Giada De Laurentiis is a professional triple threat with a hit TV show (Giada at Home), yet another cookbook (Giada's Feel Good Food), and her first restaurant – Giada's – set to open next month on the Vegas strip. Here, the Food Network's tiniest titan shares some of the secrets of her success (hint: it's okay to use your fingers)
You are your best secret weapon
Early on in my career, there were people who dismissed me as a chef because I am a woman and also because of my size. This was a good lesson for me in terms of turning a disadvantage into an advantage. Who I am is a part of my brand now, and being one of a kind helps me to stand out in a very full market. That is my best advice to people trying to enter any large marketplace – figure out what makes you special rather than trying to emulate other people's success. I do Italian food, but I do it in a way that has my stamp. A lot of Italian chefs use complicated techniques and a lot of ingredients. I decided to make my food more accessible and basic, and focus on being fresh. All of my recipes reflect that, so when we're making choices about the menu at the restaurant, it's not just about "Is this a great dish?" but, "Is this a Giada dish?" If something is delicious, but doesn't fit the brand, we cut it.
The drama is in the details
Building a restaurant from scratch has been an amazing experience, but also a very challenging one. I thought I knew that it was going to be consuming going in, but really I had no idea. There are so many little details, so many things to consider. I was recently picking chairs. I had a few options that I thought were great, but then I found out that you have to have every chair in your restaurant insured for a certain amount of uses at a certain weight. If you don't do that, a customer who falls from one of your chairs could potentially sue you. I had no idea, and it certainly changed the way I was looking at chairs. That is just one example among hundreds. The key to keeping all of these balls in the air is making sure you have a great team who you trust and who you take care of. I am so lucky to have that. I have no idea how I could have managed this kind of project without them.
Every cook needs a VIP (a very important pantry)
People are always telling me they want to cook more but the problem is, they see the kitchen as a daunting place. My advice is to make sure you have the basics, so that you don't have to make this super involved trip to the grocery store every time you want to make dinner. A stocked pantry and a stocked freezer are key: dried pastas are amazing, jarred tomato sauces – my family had a heart attack when I first started telling people that they could make pastas with jarred sauces. And then you want to have your flavour enhancers such as sundried tomatoes, olives and garlic and anchovy paste. Frozen peas can add colour and flavour. When you have all of these things, suddenly going to the grocery store to pick up meat or a fresh vegetable doesn't feel like such a big deal.
Why you should give your food the finger
When I worked for Wolfgang Puck, I would be cooking on the line and he would stick his finger in all of the food and taste it. I remember being a little shocked and saying to him, "Shouldn't you be doing that with a different spoon each time?" He would look at me and say, "That's what makes my food taste so good." I'm not saying I stick my finger in the food – at least not when the cameras are rolling. The lesson is that no matter how long you've been doing it, the only way you can be sure something tastes good is by tasting, tasting, tasting. Yes, you follow the same recipe, and you've made the dish dozens or maybe even hundreds of times before, but there are always variables and every dish is a new creation.
You can only juggle so many balls
Learning how to say no is a skill I have only developed over the last few years. Like a lot of people, I used to have this idea that if I turned down one opportunity, another one wouldn't come a long. I just said yes to everything and I worked and worked and worked. When I became a mom I realized that being selective was the only way I was going to be able to be successful and avoid become a mediocre parent, partner and professional. I don't ever want to be mediocre at anything! My life is still a juggling act, but I'm not afraid to pass.
This interview has been condensed and edited.