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August 30, 2014

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Q+A: Giada De Laurentiis is ready to join the all-male Caesars Entertainment restaurant empire

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Erik Kabik / Retna / ErikKabik.com

Giada De Laurentiis hosts a sneak preview of her restaurant, Giada, and its menu on Thursday, April 24, 2014, at Caesars Palace. Giada is scheduled to open at the new boutique hotel The Cromwell next month. Caesars Entertainment Regional VP of Food and Beverage Jeffrey Frederick is at left.

Giada at Caesars and Renderings

Giada De Laurentiis hosts a sneak preview of her restaurant, Giada, and its menu on Thursday, April 24, 2014, at Caesars Palace. Giada is scheduled to open at the new boutique hotel The Cromwell next month. Launch slideshow »
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Chef Giada De Laurentiis tours Giada, her restaurant scheduled to open this spring, on Monday, Jan. 27, 2014, at The Cromwell.

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Giada De Laurentiis, with Robin Leach, hosts a sneak preview of her restaurant, Giada, and its menu on Thursday, April 24, 2014, at Caesars Palace. Giada is scheduled to open at the new boutique hotel The Cromwell next month.

Pint-sized celebrity chef Giada De Laurentiis should never be underestimated. She can pack a punch, albeit delivered in a silken glove. She can smile seductively and charm birds out of a tree, but simultaneously there’s a feisty style that dares you to mess with her, and you’ll wind up on the losing end. (Even in good fun, I speak from experience!)

Is it because she’s got the tantalizing temperament of an independent Italian? Is it because she walks in the fabulous footsteps of her grandfather, Italian filmmaker Dino De Laurentiis? Or is it because she’s the first female star chef in the Caesars Entertainment empire of male culinary kings?

I think it’s because Giada wants the best, and she doesn’t dare let there be the tiniest drop of marinara stain her legendary family name. It also is because in opening her first-ever restaurant — overlooking the Strip inside its first boutique resort, the Cromwell, next month — she’s determined that the property’s sole dining venue, Giada, will be a huge success.

Giada knows exactly what she wants, and she’s determined to have it her way. After months of planning and construction, she’s ready to start four weeks of around-the-clock preparation with food and staff in the restaurant. She says, “In no way does that make me a b-i-t-c-h.” Her impeccable TV, cookbook and kitchen credentials to date ensure that she’s going to win in taking on the Strip. Giada is 2014’s most highly anticipated restaurant opening.

At a mini-tasting luncheon last Thursday, Caesars Entertainment President of Operations Tom Jenkins, Regional VP of Food and Beverage Jeffrey Frederick and Giada unveiled final renderings of the space and menus for lunch and dinner.

Giada is the first restaurant overlooking the Strip with a fireplace; seven massive hydraulic retractable windows wrapped around the Strip’s busiest intersection; a custom antipasto bar; separate pizza and bread ovens; and a station to roll homemade pastas.

The 5’2” 43-year-old powerhouse beauty, like me a Virgo, has been involved in every design selection made for the restaurant right down to testing every chair, selecting all the tiles and bringing in artwork, movie posters and framed family portraits from the famous family’s collection. Order the Barbarella cocktail inspired by the Jane Fonda classic her grandfather produced.

Giada, who has starred on five Food Network shows and is the lifestyle travel cuisine correspondent on NBC’s “Today,” has spared no detail from food to dishware, from china to glassware, from linens to silverware, every item she’s hand selected and curated to show her spirit, vision and passion. Yes, that marble counter top is Carrara gold, and her love of rose gold is evident with the tinted chandelier that lights the room and is a work of art.

Escalators lead guests to its second-floor location and the nearly 300 seats in three sections and different levels. I’ve walked the space and without any qualms tell you that the view from the entrance is spectacular. You have breathtaking views of the Bellagio Fountains, the Italian architecture of Caesars Palace and the new Turkish shopping bazaar being built at Bally’s.

