THERE WERE ONLY TWO FEMALE restaurateurs—Border Grill’s Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger—on the Las Vegas Strip when Giada de Laurentiis opened her eponymous eatery, Giada, at The Cromwell a year ago. The unqualified success of her namesake restaurant has gained the 44-year-old Food Network star of Giada at Home access to the very exclusive club of major male chefs like Wolfgang Puck, Mario Batali, Bobby Flay, Nobu Matsuhisa and Joël Robuchon. “[The lack of female restaurateurs] was one of the reasons I thought I’d try it, but also one of the things that keeps me up at night as well,” says the Emmy Award-winning Culinary Hall of Fame inductee. “Everything in this life is a double-edged sword, and there’s always the good and the bad that comes with it. This is a male-dominated business—it’s male chefs that dominate The Strip. Most of them have been supportive, but surprised at our success—I’m surprised as well, to be honest.” She shouldn’t be: girl power speaks for itself. Here, de Laurentiis discusses breaking into Las Vegas’ boys club, the possibility of opening another restaurant and how Bobby Flay and Mario Batali were so instrumental in helping her realize her dreams.
Do you see Las Vegas’ culinary scene as a boys’ club?
This business is a boys’ club. It just is. You need to know how to play your cards, [but] they never really let you in. They’ll let you in a little bit, but I don’t know if they’ll ever really let us in completely. That’s not to say that we can’t team up with them, and that we can’t do our own thing as well. I’ve never had a restaurant before; this was a whole new experience. I felt like I could take a backseat to the boys because I still have a lot to learn—it’s a huge undertaking. As many people have said to me, “Nobody starts his or her first restaurant in Vegas with 250 seats—nobody. You’ve got to be crazy.” I figure that I either jump all-in this time around, or I don’t. I didn’t have any desire to open a 20-seat restaurant in L.A., where I live. My family’s in the movie business, and I come from basically showbiz because let’s be honest—I cook on TV—and although I’m classically-trained and have worked for big name chefs like Wolfgang Puck, I really didn’t know my way around running a restaurant. I leaned on my chef friends who were already in Vegas for help. [Women] just have to work harder to prove we’re just as good. So far, so good. I’ve only been here a year—let’s see where I am in ten years. For the first year, I feel like we’ve gone way above expectations.
Is it true that you have plans to expand the restaurant?
Everyone says that to me and I’m like, “Really? Where?” I don’t have any plans to expand just yet. I got a lot of offers last fall and I kept saying I need to succeed a year and see what this is like, because I might decide I never want to have another restaurant in my life again. I wasn’t ready to jump in again. It took a lot out of me and my family. I really wanted to give this first baby my attention. It doesn’t mean that I never will again, but right now I can’t think of another place as phenomenal as Vegas. I try, but I just can’t.
What sets Giada apart from the other restaurants in Las Vegas?
My food is quite different from the other food on The Strip; I do try to keep it lighter. I serve a ton of vegetables. I have a bar filled with vegetables, while most restaurants have a bar filled with alcohol. In this life I don’t think there’s any point in doing something unless you’re going to do it differently.
Who were the chefs that were the most instrumental in helping you set up your restaurant in Las Vegas?
Mario Batali, who has always been a mentor to me. He’s one of the first people I went to when the deal [was initially presented] to me. He’s an Italian food sort of God. He’s been my mentor from the very beginning. I went to Bobby Flay because he’s been at Caesars Palace for maybe 14 years now, and he really knew the ins and outs of that relationship. I needed him to guide me through the pros and cons, and [teach me] how to make sure I was getting what I needed. I would say that they were the two people who were most instrumental in helping me out in Vegas.
What kind of advice did they give you?
Most of them thought it was a little nutty because I didn’t have a team who could go there to execute, and had to do most of it myself. Both of them did tell me, and how I do it. For me the worst part isn’t the food or drink; it’s travel. Travel is the roughest part on my body. The changing of time zones—I just spent a month in Italy—and coming back; it’s rough. Making sure I get enough sleep is more important to me even than the food that I eat. Sometimes when I go to Vegas I have to indulge, because I’m trying 20 different dishes and I have to make sure everything tastes right, and I’ll back off on the food that I have when I come home to L.A.
What to you is the greatest luxury in life?
My health is the greatest luxury. I lost my brother to melanoma 10 years ago and I feel like as long as you’re healthy, you can achieve anything you dream of. When you don’t have your health anymore, I feel like all bets are off.
You worked on the Power of Love gala with Wolfgang Puck recently. What are your thoughts on the power of love?
I think that in this life everybody is looking for love and it comes in all different shapes and forms. When I was in Italy I spent two weeks without my daughter and my kitten. That was rough. Love and all the emotions that come with it keep you going in this life, and without it, you are lost and very, very sad. It really, really brightens up your life. I think the lucky ones find love forever.
“You have to be there. It’s not one of these things where you can walk in and walk out and come back in six months. You have to be there if you expect the food to be on point.” I said, “I get that part, and that I’m willing to do.” They also said to me—especially Bobby because he’s had a relationship with Caesars for so long—“You have to stick to your guns. You cannot let them bully you into doing what they think your restaurant should be. They feel like they’re going to own it and want to control what goes out. You have to be in control of your brand and fight for what you think should be on that menu.” In a way they both said, “It’s going to be the fight of your life.” They weren’t wrong. Mario said to me, “Find the people you really connect with and hire their entire family.”
How do you manage to keep your figure so perfect while being both Italian and a chef? It’s hard, especially as you age!
I do a lot of yoga; it really helped sculpt my body. I also eat and drink in moderation; I’m really careful. I try not to overeat, I try not to overdrink, get a lot of sleep, a lot of water. I really watch what I do