Giada De Laurentiis: ‘It’s a surprise that we do as well as we do’

First came Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger with Border Grill at Mandalay Bay (and now The Forum Shops at Caesars Palace). Then came The Food Network superstar Italian chef Giada De Laurentiis at The Cromwell, and Lorena Garcia arrives with her Latin American restaurant Chica at The Venetian on Friday.

But stack them against more than 30 male celebrity chefs here, and you are quickly reminded that it is still a boys club even with Giada planning a second restaurant. Here is how Giada starts her day courtesy of The Food Network:

The author of “Feel Good Food,” “Everyday Pasta,” “Family Recipes From Italy and California” and “Giada at Home” was a judge on “Food Network Star.” She was named to The Culinary Hall of Fame in 2012 and won a Daytime Emmy as outstanding lifestyle host and has been nominated twice more.

Here is a YouTube video of Giada and Bobby Flay discussing their friendship with The New York Times dining reporter and author Julia Moskin. Giada and Bobby are two of the most popular chefs in America who bring a world of styles and flavors to the table with her Italian and his Southwestern menu:

Giada took a break from serving brunch at her Cromwell restaurant during Vegas Uncork’d (from April 27-30) to talk with me:

You’ve been in Las Vegas for three years now. Has it been everything you wanted it to be? Has it been difficult or easier than you expected? What have you changed in three years?

I’ve learned a lot over the three years, for sure. I think that I’ve become more confident about what I want. I actually have to say that, probably through this restaurant, I’ve learned more about my brand and the people and building a team who understands my brand that would spread to other areas.

Actually, I’m surprised at how well we do. I am because The Cromwell is small, a boutique hotel, and not the most expensive on the planet. I’m not on the ground floor, and the nightclub doesn’t help us because its guests want to dance, not eat. I’m a fine-dining restaurant, right?

A boutique hotel has a different clientele than what this restaurant would have. It’s a destination restaurant in a hotel with a club that has kids who don’t want to eat. That clientele does not eat here, so there is a disconnect between everything, right?

Which, by the way, hasn’t hurt my business, so I have no issues with it, but imagine if we were all on the same playing field. Imagine if I had the clientele that Caesars Palace has here — it would be amazing. Having said all that, yes, people come here, they walk here, and I’m thankful and grateful and honored that they do. So, yes, it’s a surprise that we do as well as we do.

Other than The Too Hot Tamales at Border Grill, how does it feel to be the only female chef on the Strip after three years? Are you in the men’s club, or are you an outsider?

You’re never 100 percent in the men’s club, OK? It’s just that it’s always going to be a boys club, so, little by little, I can try to break through that glass ceiling. Do they take me seriously? Some of them do, and I think they’re all as surprised that I do as well as I do, especially for an Italian restaurant.

Listen, we’re neck-and-neck with Gordon Ramsay, and he has a steakhouse. Steak usually will way outsell Italian food. And we’re neck-and-neck with Nobu, so I feel like that’s a huge thing. It’s a big accomplishment.

Do they take me 100 percent seriously? Some of them, but that’s OK. I think the proof is in the pudding. The longer you stick around, the harder you work, the more you become … I’ve done more now than I ever thought I would, so even if it ended tomorrow, I could say, “I got here.”

You said that you’ve changed some things in three years. What have you changed?

I’ve changed the kitchen over a bunch of times. I’ve had a struggle finding somebody as executive chef. It’s been tough. Most people like myself will let an executive chef run the restaurant, run the menu. I’m a pain in the ass. I don’t like to do that. I want my food my way. I feel like people walk all the way over here to taste my food. Not somebody else’s food; mine.

Now having said that, I’ve started to gain trust in this nice, young guy who started with us a while ago, from the beginning, and I let him do specials, but the menu stays the way I want it to be. I come here often. I change the tasting menus for the seasons. But it’s my way — that’s what I promised.

Is it hard for you because you’re not in the boys club?

I just think this business in general is a boys club, as are many. And you know I’m a pretty little woman, right? And I started on television. I didn’t really start with a restaurant. The cred is a little different, so, yeah, they don’t like to take me seriously … they feel that they know better.

The bottom line is I’m not telling anybody that I know food better or Italian food better. I know my food better, and I know my brand better. And the name on the door guarantees a certain experience. They’re gonna get that experience come hell or high water. I’m a nice person, but don’t mess with me!

Are you happy with the way that you’ve settled in Las Vegas?

For the most part. I still think that I’m in the most unique spot. I have the most unique experience, and it is what I wanted it to be: A warm, homey experience that a lot of other spots around here don’t have. Even though more Italian restaurants have opened, none of them have this charm, and they certainly don’t have this view.

This is still your only restaurant at the moment, though?

But soon to be different; it will change. All the other chefs know about it. I’m very happy. It’s a significant step in the Giadization in Las Vegas. Now I don’t intend to be Gordon Ramsay, but I needed another challenge, and I think that just to be relevant …

There’s only so much you can do with one restaurant after three years to revamp it and make it cool. You need something else to bring press to you. You need a second step, and it also needed to happen in a different place. Las Vegas is the mecca of food and partying in the world.

… There is no other place that is this international. People know us everywhere. People come here for just sheer entertainment, whatever kind you want. It’s hard to stay relevant, especially for a person who has only one spot.

I’m still the girl in the boys club of chefs, so, in my mind, I’m like, “OK, let me get this where it needs to be,” and I did that. Then I have to think about my next step, so I’m on my next step. I’m on my next two steps. It helps all of it to be synergistic to the entire brand.

You don’t just go mimicking the same thing everywhere. That’s not how this works, at least not for me. We’re excited, and we just want to do it right. We’ll have it open by the end of the year.

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