Much has been written about the star power Giada De Laurentiis brings to the Cromwell, where her first restaurant—appropriately named Giada—opened on June 3. After all, she’s one of the brightest stars of the Food Network, and her appealing smile and Italian family cooking have been making their way into our homes since 2002. Her shows include Everyday Italian, Giada’s Weekend Getaways, Giada in Paradise, Giada at Home and The Next Food Network Star. She’s also the author of seven cookbooks, and she’s a correspondent for NBC’s Today. We know the way she pours her personality into her work; we know about the fastidious attention to detail. Now, as she becomes the first woman in Caesars Entertainment’s Las Vegas celebrity-chef lineup, we’re going to find out how her determination and charm translate to a kitchen where she is queen, but Caesars—which owns the restaurant—remains king. To get a glimpse into who De Laurentiis really is and what she brings to the Las Vegas dining scene, I recently spent an afternoon with her as she prepared for her grand opening. What I found was a woman with boundless energy, refined tastes, strong convictions and an appealing willingness to spar over the small stuff.
Fame and food are nothing new for De Laurentiis. Her grandfather was legendary film producer Dino De Laurentiis. Her grandmother was actress and 1946 Miss Rome Silvana Mangano. And after attending Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, she worked for the great Wolfgang Puck in the kitchen of his flagship Spago in Beverly Hills. Despite her formidable pedigree, the star has never had a restaurant of her own. She’d been courted by Caesars Entertainment several times, but didn’t like any of the spaces they’d offered her. That changed when they showed her a space in what was then Bill’s Gamblin’ Hall & Saloon.
“I saw this view,” she says, looking out onto Las Vegas Boulevard. “It was a two-floor parking garage at the time. And I looked around and I thought, ‘This is my space!’”
Since then, De Laurentiis has been involved in every aspect of the transformation of that garage into a beautiful restaurant. She wants the space to give guests a glimpse into what it might be like to dine at her home. Except her home doesn’t have that wraparound view of the Strip behind retractable windows. The food has the personal touch, but the view announces that this is unmistakably the big time.
It’s 11 days before the restaurant’s media preview, and the first day of training and food tasting for the front-of-the-house staff. I watch as De Laurentiis rushes around the restaurant, weighing in on everything from hostess uniforms to the way in which servers should describe dishes. It soon becomes abundantly clear that when Jeffrey Frederick, Caesars Entertainment’s regional vice president of food and beverage, recently told the press that De Laurentiis is “the most involved chef of any in the Caesars family,” it wasn’t hyperbole.
During a break in our interview, De Laurentiis heads to the kitchen, where she reports on an inferior sauce she’d gotten through room service the previous evening, inspects the way pork is being rendered and fishes through a simmering vat of pomodoro sauce to make sure it contains enough of her beloved parmigiano reggiano rinds. She tastes nearly everything she passes. Most items meet with her approval—until she arrives at the pasta station.
As a chef uses a piping bag to distribute lobster ravioli filling onto a sheet of pasta, De Laurentiis grabs a plastic tasting spoon and samples it. She isn’t happy, believing it’s too cheesy and too bland. “I know that’s how everybody else does it,” she tells the pasta chef. “I don’t give a fuck.” (This won’t be the last time the diminutive TV host drops the f-bomb during our time together.)
The boss then begins remixing the filling herself, tasting it as she goes. As she prepares to add tarragon, she complains about her inability to get a consistent quality of the herb. Several times, she asks me and various members of the kitchen staff for our opinions on the filling’s progress. When nightclub owner Victor Drai drops by to say hello, she presses him into tasting service as well, and seems disappointed with his response.
Reflecting on this impromptu recipe rework outside the kitchen a few minutes later, the heretofore confident chef has a moment of self-doubt. “Are you cooking for yourself,” she asks aloud, “or are you cooking for your customers?”
Later in the day, I bring up that conflict. “I’m a woman who’s torn right now between what I like and what other people like,” she admits. But that, she tells me, is one of the main differences between having a man in the kitchen and having a woman. Women doubt themselves, and care more about what others think. But in the end, she says, “I’m gonna try it my way. If my way doesn’t seem to be to people’s likings, I’ll tweak it a bit.”
De Laurentiis’ struggles to create her perfect restaurant aren’t purely internal, however. Despite her name on the door, she understands that this is not her restaurant. Like many celebrity-helmed eateries, Giada is owned by a casino company—in this case Caesars Entertainment. Yes, the owners want the restaurant to reflect its namesake. But in the end, they pay the bills, and they make the decisions. And both sides admit that because of the chef’s attention to details, they frequently butt heads in what Frederick calls an “aggressive collegiality.”
“Giada wants the best,” Frederick says. “She does not want to compromise. She knows what she likes, and she knows what her customers expect from her. It’s not inherent to her to make the decisions that all corporations have to ask themselves, which is what can they afford, and what will the customers pay. Whether it’s the china on the table, or whether we use a 15-year balsamic or a 25-year balsamic, it didn’t matter to Giada from a corporate investment-versus-return [perspective], or what a typical restaurant would normally do.”
The chef admits that getting used to the corporate structure can be a challenge. “I do get frustrated,” she says. “I want to do what I want to do. I don’t want to be told I can and can’t do stuff. It’s hard to be put in a box and be told that these are your limitations. I don’t like limitations.”
Nonetheless, she says, “Jeffrey’s opinion means a lot to me.” So she’s given in on items like certain pieces of china, or even on the front-of-the-house staff. “There are certain people that I’ve sort of let [Caesars] hire and train the way they want to do it,” she says. “And there are certain parts of it that are gut-wrenching to me.”
But there was one area where she just couldn’t compromise, no matter how hard she tried.
“We went through a lot of [executive] chefs,” De Laurentiis says of the hiring process for the kitchen. “I was not happy with any of the candidates. Jeffrey told me, ‘Listen, your standards are too high. You have to understand who you are and where you’re at. And you’re not Thomas Keller. You’re not Alain Ducasse. You’re not Guy Savoy. You think you are, but you’re not. And so you need to sort of compromise a little bit. You need to find a chef you can mold into what you want.’
“So we picked a chef. I lowered my standards a bit. I compromised. And six weeks later I dug my heels in. I looked at Jeffrey and I said ‘He needs to go. I’m sorry. I tried your way, and it’s not working.’”
On that one, Frederick compromised. Just three weeks before opening the restaurant’s doors, the executive chef was replaced with Kurtess Mortensen, corporate executive chef for the Quad, the Flamingo and the Cromwell. (De Laurentiis is looking for a long-term replacement.)
Despite the compromises, both sides remain excited about the project. De Laurentiis still loves to stand by the windows and take in that Strip view. And she appreciates the way her restaurant fits into the Strip’s first stand-alone boutique hotel, which hadn’t even begun its renovations when she agreed to open there.
“It’s more intimate, a little more homey, the way that I think my brand is,” she says of the property. “But it still has that sex appeal, that chicness. So I think that in many ways the two brands meet up really nicely.”
Frederick, who has worked with countless celebrity chefs, says De Laurentiis “has really given me a new perspective on how people approach food.” That approach seems to be working: “Within four days of opening [reservations],” he says, “Giada had the second-highest June reservations of any of our premium restaurants.”
If that kind of popularity persists, De Laurentiis’ days of compromise may be numbered. “I feel like if I just get to the point where I’m successful enough, [Caesars] will let me do whatever I want,” she says. “And I know that day will come.”