WASHINGTON — Giada De Laurentiis has become a household name, echoed in living rooms and kitchens across America.
Her Food Network shows have earned the star several Daytime Emmy Awards, and her cookbooks have landed her on The New York Times Best Seller list.
On Oct. 24, De Laurentiis will be in D.C. for the 10th annual Metropolitan Cooking and Entertaining Show. Before the big event, she spoke with WTOP about everything from the country’s growing interest in food to her new cookbook and where she likes to eat when she visits Washington.
You rose to fame on Food Network, but were involved in the culinary industry long before your TV debut. (De Laurentiis attended Le Cordon Bleu in Paris and worked as a professional chef in several Los Angeles restaurants, including Wolfgang Puck’s Spago.)
Was becoming a celebrity something you ever imagined?
My family is in the movie business and has been for as long as I can remember — my grandfather made movies for about 60 years — so I grew up in a movie family. I had no interest or inclination to be in front of the spotlight at any point in time.
So no, that was never anything on my radar. In fact, I was a very shy young girl, and so I couldn’t even have imagined doing what I do today. It’s one of those things that kind of just happened, and I think sometimes in life, you can run, but you can’t hide.
Really, people who want to be cooks and chefs enjoy showing their craft and making people happy through their food, but not necessarily through their own persona being out.
We’re usually introverts, which is why we’re artists, and our art is through our food and that’s how we bring joy to people. That has always been the true feeling behind being a cook or a chef. And these days, it’s completely changed, but when I started, that was still the case.
I always say that being in front of the camera is like therapy — getting to know who you are and being faced with the reality of who you are. It’s like looking at yourself in the mirror 24-7. So you kind of have to accept who you are very quickly in order to make it happen.
It’s just sort of one of those things that evolved and happened, and I just went along for the ride.
Since the early days of Food Network, how have you seen interest in cooking and in food change in the U. S.?
You have to remember that the old days of Food Network was Emeril Lagasse, Mario Batali and even Bobby Flay, and they were all in their chef’s coats and hats, and it was a completely different era than it is today. They were making food that a lot of people couldn’t even pronounce or couldn’t even imagine making at home.
But they were restaurant chefs, making their dishes from the restaurant — not really with the intention of anybody making it at home — but just for the pure joy of watching something being made.
And I think that it changed, and I’ve always said, that the tragedy of 9-11 in this country changed the way we saw food and family. And I am a product of that, in a way, and so is Rachael Ray, because truly we were a new era of cooks and chefs where our primary goal is to allow people to be able to actually make our dishes at home and enjoy cooking at home and enjoy cooking for your family and friends.
We were not restaurant chefs, and so it was a completely different perspective — something new, I think, that hadn’t happened on Food Network before.
You’re coming to D.C. this weekend for the Metro Cooking Show, and I imagine you do a lot of these types of shows. What do you like about these events? And is there anything the audience especially wants to see or hear from you?
I don’t actually do these a lot — I actually do one of two a year, and I do one or two festivals a year, and that is about all I do.
D.C. is one of my favorite cities, which is probably why you say that, because I’ve actually done the D.C. show several times over the last eight years. I love that city, I love the energy of the city, I love the people of the city, and a lot of times, I go back to the same venues if I really enjoy being in that town with those people.
For all of us who do them, it’s a great way to interact with our fans and get their perspective. It’s a chance for them to really ask questions and engage with me in a way that they don’t get to do on TV. They can watch me cook all day, but they can’t ask me questions, and they can’t get to know me in a face-to-face way. That is the true connection that happens when you do these types of events.
Now, I will be honest and tell you: I get so incredibly nervous when I go do them. First of all, the questions are never vetted, so they kind of ask you whatever. I always have the right to say, “I’m not going to answer,” but I kind of want to because that’s the point of being there.
I don’t know that I’ve met anybody who says they’re completely calm. And if they say that, it’s probably not true. The energy from the room is so important as to how you communicate with people, so I like to engage with the audience, I like to bring people up to cook with me and be able to ask questions and make it sort of an open forum for conversation. That is my favorite way to run these appearances, and it’s my favorite way to communicate with my fans.
Since you come to D.C. frequently and love it, where do you like to eat when you’re in town?
It’s funny because a friend of mine, Spike Mendelsohn, has a restaurant, Béarnaise, which I still haven’t been to. Another favorite is Bourbon Steak.
