Photo: Anna Monette Roberts
The best kinds of questions are asked by the fans themselves, as proved at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen when Ali Larter led a Q&A with Giada De Laurentiis. The Italian cook shared her reasoning for opening a restaurant in Las Vegas, her thoughts on the latest Food Network Star contestants, and her not-so-well-known rise to celebrity chefdom.
On choosing Vegas for a restaurant over LA or New York: "Why not Vegas? Do you like Vegas? Every time people go to Vegas, I think they're looking to be wined and dined and entertained. That's what I do. I wine, dine, and entertain. Honestly, I found a spot that was phenomenal. It's on the corner of Las Vegas Boulevard and East Flamingo. Even if you don't know it, you know where the Bellagio Fountains are. That's what we're facing. It's probably one of the busiest corners in Vegas, for sure, maybe in the world; 40 million people walk past that corner. I'm the only restaurant in The Cromwell, a boutique hotel, the first one on the strip. It's small and intimate. I mean, the restaurant isn't, but the hotel is. So for that and many other reasons, it was a good beginning."
On how she rose to fame: "I started working as an assistant food stylist on magazines like Food & Wine and Martha Stewart Living and all, then 9/11 hit. And after 9/11, Food & Wine magazine came to me and said, 'We're looking to do a piece on chefs and their families, and we know about your family.' My grandfather was getting the lifetime achievement [award] at the Oscars that year. So they said, 'Can you get your family together and write some recipes? We'll photograph it. It'll be a part of our series.' And I thought, 'I have made the big time.' So I did; I got my whole family together, a lunch with the De Laurentiis family. Food Network saw the piece, and the rest is history. That's how Everyday Italian started. It all just kind of snowballed. There was no planning really."
On her business strategy: "I don't make choices based on money. I never have. If I decide to come here, it's because I want to be here. If I make a choice to go make a line of stuff with Target, it's because I want to be in business with Target. I wanted my Vegas restaurant because there are almost zero female-branded restaurants on the strip. I do things that keep me relevant and unique, because in this business, there's a million really good Italian chefs. You have to do things differently, even if it means taking risks. The other thing is that I have a family name. My grandfather made very clear to me years ago when I first started this business that he built our family name with a certain amount of respect and prestige, and I was not to tear it down. I have never forgotten that conversation. I make my choices based on a lot of things — that being the number one: to make my family proud."
On what products she uses in her hair: "That would be Champagne that Jacques Pépin poured all over my head."
On gluten-free pastas: "There's nothing like regular pasta, texture wise. The issue is this: We as adults are used to a certain flavor and texture from semolina in our pasta. We're used to white flour in our cakes, in our brownies, and in our cookies. I think that although whole grains are better for you, we have to stop obsessing over certain things and just eat a wide variety. Because the more we obsess over something, then we're going to become intolerant to that, as well.
"We are so obsessed with gluten right now, pretty soon everyone is going to be allergic to corn, which they probably already are. I just think, don't eat white pasta every day. And if you really really have a problem with gluten, don't eat it, but all the other stuff that they're substituting for it isn't any better for you. The first ingredient in many gluten free flours is corn starch. That ain't good either. If we could just think about diversifying our diets, like we do with our portfolios, we'd all be a lot happier and our bodies might feel better too."
On her go-to wine: "Whispering Angel. They have a Rosé that I drink in the Summer. I know this is going to scare everyone, but I'm not a big red-wine drinker. My body just can't do it. The sulfates destroy me. I know that's against the Italian religion, but it's the truth. Sorry! I love Prosecco. And lately, I drink Clase Azul tequila. It doesn't have the hangover that wine has, because it doesn't have the sugar."
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On season 10's Food Network Star contestants: "The contestants have gotten a lot smarter at playing the game. We have had to up the ante and be tougher on them, which Alton Brown just loves. It's his favorite part. The harder he can be on these contestants, the happier the man is. I also think they're better cooks, which makes Bobby Flay very happy. I'm kind of in the middle. I look for personality, because you can't teach somebody unless you can spark their interest. [The viewer] can't taste or smell the food. You could be the best cook ever, but if you can't teach them and you can't connect with them and they have no persona on camera, it ain't gonna work. You need all those elements."
On what it takes to be a female chef: "There's very few women who break through. Just take a look at the roster of who's here at the Food & Wine festival. It takes a lot of skill, determination, perseverance, and hard work. It takes time, and over the years, I've been able to gain respect from the male chefs in my community, but I had to work harder than anybody else to get it. I had to make food that was better than anybody else. I had to make choices that were smarter than everybody else. If you can do all of that, then you can be successful. But really finding what makes you unique is key. I can't say it enough."