Construction delays have pushed back Giada’s planned Memorial Day Weekend opening on May 26. She’ll serve hotel guests, but the gala opening will now be early June. Call it warm and welcoming, soft and feminine. Call it al fresco dining with a beautiful exhibition kitchen — it will be just like her California home. You’ll find her signature dishes, from lemon spaghetti to lobster arancini to marsala herb chicken meatballs, and of course her lemon ricotta cookies.

“My goal for this restaurant is to be able to share a part of my life, my culture and my family with every guest. I want each person to feel like they’re entering my home, receive a big welcoming hug and enjoying a fantastic Italian meal. I want to get people who say ‘I don’t like something, I’m just not a fan of it’ to give it a shot and fall in love. It’s a food epiphany.”

So here we are, just about a month to go. Run me through the gamut of emotions that you are feeling. Happy, nervous, worried, concerned, exhilarated? Not sleeping at night, sleeping beautifully at night?

All of them! No, I don’t sleep beautifully. Definitely not. I don’t think this is the time to sleep beautifully. I would say that I am exhilarated, on a high for sure — from excitement. I have my very low days, no question, where I just wanna bang my head against the wall.

How many hours a day are you going full speed?

Some days are very long. Some days it’s a full 12 hours nonstop — no break. For me, in particular, and I was warned that this could happen, it’s so difficult because I have never done this before. I’m trying to use the right terminology to explain what it is I am looking for and because of the way I see food, and my brand is so different from everybody else, and it has not been done here in Las Vegas before, it is very difficult for people to grasp exactly what I’m trying to say. How I’m trying to make it different.

What are you trying to say? Are you trying to tell them I want this to be my home and not a restaurant in a hotel?

I want people to feel like they are coming home regardless of whether I am there or not. Nobody has yet been to my home. I should invite all 500 employees on the plane and bring them to L.A. It’s also because a lot of these people haven’t spent a lot of time with me, and that is why I will be here a good solid month and a half to spend time with everybody.

When you and I talked in New York at the Food Network’s 20th anniversary last fall, you gave Bobby Flay a lot of credit for helping you. Are you still getting words of wisdom, words of advice from him?

I bounce a lot of things off Bobby and Mario Batali. I’ve actually gone to go see Mario a couple of times since we’ve spoken. It’s like going back to talk to The Godfather when talking to Mario. I tell them the feelings that I’m having and the worries that I’m having and the steps that are happening now, are these right? Is this the way it really does work? Or how can I make it different or how can I make it better? Am I asking too much? Am I on the right path? Those are the types of things I’m asking at this point. Bobby’s been here 14 years, with Caesars, so he really has a stronghold of how this all works.

‘Feel Good Food’ by Giada De Laurentiis

“Feel Good Food” is the latest cookbook by Giada De Laurentiis. Launch slideshow »
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Giada De Laurentiis and Robin Leach in New York on Thursday, Oct. 17, 2013, for the Food Network's 20th anniversary.

Mario has just had so many restaurants and he’s at a different hotel, so he can tell me how they do it differently over there. I feel like I’m getting the best of both, plus Mario, knowing Italian food so well, he can tell me, Giada, what you’re doing is good. It’s different. But when you do something different, it means it’s going to be a tougher battle, a tougher road.

And, to be honest, Robin, I am a woman in a man’s world. Step into my shoes for one minute and know that it is a battle. It is a battle to be heard. It is a battle to say I didn’t get this far because people ran me over. Unfortunately, sometimes, for that devotion, I get called a b-i-t-c-h. Sometimes I have to be to get what I need and to be heard. I believe in running it my way, not the old way.

Which is why we keep delaying the opening. Those hydraulic windows haven’t been done before in Las Vegas, so it’s taking more time than we had considered to get it going correctly. I’m looking at the long haul for this, not just Memorial Day Weekend. I’m looking at being here for a while, so I want everything to be right. This coming week, I will stay here for four weeks or more to train the staff.

