The Queen of Italian Cooking Tackles Weeknights

WASHINGTON-A long line forms outside the doors of historic synagogue, Sixth & I. Yet, the crowd is not talking about religious services, words such as “pasta”,”pancetta”, and “olive oil” are heard throughout the air. Inside, the room is filled with eager home cooks and foodies flipping through their new cookbooks, anxiously waiting to meet and greet the famous Food Network star. The crowd’s heads turn and applause is heard throughout as Italian chef, Giada De Laurentiis, appears on stage. Waving to the welcoming crowd, De Laurentiis expresses gratitude and shock in the number of attendees that are here to support her latest cookbook, “Weeknights with Giada.” In her sixth cookbook, readers see a more casual side to De Laurentiis’s typical cooking flare. While her previous recipes have always been user friendly, this cookbook focuses on family-friendly meals that are easy, accessible, and simple.”Cookbooks are like my babies, and I feel like this is my sixth baby. Each book is very different and represents a different stage in my life”, claims De Laurentiis, 41.

The inspiration behind this latest book is influenced by her 4 year-old daughter, Jade. As a working mother who is always on the go, De Laurentiis has very little time to slave away over a stovetop for hours with recipes that require an exorbitant number of ingredients. Her goal is to invite more families to sit down together at the dinner table with meals that are specifically designed for Monday through Friday meal planning. The book is of course filled with lasagna, bruschettas, risotto, and pancetta (I mean, we are talking about Giada here!) But the adored chef spreads her wings by taking on recipes outside of her specialty, such as Thai Turkey Lettuce Wraps, Sweet and Spicy Greek Meatballs, and Chicken Adobo. Jade, who has quite the sophisticated taste pallet for her age (her favorite food was lamb chops, but is now anything in a meatball shape), was beginning to become bored with the same old standbys. This is where De Laurentiis had to become more creative. “I didn’t want to make one dish for Jade and one for my husband (Todd Thompson). It needed to be sophisticated enough for my husband and different enough for my daughter. Todd loves anything Thai and Jade is a big breakfast girl.” De Laurentiis combined both of their loves and now has weekly meal traditions, such as Meatless Monday, Breakfast for Dinner, and International Cuisine night to change it up. As for De Laurentiis’s favorite go-to recipe in the new cookbook, “The wagon wheel pasta with pancetta and peas is a pleasure for the entire family!”

Backstage in the Green Room, De Laurenttis, casually sits with her feet propped on a couch wearing a simple, but stylish white shirt and dark jeans. She talks as if she has known you for years and is intrigued in all aspects of the conversation. Traveling from city to city across the country, she is on a 3 month long book tour, promoting “Weeknights with Giada” Her favorite food must-haves while on the road: fresh croutons and chocolate.

De Laurentiis was born in Rome into a large, Italian family where food was a necessary part of her culture. She spent much of her time in the family’s kitchen where she acknowledges that her first memory is making pizza with her grandfather, legendary film producer Dino De Laurentiis. Although you would never know it now, De Laurentiis admits that she was a very introverted, young girl. “I was incredibly shy. Growing up in a loud, boisterous Italian family, everyone had very big personalities and as a child I was very quiet.” But she didn’t let her shyness keep her away from discovering her true passion at a young age. “I truly loved cooking. It was a time of solace to me.” At the age of 8, De Laurentiis’s lifestyle was turned upside down, when the family moved to New York City.“I remember not being able to speak their language. I remember going to school on a bus and sitting in the back by myself. And I remember eating lunch by myself because I had a weird lunch. In the late 70’s it wasn’t cool to be different. My mother cut my hair like a boy, nobody could pronounce my name, and I ate nutella sandwiches.” In 1996, De Laurentiis graduated from UCLA. She met her husband, Todd Thompson, at the young age of 19. Thompson is a fashion designer for Anthropologie. They married in 2003 and have now been together for almost 22 years.

With aspirations of becoming a pastry chef, De Laurentiis packed her bags and moved to Paris to study at Le Cordon Bleu. Here she was truly put to the test.”They were extremely hard on females. It was all about sheer determination and it was very difficult. But it was a learning experience. I wouldn’t have known how to survive in a restaurant kitchen had I not have had those experiences.”

