Viva Giada!

Published April 28, 2014

ABOVE: GIADA DE LAURENTIIS

There’s a suite at Anthology in Caesars Palace, Las Vegas, that opens to a foyer of rust-streaked marble, then moves out through French doors to a soaring portico—complete with a mosaic-tiled plunge pool sporting some water-spewing ornaments. It ends with a patio overlooking the frilly Corinthian columns, ancient-looking busts, green palm fronds, and bikini-clad, bronzing bodies that dot the vast hotel pool spread.

It looks like a spot where Roman soldiers could have celebrated martial victory with wine and women. This being Vegas, however, it’s usually booked by aging frat stars-turned-millionaires, eager to sustain adolescence with endless booze, big grub, and lurid entertainment. Lest we forget, The Hangover was filmed at Caesars.

Yet this was not the scene on a sunny day in late April. Instead of having a best man pump up a group of dudes for the strip club, the 43-year-old, world-famous TV chef Giada De Laurentiis was on hand to reveal plans for her restaurant, GIADA, set to open across the Strip at The Cromwell, a new boutique hotel the Caesars group is opening in late May. A tiny gleaming jewel box among the behemoths of the Strip, The Cromwell prides itself on a gentlemanly vibe amongst the town’s general embrace of debauchery. It’s emerging from the ashes of Bill’s Gambling Hall, and the $185 million renovation has produced a hotel full of quaint but tricked-out standard rooms, and featuring a slew of expansive lofts with nearly Brooklyn-esque amenities: Edison bulbs, faux-tarnished mirrors, old-timey stereos. But let’s not kid ourselves, this is Vegas, and so we also have Victor Drai’s massive rooftop Beachclub as well as his nightclub, which is open until 10 am for those who really want to rage, and a 65,000-square-foot casino. Yet at the tasting for the Cromwell’s centerpiece, GIADA, it was clear that a bachelor party this was not. A bachelor party this was not: The delicious Italian fare that the chef had prepared was light, the vibe was inspired by her predilection for Missoni dresses, and shades of pink abounded.

As if she would have it any other way. De Laurentiis, the granddaughter of famed Hollywood producer Dino De Laurentiis, is a New York Times bestselling author, an Emmy-winning host of Giada at Home on the Food Network, and a recurring culinary presence on the Today show. But she’s never had her own restaurant, and for the location, she’s chosen the Vegas main drag that boasts boîtes from he-men such as Thomas Keller, Bobby Flay, Daniel Boulud, Mario Batali and Wolfgang Puck—but few female chefs, if any.

On a couch on the edge of that sun-dappled faux-Roman patio, De Laurentiis discussed the inspiration for her deeply Italian menu, her love for the indulgence of Las Vegas, and the challenge of being taken serious as a beautiful woman working alongside a squad of big-waisted, testosterone-fueled casino executives. De Laurentiis is ready to beat the boys of Vegas at their own game.

GIADA DE LAURENTIIS: So, you’re from New York?

NATE FREEMAN: Yes, New York.

DE LAURENTIIS: You seem like you’re a New Yorker. The shoes kind of gave it away.

FREEMAN: These loafers? I bought them in Costa Rica, actually. They’re perfect here, at least, with this weather. I love coming out to Vegas.

DE LAURENTIIS: Let me ask you something. What do people love about Vegas?

FREEMAN: Personally, I’m fascinated by it.

DE LAURENTIIS: Like, as a New Yorker?

FREEMAN: Yeah, as a New Yorker, but also as a writer. I love watching this entire spectrum of American desire. It’s a reflection of what America—and the world—wants deepest down. What does revelry and indulgence mean to this country? That’s in the abstract, but it’s also just fun to come out here.

DE LAURENTIIS: It is, it is. That’s why they say, “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.” Because people do wild and crazy things in Vegas that they probably wouldn’t do any other time. Which is why I feel like, if you’re gonna open your first restaurant, this might be the place to do it.

FREEMAN: Have you always wanted to open a restaurant? I mean, you already have—

DE LAURENTIIS: No.

FREEMAN: No?

DE LAURENTIIS: No. Well, that’s a lie, actually. Hold on a second.

FREEMAN: I mean, it’s called “GIADA.” This is you.

DE LAURENTIIS: Let’s back it up a second. When I decided to go to culinary school after I graduated from college, at UCLA, when I lived in Paris and went to culinary school—then, yes. The ultimate goal was actually to open a hotel restaurant. I wanted to run a hotel as well as a restaurant. I went to culinary school first, because I thought I was going to be a pastry chef. Then I did everything—cuisine, pastry, everything. Then, I thought, I’m gonna go to hotel school in Switzerland. Because I’m crazy, I’m a De Laurentiis, you know. My family was like, “No, you’re coming back, and you’re working. This whole ‘school thing for 20 years,’ it ain’t happening.” So I came back and I worked for Wolfgang Puck and I thought, I don’t want to run a restaurant, it seems like too much. So I started doing private catering, and as I was doing that, I thought, anyone who goes into this business wants to own a restaurant, that’s the pinnacle of your success. And I went back and forth between thinking I can do it, and thinking I can’t do it. Caesars called many times. I came here many times to look at spaces. I saw spaces in New York, I saw spaces in L.A., I saw spaces in Chicago. I would walk into a space and say, “Okay, no,” and then walk out. The space itself is such a big part of the restaurant. You can have the greatest food and the greatest design and the best chefs on the planet, but if you have a shitty location? You’re fucked.

FREEMAN: And you think that your restaurant will stand out here in Vegas?