There’s only one way to do that. It’s me training the staff. It is me personally being there. Nobody else can speak for me. They need to feel my passion. We have the menu down but I demand consistency. That’s my No. 1 thing right now is consistency and knowing that when I’m not there beating them over the head, add parmesan cheese to that pasta before you add the sauce, that it actually gets done. So it’s the little stuff, it’s all in the details.

So that’s your emotion of the worry, but the other part is the exhilaration and happiness of seeing it all come together?

Yes, because this is probably one of the biggest projects I have ever done in my career. I’ll tell you this, Robin: When I started doing television, I thought it was the most monstrous thing in the world, but I’ve been doing it for 12 years. It’s easy for us now. And I hope that someday it’ll be easy for me to do restaurants. I don’t know, though. This may be my first and last baby because it has taken a real toll on me emotionally and also the amount of time. I have a 6-year-old at home who looks at me all the time like, “Mommy, are you leaving again?”

I don’t even think of another one at this moment in time. No New York or Los Angeles. If ever it happened, I wouldn’t want those two cities. It would have to be somewhere completely different — Singapore or South America would be another big conquest for me. I wanna go big! Our food shows are very big there. You built an empire, Robin. I gotta go past New York and L.A. I feel like Mario and Bobby have New York covered. L.A. has Nancy Silverton. She rules and I love her and I wouldn’t want to go up against her. Although I really am up against other people here. Las Vegas is unique. There is nowhere in the world like it.

Do you love what you see in the Cromwell already?

Oh, yes, I love the fact that it is smaller, it’s more intimate, and it makes me feel like if you’re nervous about, you know, 2,500 rooms somewhere, this is going to be a real home experience where you can come and have a great time and not be intimidated. It’s truly what I want for my restaurant, and I think the Cromwell has already shown that.

I knew it was going to happen in Las Vegas, but I didn’t know where. Seven or eight years ago, Jeffrey and Tom actually showed me a couple of spaces, which I looked at them and said, “So when’s my flight home? I would like to go now.” You may or may not know that I like to do things differently, out of the box, and if I was going to do a place in Las Vegas, it had to be something that hadn’t been done before and that was special and unique to me. And I knew that was going to be a battle and I knew that it would be difficult — and I was in no hurry to open a restaurant anywhere.

I saw several spaces in Las Vegas, and then finally this space at the Cromwell, which was a two-floor parking garage at the time. I walked the space, I walked out, I looked at the view, and I said, “OK, this is my space. I want this space.” The view, if you come for nothing else in this restaurant, you will flip over the view. Those hydraulic windows literally open like a garage door. So we have an indoor/outdoor al fresco experience, which is so important to me. Light is very important to me. I wanted to create an ambiance of home.

You told me I should fly everybody I’ve hired to work in my restaurant to my home, to see what it’s like to be at my house because at the end of the day, I want this to be a personal experience as if they are coming to my house and having dinner with me. Regardless of whether I am there or not. I wanted a warmer atmosphere, feminine touches like the colors of Missoni prints … softer tones, softer lights. It has turned out pretty much as my house is and as my shows are and my books. I like continuity within the brand so that everything represents each other.

Robin, you asked for my emotions. There are so many feelings in this little body that I don’t even know how to explain them all. But I will say that the No. 1 feeling is of pure excitement. You know, I can relate it back to being a woman and having a child and saying I have no idea what this is going to be like, this journey. But I am looking forward to every single moment of it. And that is how I feel about this project. I have no idea what I am in for. I know it’s going to be a lot of craziness.

Giada De Laurentiis at Sur La Table

Giada De Laurentiis hosts a signing for her new cookbook Giada at Home: Family Recipes from Italy and California at Sur La Table inside Planet Hollywood's Miracle Mile Shops on April 5, 2010. Launch slideshow »
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The Gazillionaire, Giada De Laurentiis and Penny Pibbets at “Absinthe” on Friday, March 7, 2014, at Caesars Palace.

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Gail Simmons and Giada De Laurentiis at Marquee's grand opening at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas on Dec. 31, 2010.