Toasted Ciabatta with Shrimp, Tarragon, and Arugula

After returning to the U.S., she worked in several restaurants in Los Angeles as a chef. Working in a restaurant kitchen was not an easy task for De Laurentiis, “You work two weeks straight without a day off, you get paid five bucks an hour or less, you can’t pay your rent, you don’t really have a personal life and your working from 11 a.m. to 3 or 4 in the morning. It’s a very different life.” Shortly after, De Laurentiis started a thriving business as a personal chef. She developed a list of high profile clients, with director Ron Howard as her first. She then put her food stylist skills to the test by styling a piece for Food & Wine magazine. “It really brought me back to the creativity that I got to experience in Paris.” And soon after that piece was published, the life changing adventure was about to happen for De Laurentiis…Food Network called.

She started her cooking show, “Everyday Italian”, in 2003. De Laurentiis became highly popular with the success of the program but starting out required some adjustment. “Food Network wanted me to dress like Martha Stewart. Martha Stewart wore a pressed, white buttoned up shirt and dressed very conservatively, which is fine because it works perfectly with her personality. But for me, personally, the type of body that I have, you can’t wear that kind of stuff. My arms are too short, my chest is a little different, and I can’t move in those types of shirts. I told them, I want to be who I am.”

Thai Turkey Lettuce Cups

The world came to fall in love with De Laurentiis’s unique charm, charisma, and talent both on and off the air. Since, she has launched her hit show “Giada at Home”, is a judge on the cooking competition show “The Next Food Network Star”, and is a regular contributor on NBC’s “Today” show. Through the years of watching, many of us have wondered, who are the lucky people who are always featured on De Laurentiis’s shows and get to sample all of her tasty creations? “They are all my family and friends. I insisted that I wanted to do the show in Los Angeles because that’s where my family is. I needed them for support, inspiration, and to come on the show and eat my food!” Many of her famed recipes are first featured on Food Network and taste tested by family, friends, and staff. The very best recipes are then included in her cookbooks.

The De Laurentiis empire continued to grow when she launched her own line of kitchen supplies exclusively at Target. “I wanted to find a way to give people a variety and flavor of my type of food at a very reasonable price. The whole idea for me was to make something that is easy for women to use. I always feel that if you have things in the kitchen that look great, feel great, and you feel good using, you will want to go back and cook with them more often.” The collection features an assortment of cookware, stylish utensils, ceramic bakeware, and a variety of specialty pastas and sauces designed specifically for many of her recipes. De Laurentiis’s five kitchen essentials include garlic, lemons, frozen vegetables, fresh herbs, and olive oil. “These are basic items that everyone should keep in their kitchen to whip up a quick meal any night of the week.”

Toasted Ciabatta with Shrimp, Tarragon, and Arugula

In July, De Laurentiis was honored with the opportunity to prepare a meal worthy for royalty. She was invited to not only cook for, but also serve, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge during their tour of the United States. “This was on a completely different level. Prince William was an incredibly charming man. I had a moment where I thought to myself, I have to go before I say something that sounds so stupid.” On the royal menu: her Sweet Corn and Basil Lasagna, a decadent recipe that you can treat yourself to in “Weeknights with Giada.”

As for all of you who ponder the question, Does Giada really eat? “My saying is big appetite, eat like a bird! Small portions. I don’t eat huge plates of pasta—I eat a little bit of everything I like.”, De Laurentiis proudly states. The petite chef has also set her eyes on expanding her franchise even further. De Laurenttis admits that she has thought about the idea of opening her own restaurant. Although, for those of you who are already gearing up for the opening, you may have to wait a little while. “I have thought about opening a restaurant but I think that will be another child. I want to wait a little longer. Jade is too young right now and my husband says that I would live at the restaurant and they would never see me.”

De Laurentiis admits that she is not in this role for the money and fame.“It’s not just me in this business; every decision has to be based on my family. My brother died at 30 from Melanoma and if there’s anything I’ve learned from that experience it’s that you don’t take anything for granted. I have said, since then, I am going to live my life everyday to the fullest for his sake.”

Through her cookbooks, shows, and merchandise, Giada De Laurentiis has quickly become a common household name. Her main goal is simple. “I am trying to help people do what I love to do.” And she certainly makes that clear by making most things look effortless. Her cooking skills, complimented by her splendid personality and manner make De Laurentiis beloved in kitchens all around the world.

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