Passion, Drive and What it Takes
to Build an Iconic Brand
I have been following Giada De Laurentiis’s entertainment and entrepreneurial career for at least a decade, and was quite inspired when I heard she was expanding her brand by opening her first restaurant on the iconic Vegas strip. This fabulous news was a huge achievement for the star chef, who is now the first woman with her own branded restaurant on the strip—a place where the most acclaimed chefs in the world go to showcase their best cooking.
When it turned out that Giada and I both work closely with Sam Saboura, my personal stylist and the Editor-in-Chief of Divine Living, I knew now was the time to get to know her better. Read my full interview for Giada’s take on women who are building personal brands, becoming leaders, and supporting each other in creating success.
For our readers who might not know your personal story, tell us how you got started in entertainment and food?
GIADA: I kind of fell into the world that I’m in. My family is in the movie business—it started with my grandfather. He made 600 movies in 60 years, so he was very prolific. He was born in Naples and his parents had a pasta factory, and he and his siblings would go door to door selling the pasta, so he became a very good salesmen.
Then WWII broke out, so my grandfather joined the army. During the war, Naples was heavily bombed, so his parents lost the factory and everything. At the end of the war he was around 18 years old, and he decided he wanted to be an actor.
And his parents were like, “Are you kidding me? Have you looked in the mirror?” He was short and not very handsome, but he said I’m going to do it anyway.
So he went to Rome with barely any money and tried to be an actor, and he started to realize his true talent was in sales. So he teamed up with my grandmother who was a beautiful model, Miss Rome at the time, and together they started making movies where she would star in them and he would produce him.
I think in this world you have to realize what you’re really good at, and turn it into what you want to do. My grandfather wanted to be in Hollywood—he never became an actor, but he became an extremely successful movie producer.
In the 70s, he moved his family to the US and continued to make movies here. At the same time, he started to open up little gourmet shops—one in Beverly Hills and one in New York City—sort of like a Dean & Deluca—with a little restaurant at the top, and a very open market with stands, like a pizza stand and a pasta stand, the way you shop in Europe—but it was novel for the States.
I was 12 at the time, and I would go after school and just be amazed by what I saw and how people reacted to the food. I already loved food, but it kind of opened my eyes and I thought, maybe someday I could do something like that.
So I ended up graduating high-school and being the first person in my family to go to college, which was rough because when you come from an Italian family, they like the men to be the ones to go to college. It’s not that they don’t respect women, but my grandfather used to say to me, “Why don’t you just get married and have some kids?”
After college I went to culinary school in Paris, and then I came back to the states. I worked in LA for different French chefs, and then I ended up working for Wolfgang Puck at Spago, which launched my career because having that on my resume helped me get my private chefing jobs.
Then I started to get a little bit bored because I thought, here I am, I went to culinary school in Paris and I’m making fried chicken every night! I wanted to do something more creative. I had a friend who was a food stylist out of LA and basically she said to me, “It doesn’t pay much but if you feel like it, on the weekends you could do these shoots with me.” And she would do Martha Stewart Living and Food & Wine and all that—so I started on the side as an assistant just for fun.
Then 9-11 happened and basically the world changed. Because before that point, people went out to dinner, it was all about going to restaurants, that was the social way of enjoying food and family and friends. Then all of a sudden people realized they wanted to entertain at home. Not only did I flourish because of that, but Food Network flourished because of it.
Food & Wine approached me wanting to do a piece on family and food, and my grandfather at the time was receiving a lifetime achievement award at the Oscars, and so I got my family together, did a little menu and styled it, and had a friend of mine shoot it for Food & Wine, and I thought okay—this is it—I’m going to be a food stylist, it’s going to be awesome! I’ll have my catering business on the side to make some money, and then I’ll be a food stylist so I can be creative!
So I did it and a day after the article came out I got a call from Food Network saying, “We love the recipes, we love the shots, we want to see what you’re like on camera.” And it was a six month courting process because I kept saying, “I’m not doing this.”
You have to understand Gina I was a very shy girl. I didn’t like the spotlight, but I loved to be creative and I loved to make people happy. After six months my brother, who has now passed away, said I’ll get a camera and we’ll shoot a little pilot.
We handed in our demo and that’s how “Everyday Italian,” my first cooking show started. From there I’ve been riding a wave, which I thought would eventually end, but it hasn’t ended and it’s been 13 years! I kept thinking, “I’ll just keep doing it until I don’t want to do it or I’m not successful at it or they don’t want me anymore.” I think truly it was because I had no expectations for myself and neither did my family, because I was a girl after all.