Some will be unbelievable joy and other moments will probably be extreme disappointment because I feel like it runs the gamut. But I am looking forward to this journey, and I feel like in life you need to try something new that makes you extremely nervous or you don’t really grow much. And I am on the journey of growth and this is a great time for me to do it and there is no place like Las Vegas, I think, in the world mixing entertainment, food, design, all of it in one.

Jeffrey Fredrick: Talk about attention to detail, commitment to every aspect of what embodies this restaurant, we’ve done things in an incredibly detailed level to come through on Giada’s vision. The support we’ve given, the attention to detail, this can’t help but to be spectacular. We’re really excited. As Giada said, we’re not open yet, but we have very high expectations. We are very, very proud.

You’ve underlined, underscored and emphasized the attention to detail more from the woman than any of your male chefs.

Jeffrey: Robin, she doesn’t miss a detail. We are not allowed to use any tricks or shortcuts that even some Michelin three-star chefs use. When we were doing the bread tastings, she didn’t want the fake perfume of lemon thyme oil that passed her nose. She wanted the real thing that passed her tongue test. We won’t fortify sauces or dressings. She doesn’t just stick her nose in; she tastes it all. She wants what she wants in her food — the best — and she gets it. She doesn’t want enhanced essence — she wants the real thing.

Giada: I needed to make a point. You asked me earlier if I have ever been a b-i-t-c-h, and I said sometimes I need to go there to be heard. It does happen sometimes. That is not how I built my food, it is not how I built my bread. I want people to leave and know that they had a great dinner, but I want them to wake up the next day and still feel good and want to come back immediately for more. I know a lot of high-end chefs use crutches, shortcuts, but that’s not who I am.

Jeffrey: When we talk about intensity, we talk about aggressive passion of food. Giada doesn’t want sugarcoated comments. She wants real feedback. It’s aggressive, but there is no storming, no sense of frustration. The vision is always there. She wants perfect execution, and when people have been doing it for 30 years, it’s like muscle memory. She won’t accept old, usual habits. She wants true essence, true food, that’s good for you. I have had more food epiphanies, more growth personally with Giada than I’ve had with any other chef. I’ve been very blessed to work with a lot of great chefs but you talk about what she’s doing with Italian food, simplifying and elevated. We are simplifying it and elevating it. It’s precision without fussiness.

Giada: It’s not just me. My family name is a big one. A long time ago when I started doing the Food Network, my grandfather said to me, “Do not destroy this family name. I have worked my tail off from nothing in Naples to get to this level. You don’t take what he says lightly. He died three years ago, but I still live by that rule. If I don’t put something out there that makes my family proud, I might as well just retire — dig a hole and get in it.

So it’s not just about who I am; it’s about my family legacy. My grandfather made movies, but he also opened two high-end gourmet stores in Los Angeles and New York. It was the first of its kind that many followed. He started a revolution, and I want do things that make my family proud. I want to make them unique and stay true to who we are. So not only is it Giada, it’s the De Laurentiis name that I uphold every single day. And that is why I work even harder to get that message across.

My grandmother was an actress, my grandfather made over 600 movies in 60 years. You will have touches of that throughout Giada with posters of my family’s movies. You will really feel like being part of our family, dishes that will have little iconic messages from my grandfather, my aunt Rafi, who a lot of my fans know from my show, things my mom liked. We have so many of those types of things that I think you will really get a full embodiment of not just Giada, but the entire legacy and heritage. That is why all of this is so important.

As soon as we open the restaurant, we’re going to take the photo so that I can be seen with all the male chefs at Caesars Entertainment. I’m totally teasing, but then they can come on their knees to pay homage!

Robin Leach has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past decade giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.

Follow Robin Leach on Twitter at Twitter.com/Robin_Leach.

Follow Vegas DeLuxe on Twitter at Twitter.com/vegasdeluxe.

Follow Sun A&E Senior Editor Don Chareunsy on Twitter at Twitter.com/VDLXEditorDon.

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