DE LAURENTIIS: I do, and I’ll tell you why. We’re on the corner of the busiest intersection in town, maybe in the world. We are the first boutique hotel on the strip. That makes it a lot more inviting and a lot more warm. People feel like, when they’re coming to my restaurant, they’re coming to my home. That’s very unlike other restaurants in Vegas. There’s a ton of natural light in this restaurant. I shot all my cookbooks in natural light, all my shows were shot in natural light. I want them to feel glamorous, as if they’re in a movie. And I wanted the tones of the restaurant to be warm and soft—feminine, really. There’s no women on the strip. There’s no female-branded restaurants. We need a little of that.

FREEMAN: So is this a conscious effort on your part to bring a jolt of femininity to Vegas? You’re going up against a male-dominated scene—and not only the male-dominated culinary scene. The entire city is male-dominated. One of the things most commonly associated with Vegas is going to the strip club, and we know the power dynamics there. This is a feminist approach, then?

DE LAURENTIIS: Yes. Let’s be honest. A lot of people come here to gamble and go to strip clubs. Married men, single men—it’s like a hall pass to do what you want when you come to Vegas. You don’t get a hall pass anywhere else. Here, you do. They come to see women. Why are there not female chefs? I don’t know.

FREEMAN: And you said earlier, during the Q&A, that Caesars “cringes” when you mention femininity.

DE LAURENTIIS: They cringe when I mention pink, gold, softness—and, yes, I guess, femininity.

FREEMAN: I’m not saying that that’s evidence of any internal argument between you and them. I think it’s fairly obvious that this is a new thing. You’re the first big-name female chef to have a namesake restaurant in Vegas. Do you see yourself as a pioneer?

DE LAURENTIIS: Yes. I feel like, if this goes well, and we hit the ball out of the park, it opens up the doors to many more female chefs to come through. And I’ll tell you, a lot of women have tried to knock down those doors and they have not gotten through. I’m not just a female chef. I’m a woman in a brand new hotel, a boutique hotel, and that’s why I think it’s so perfect to be at the Cromwell, in a corner of one of the busiest intersections of the world, with my name in lights. It’s not down in a basement, like Gordon Ramsay’s—you can’t see that on the building outside of Paris [The Paris Las Vegas Hotel and Casino]. It’s different in all those sorts of ways, and I’m hoping I’ll be able to carry that through. Because if I can’t, it’s a step back for women in general. People will say—men will say—“See, that’s why it’s mostly men.” And trust me, when I first asked the question, everyone across the board—and not just the guys at Caesars—said to me, “We haven’t done it because we’ve never met a woman who can handle it.”

FREEMAN: There was a New York Times Magazine article, maybe a month ago, that said that it’s harder for a woman to be a head chef at a restaurant than it is for a woman to be a CEO of a company. Do you see yourself as a role model beyond Vegas, and for the restaurant world in general?

DE LAURENTIIS: This is what I will say to you: Not until my restaurant opens and it’s successful. Because, many chefs of a certain caliber do not see me as a chef. I don’t have a restaurant. They see me as a TV food personality, not a chef. I’ve gotten respect, trust me, they respect me, but I think that I can’t hit that particular level of respect from them until I have a successful Vegas restaurant that not only makes money but creates unbelievable food and a fabulous experience. I don’t think people think I can cook, and they don’t think I know what the hell I’m doing. Truly, Caesars didn’t know either, until they started dealing with me, and then they thought, “Oh, shit! She does know!” See, that to me is the most fun. Most people think there’s a puppet behind me, because of the way I look. That’s never helped my career in any way. People think that I can’t think for myself. When they figure out that there’s actually stuff up here, they’re pleasantly surprised and nervous and scared. And that’s the most fun I get from what I do.

FREEMAN: That sounds like a lot of fun, doing that on a daily basis, which I imagine you do.

DE LAURENTIIS: Yes, in the kindest possible way, I do.

FREEMAN: If this is going to be a great success, you can show the whole culinary world—

DE LAURENTIIS: It will be a great success to me if my family comes into the restaurant and says that they’re proud of what I’ve done, they’re proud of the way I’ve represented the De Laurentiis name, and that they love my food. That is the moment of pure pride for me.

FREEMAN: The Cromwell itself is kind of an anomaly in Vegas. It’s a boutique hotel. It’s a small hotel and, I mean, look at Caesars. Do you think it can still work? Is it risky?

DE LAURENTIIS: Absolutely. Any time you do anything different in this life, it’s risky. But I’ve only done things differently, and it’s gotten me quite far. If you’re just gonna open another Vegas restaurant, who cares? If you want to make a splash, you’ve got to step out on that ledge and jump. And I could land flat on my face and it would be the biggest nightmare of my life. I’m willing to risk it. I want to help change the way male chefs see females. I want to show them that, yes, we’re emotional and, yes, sometimes we make irrational decisions, but we’re passionate about what we do, and that passion will propel us to the next level. And that woman can actually help each other, because notoriously women have been known not to help each other. Men help each other. Women don’t. I want to help women, I want to open more doors. Vegas needs more women. Men come here to see women. Why not see our work on those plates?

FREEMAN: Absolutely.

DE LAURENTIIS: I hope that when we’re actually open, you can come back to town and come by some time. I feel like New Yorkers, with Vegas, they either love it or hate it.

FREEMAN: A lot of people turn up their noses to it. They’re like, “Yeah, you have these incredible chefs there, but they’re not there there. The real restaurants are here in New York.” Which isn’t really true, but you can get snotty about it when you have the flagships in New York. Like, “Well, they started here.” It’s that attitude.

DE LAURENTIIS: And for me, I started nowhere but in Vegas. There’s no other chef on the strip that had their first restaurant in Vegas. It’s unheard of. Again, I like to do things differently.

THE CROMWELL, LAS VEGAS, WILL OPEN MAY 21.