Sometimes in life when things are supposed to happen, they’re going to happen regardless of what you do. And at the end of the day Gina being on camera helped open me up to find out who I really was. I found I was stronger than I thought I was, had more personality than I thought I had, and had more to give than I thought I did—but part of it was quieted because I came from a very loud, male-dominated family—they didn’t do it on purpose, but I just shut down as a young child because of it and became embarrassed and fearful of being judged. My therapy truly happened on camera, it forced me to open up. That, and my drive to be successful at anything that I do no matter how ridiculous it might be, led to all of it!
Let’s talk more about your drive to be successful—because I think your story is so relatable. So many women maybe aren’t positioned to be the star, and yet they have this inner drive inside of them. Today you have all these great television shows, beautiful cook books, your magazine, your amazing restaurant—somewhere in there that drive must have helped manifest all that.
GIADA: Yes for sure! I wanted to prove to my family that you don’t have to be a man to do what you love and be successful. My grandfather loved what he did to no end. I learned from him that hard work can also be a lot of fun and that you can be passionate about what you do. For me the very inspiring moment was about 6 years ago. A few years before he passed away, my grandfather was in an airport and someone stopped him and said “Are you related to Giada?” and his reaction was, “No, she’s related to ME!” Later he told me the story, and he said, “I never thought a woman in my family could have more recognition and power than me, but as shocked as I am I have to say I am incredibly proud.”
That moment defined everything. That and the death of my brother—which also defined a lot because he was younger than me and died so quickly of cancer. It gave me the drive to say, I’m going to live it up for him and do all the things he never had the chance to do, because you never know when it’s going to be taken away. So those two moments in my life were very defining.
Wow, very generous of you to share both of those stories! I think that there are so many women who might hold themselves back because they think—well it was easy for Giada since she’s from this famous family that makes movies. How do you respond to that from your experience?
GIADA: A lot of people have said that to me. At the end of the day, of course I wouldn’t be where I am without the inspiration of my family—because I wouldn’t have the recipes, the culture, the tradition or the passion.
For me the drive came from actually wanting to create something of my own, which doesn’t happen as often in families like the one I come from, because most of the time people just sit back and ride the wave of the previous family members, and the drive is blocked by fear that you won’t be as successful as your elders, so why even try. And for me, my drive was for me to own my business, to make it all mine, and to be successful at that. It’s a different type of drive, but still just as important. I work really hard and I think you have to work really hard to get where you want to be.
I’ve been buying your cookbooks and watching your shows for a decade at least— and from an entrepreneurial angle I’ve also watched and studied you. And I noticed that in an industry where celebrity chefs are offered endorsement deals on everything from knives to olive oil to pots, you seem to be pretty discerning about what you lend your name and time to. What guides your decisions?
GIADA: You’re right—if you ask my agents, I say yes to very little. They would like me to say yes to many many many more things. I turn most things down.
I can only align myself with things that I truly believe in, that I feel I can sell, that I can put myself into 100%. I’m also a very type-A person and I want to control all that has my name on it—and controlling a brand is difficult as I’m sure you know, the bigger you get, the more moving parts there are, the less you can have your hand in. I’m careful because I don’t want overexposure, I’m looking at the long term effect not the short term, and I don’t do anything for money. Once you start doing it for money, all bets are off.
Definitely. So what’s your advice for a woman who’s building a brand?
GIADA: It’s different for everybody. For me, I watched my grandfather make choices and decisions that lasted over 60 years and are still going, and I knew I wanted to create something lasting like that. I wanted my brand to have elegance, but also accessibility, and that is a fine line that I walk, and why I only align myself with certain brands that have the same qualities.
My advice is to really know who you are—like why are you in this? I do what I do to inspire people to be more confident. I teach people to cook, and cooking empowers them to feel good about themselves, and to create a bond and tradition with their families. That’s truly what cooking did for me—so that’s what I always go back to. I fell in love with cooking because it was the one place in my family that I felt strong, confident, and empowered. It’s where I find the most serenity. And to be honest I just had to revisit it this past year, because after a long marriage, I got divorced. When my brother died I felt like the rug got pulled out from under me, and when I got divorced I felt that way again, so I had to go back to the essence of who I am, why I choose to do what I do, and what it is that I’m passionate about. For a lot of women I think they need to tap into: “What makes you feel good and what makes you feel strong?” Because that’s what’s going to allow you to transcend and become successful.
Beautiful. Let’s move over into leadership. Every woman business owner is by definition a leader, or needs to be one. Yet I think every woman’s greatest fear around that is, “Am I going to look and sound like a bitch when I need to tell people what to do?” So many women are tip-toeing and apologizing, like “If you don’t mind.” And I was watching you on TV when you catered that event for Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge, a huge high-profile event with hundreds of people and royalty—and I was so inspired that you were checking every single plate before it left the kitchen. I felt like that was just the epitome of you being in your power, leading, and having people listen to your command. So I want to know, through your career, what have you learned about your leadership style?
