: lots of crèmes and whites and grays, with a pop of color. I think Missoni does an amazing job with their pops of color and their fabric design, so we took a lot of inspiration from that. A lot of warm and soft edges, not corners: rounded edges that give it more of a female feel and then of course the pink gold in different places.
I love pink gold, I have pink gold jewelry. I find that pink gold really enhances and glamorizes how we see things and the light on us, so there’s a huge pink-gold chandelier when you come up the escalators, the first thing you see from the hostess stand. It’s hand-blown glass and the way that the light reflects on it gives a Hollywood glamor, a chicness that works with Vegas and of course with my family heritage: Movie posters of grandfather’s. It feels like you feel you’re walking into Giada’s house.
Did the Missoni figure at all into the wardrobe design for the servers and wait staff?
I didn’t want the servers and wait staff to be in too many colors, because I think it would clash with the design of the restaurant, so the staff and the servers are more basic, traditional. The waiters, in the evenings, have white button-down jackets, very similar to what you would find in a high-end Milanese restaurant: very clean, straight lines, very white. It makes them feel very chic and glamorous without it being too strong a color.
What are your thoughts about the dining scene in Las Vegas?
I think Vegas has some of the best restaurants in the world. And I think people come here to dine at some of these unbelievable restaurants. Bobby’s [Flay] done an amazing job at Mesa Grill. Still, people are just as passionate about his food as when he opened at Caesars. He’s been a great mentor to me. Honestly, he’s had this relationship with Caesars for so long and he knows the Vegas scene in terms of decision-making. I believe there’s unbelievable food here you can’t get anywhere else. What’s missing is a female presence. They’re all male-branded chefs dominated on the Strip and there’s been no room for women, for various reasons I’m sure, and I’m hoping I can change the dining scene a little bit: create a little more feminine touches and show that women can do this as well as men and make it a little bit more of a unique entertainment dining experience that can only be felt in Vegas. I feel I can do it here. I’m doing it differently.
Everybody has had restaurants in other places they’ve sort of pulled menus from and pulled philosophies. I don’t have that, so it’s taken me a lot longer and requires more of my time and energy. Having said that, that’s what I think is missing: a feminine touch on the Strip. I hope to be a pioneer to open up the doors to many other women and create a little feminine touch on the very male-dominated Strip on the food scene.
What were some of your favorite dining discoveries on your first visits to Las Vegas?
I dined at all my competitors’ restaurants just to get a feel for what people are looking for an what people like. I will say that off the Strip has become quite delicious. There’s one in particular, a Thai restaurant called Lotus of Siam—with a female chef, by the way—off the Strip, and there’s some really delicious food that I had off the Strip that have been really fun discoveries for me. One of my favorite New York restaurants, Milos, is at the Cosmopolitan. I enjoy their fresh food as well. There’s competitors like Rao’s, and I’ve gone to all of those. All the food has been phenomenal but at the end of the day there needs to be a little more softness, a little more femininity, a little more of a feminine touch and warmth and aesthetic on the Strip and I haven’t found it in any of the other restaurants.
What is your perfect day in Vegas?
I guess my perfect day would to be in my restaurant, in my kitchen, cooking. But also, a great spa day at Caesars Palace and laying by the pool. I do love a little bit of sun. Catching a show. I had an unbelievable meal at Guy Savoy. I did a little girls’ weekend. I needed my friends to come down, so we did that and then we went to Absinthe, which was so engaging, so unbelievable. Talk about super fun! My girlfriends, we thought it was hilarious. It was so much fun. So we went to Absinthe, laid by the pool and then, to top it all off, we went on a helicopter ride over the Strip and also over the Grand Canyon, which is phenomenal. My daughter has also very much enjoyed the Mandalay Bay Shark Reef. So I think it’s a mixture of girl time and family time.
As you prepared the restaurant, did your daughter come out a lot with you?
Yes, she likes Vegas very much. It’s very glitzy, especially at night. Who wouldn’t like all those lights? She says it’s like being in princess land. Everything’s prettier at night and glamorized by the lights.
What is the one item you can’t be without in the kitchen?
The thing that I’ve fallen in love with the most is my pizza oven and the fact that it has basically two entrances, one through the kitchen and one through the antipasto bar, so we can flip through meats and pizzas, which I think is unique. So probably my pizza oven.
Between the shows and engagements you’re doing, how long are you on the road?
It depends on the place. I am on the road a lot, a lot, so that’s why I take my daughter from time to time with me. I shot my TV show during the week when I was coming to Vegas on the weekends to taste food, play around and figure out the menus. That was my constant for a while, so I would say that, on average, it’s three or four days in [one] location, sometimes less.
That's a lot to handle. Where do you go when you can get away from it all?
We’ve been spending time on the beach in the Hamptons for the last couple of years. My husband’s a big a kite surfer, so I need to find a place where there’s wind where he can kite surf but where my daughter can hang out at the beach and be comfortable, as well as have a pool. You can usually find one but not the other. And peaceful enough for me that I’m away from the crowds and kind of decompress and be quiet for a little bit and spend time with my family, but also a place than can give you free rein to have fresh food and fresh markets, because the Hamptons is very good about having farmers’ markets. It’s a farming community. So we’ve been doing that for a little while, but I do miss spending time in Capri. I used to do that every summer with my grandfather.
What is one thing you must have with you when you travel?
My Vitamin C packs. They keep me from getting sick.
Editor's note: Since this interview was conducted, Giada De Laurentiis has opened a second Las Vegas restaurant, Pronto by Giada.