It’s crazy. A steak and a bourbon and I am just so happy.
I want to talk about some of your new projects, because you have a new show on Food Network where you are in Italy and a new book, called “Happy Cooking,” which comes out in November. How do these new ventures deviate from what you’ve done in the past?
Well, the last year has been a change for me, where I got divorced after being with my ex-husband for a very long time … since I was 19, so I’ve gone through a lot in that particular relationship. And when that ended, it sort of had to make me rethink my life a little bit.
There was a lot going on for a year, so I needed to figure out how I was going to transition out of what I was doing and do something new — something that wasn’t revolutionary, but still new.
I think when you’re married for a long time, your identity becomes part of that other person, so when that doesn’t happen anymore, you kind of have to rethink who you are. And that takes time.
I was able to do a couple of new shows, the first being “Giada in Italy,” where I was able to go to Italy and live there for a month. It was probably the most revitalizing moment of this last year, where I really could put into perspective what I wanted. I got out of my own life at the moment. I really probably had one of the best times of my life there — discovering my history and showing that to my daughter and just reliving it all.
And then I have another new show, called “Giada’s Holiday Handbook,” that starts in the first week in November. It’s holiday recipes and showing people how to entertain. We hooked up with Wayfair.com so that people cannot only recreate the recipes for the parties that they want to make at home, but actually shop the entire look of the party and recreate the party — from tabletop to everything.
And then I have my cookbook, “Happy Cooking,” which I think is so perfectly titled.
I found a lot of solace and I found a lot of comfort in cooking in this last year, and it really helped me through a lot of hard times. It brought a lot of joy and happiness to me and to my daughter.
The book is sort of a transition over time of recipes. They’re simple; there are a lot of my favorites, Jade’s favorites and some viewer favorites as well, based on my digital magazine. It’s a culmination of a lot of different things that have been changing.
Your new book really strikes a balance between clean, healthy eating and the occasional indulgence. And it seems you are the poster chef of moderation. Do you have any tips on how to balance getting in the kitchen and the making foods you love, but also not overindulging — especially as we gear up for the holiday season?
Moderation is something that should be done regularly in everyday life, and it’s not just food — it’s everything that we do. And I think the key is to find a balance, and this is different for everybody. What works for me might not work for you.
During the holidays, that’s a very difficult thing to find. You find yourself overindulging for months, and all of the sudden January rolls around and you’re shocked at what you see. When you go to parties — because people go to a lot of parties during the holidays, and it starts pretty soon with Halloween — don’t ever go hungry. Eat a handful of nuts if you have to before you leave the house, but don’t ever go to a party hungry.
You’re allowed to have a drink, but try to minimize how much you have. Do a glass of Champagne versus a mixed drink, because mixed drinks carry a lot of calories. And if you’re going to do that one night, then the next few nights, don’t drink any alcohol. That’s the balance I am talking about.
If you want to taste all of the appetizers or the hors d’oeuvres at a party, taste one of each of them and be done. There’s just a time to walk away. You just have to learn to do that for yourself.
While we’re on the topic of the holidays, I want to know what you are cooking this holiday season, and if you have any recommendations for dishes our readers and listeners can make — whether for Thanksgiving, Christmas or just a family dinner?
Probably my truffle turkey is what I am going to be trying this year. I use truffle butter and truffle salt and it’s quite delicious.
I do a spatchcock turkey, so it means that I have the butcher take out the backbone so it’s flat and it cooks a lot faster and the skin gets a lot crispier. I am probably going to do that for Thanksgiving because that means I can bake and do other things with the oven, instead of having a turkey in there forever.
And then my persimmon-pumpkin pie has become a family favorite. I’ve stuck with that for a couple of years and I make that several days in advance. I love persimmons, and the combo of pumpkin and persimmons together is quite delicious.
And then I do a salt-baked sweet potato. I cook the sweet potatoes — I basically make a salt crust on the potato, and then I do this cinnamon maple yogurt that I use to top the sweet potatoes. So those are my two new things — the turkey and the sweet potato — and the traditional one is the persimmon pumpkin pie.
Catch Giada at the 10th annual Metropolitan Cooking and Entertaining Show, Saturday, Oct. 24. She will be back in town on Saturday, Nov. 7 at 8 p.m. at George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium to chat about her new cookbook, “Happy Cooking.”