GIADA: Well, opening my restaurant in Las Vegas, I’ve had to learn even more about leadership, because first of all, I work with pretty much all men. And I’ve found that it’s very difficult for them to take direction from a woman. What I’ve run into a lot is that they want to do what they want to do, how they want to do it. They say yes to your face but then they do something else. So the reason I looked at all those plates is because I wanted them to understand that I wasn’t just there for the fame of it, I was in the trenches with them and I was going to work just as hard as they were even though my name is on it.
What about when it comes to speaking your mind as a leader? How have you grown in your strength and in your power to stand up for what you think, rather than being kind of passive and letting things roll past you.
GIADA: At the beginning of my career, I was a little more passive. Once I had my daughter and turned 40, I started to feel like I don’t care what other people say or what they think—I know what I believe and I feel confident in my choices for the first time in my life, and this is what I want and I’m not afraid to say it anymore. I think that comes with time, with success, and with experience.
I’m more assertive now than I’ve ever been, but all the experiences that I’ve been through have helped me get there. At the same time I’ve been in therapy 20 years to get over some of the things my family instilled in me about women and what our roles are and how we should speak—and trust me to this day I’m still careful when I speak to people, depending on who it is and how confident I am around them. I say things delicately if I need to, I’ve learned to play the chess game. You can’t be a bull in a china shop either or nobody will listen to you. It’s a delicate walk that I walk.
When I was younger I used to rely a lot on my boyfriend or my husband, and I think that women can give a lot of power away to men that way. We need to put more power in each other—women can really help other women! Men have always had clubs and alliances, and women need to understand that we can do the same thing. We can have power in numbers.
That is so key! I think community is one of the biggest things that is up for me right now and with my clients as well, and it can be tough because of the jealousy factor with women. You’re obviously so generous and of the mindset of, let’s be there for each other and celebrate each other. Yet there’s often a feeling among women that because one woman is shinning or succeeding, or opening a restaurant or having a New York Times Best Seller, that somehow there’s less for someone else. So what advice do you have for a woman to be confident being a star among other stars?
GIADA: Well, for example, there’s always been this thing between Rachel Ray and myself where other people have projected a competition onto us. And I always say, if Rachel is successful, that’s only better for me! That opens doors for me. And if I’m successful, that’s better for Rachel. Every woman that is successful opens the door to another woman being successful. If another woman above us isn’t successful, then there’s less of a chance somebody’s going to take a chance on you.
It’s funny, I saw an Instagram Katy Perry posted. Forbes put her on the cover, as she is the highest paid celebrity in the world who is not a boxer, #3 on the list of 100—and she said that they told her many women have shied away from the cover. And she said, why do we live in a world where men can accept all of these accolades, but women are supposed to turn them down, for fear that we’re going to be judged or told we’re not worthy somehow, or that we’re divas.
It’s true—we have to start one by one supporting each other and changing it.
I had to start within my own family, because for a long time I felt so guilty for being successful that I played down my success, and I played it down with my husband because I felt like he might not want to be with me because he wasn’t as successful. And it’s so sad that we have to live this life and not actually enjoy all of the fruits of our labor because we’re too worried about being judged. I have a 7 year old daughter, and I want her to feel she can achieve anything she wants. It’s going to take a lot of work and it’s going to take all of us as a community to change it.
Beautiful. So what’s next for you Giada? You’ve got a new book coming out, you’ve got a new show, you have a gorgeous restaurant—where are you taking all of this talent and passion and elegance, what can we look forward to from you next?
GIADA: This year has been about trying to reinvent myself a bit since my life has changed so much. I’ve started to do that with these new shows and my new cookbook. I also have a charity that I work with, Inner City Kids, I build gardens for them. And I have a series of children’s adventure books that I’d like to make into a TV show. So I have a lot of pet projects that I hope will turn into something more. I want to really leave a legacy for my daughter, for her to be proud of all the work that I do. At the end of the day that’s all I care about—to be a good role model for my daughter, and to help other women and young girls find success and happiness in their lives, and have it not be dictated by who they’re dating or who they’re with.
This Fall I’m so looking forward to the arrival of Giada’s latest book, Happy Cooking. This is Giada’s 365-day-a-year approach to making every meal count, without stressing out. It’s all about mastering the kitchen simply and easily for any situation, from hosting a potluck to packing lunch to cleansing or making a beautiful Christmas dinner. It even includes life-planning strategies and Giada’s personal roadmap to vibrant health. Fabulous!
Order Happy Cooking Now.