A Conversation with Giada De Laurentiis | Giada Stars at the 18th Annual San Diego Sicilian Italian Festival

May 22, 2011

As a globally revered celebrity chef, Giada De Laurentiis doesn't enjoy much free time for casual travel, especially since she has to balance raising a growing family with her flourishing career. Given her eventful and demanding schedule, the Los Angeles native rarely has a chance to enjoy San Diego, and says she was especially thrilled to visit as part of her promotion of Italy's Bella Serra wines at the 18th Annual San Diego Sicilian Italian Festival.

Based on festival buzz, San Diegans were even more excited about Giada's visit, and lined up in droves both for signed copies of her latest book, Giada at Home, and to watch her afternoon cooking demonstration.

Giada De Laurentiis is a household name among epicureans, and she is in increasing demand throughout the food industry.  As a Food Network star, author of best-selling cookbooks, frequent co-host of the Today show, spokesperson for Barilla, and the brand name on a line of products offered by Target, Giada is a bustling success with a golden touch.  Her new venture with Bella Sera promotes a culinary premise that isn't new, but can't be repeated too often: Delicious food deserves delicious wine.  At the Sicilian Festa, Giada made this point by demonstrating recipes that paired perfectly with Bella Sera wines.

Even with so much on her plate, Giada sat down with SanDiegoVille reporter, Henry Lewis, to share revelations about her home life, her upcoming book, vegetarian cooking and why traditional Italian food is so darn delicious.

On your personal website, you have a Giada's Favorites Section, and San Diego is left out. First, why didn't SD make the list? Second, if you were to choose locations within San Diego to list a
s your favorites, what would they be?

Most of my 'favorites' are from my show Weekend Getaways, and I did not get a chance to come to San Diego. San Diego was not a choice for various reasons, whether it is because the Food Network felt that it wasn't strong enough or other talent had already come and pretty much covered San Diego. Whatever it could have been, I don't actually know.

I don't actually spend a lot of time in San Diego. I have spent some time in Coronado and a little bit of time in Del Mar, but not actually in San Diego proper. I live in Los Angeles, but I think that the issue is that I have a three year old, so spontaneously coming down to San Diego doesn't quite work...I think it just hasn't been the right time and I really have not had a reason to come down here, which is why I thought it would be really fun...I haven't been down here in a long time, and I have heard a lot about this particular festival...

I work a lot with Bella Sera. So, when they asked me to come down to San Diego, I thought how I have not been down here in about 5 years, since, I think, my first book signing...So I said, you know what, I'd love to...come down, check it out, check out the festival, and feel out San Diego a little bit, because I feel like I've really been missing out.

How do you think San Diego's Little Italy Dis
trict compares to other Italian neighborhoods around the county? What makes it unique in comparison?

Well, I can just tell you from the people that I've met this morning, that it is very similar in the sense of community and Italian heritage and the authenticity of where they live. I have to say that I think that a lot of Little Italy's are very similar in a sense...we are so tightly knit in our communities that you can kind of see it when you walk up and down the streets.

Everybody speaks Italian, number one – fluently and very well, which means generations upon generations have been speaking it to their families and keeping the culture going.

I think you see it with a lot of Italian neighborhoods throughout the country. It is a culture that is very strong. We haven't lost our sense of community, our sense of food, and pride and passion for our culture, which I think is what attracts people to our food and to Italian people.

I've spent time in Italy. It seems to me that food is, all in all, on a higher level there. Do you find the same thing? And do you have an explanation that American restaurateurs can possibly learn from the Italian culinary culture?

You know, it's funny - it isn't complicated - it is very simple, peasant, rustic food. Now, having said that, it ranges from region to region. Italian food, like a lot of other food, is extremely regional, so it will change dramatically depending on where you are. But the thing that I think holds true is that the ingredients are simple, the food is very simple, and Italians are just extremely passionate. I think that if you travel the world, there are only a handful of places where the people are that passionate, and that warm, and that loving, and they use food to draw you in. That is what we all do, and I think that is why people are attracted to Italian cooking and our culture.

I know that you are doing a cooking demonstration in which you are preparing dishes to be paired with certain Bella Serra wines; have you considered authoring a cook book that will follow the same path now that you're partnered with the company?

The only issue would be that because wines change with each season, depending on the wine, depending on the crop, depending on so much, it would be hard to guarantee that it would work over a long period of time. It is very seasonal, so I think it is hard to do that. Also, wine is like many other things in life, in, I think, everybody likes something different, so it's a harder thing to try and group together. But I wouldn't say that it is impossible and wouldn't ever happen. I don't know, but it is not in the near future.

In San Diego, and increasingly around the country, restaurateurs are embracing organic ingredients, sustainable farming, and attempting to obtain as many ingredients as possible from local farms. Do you support these ideals in your own cooking? If yes, to what extent?

I think that the traditional way of cooking Italian is such types of ingredients. I think Italy is one of the last countries that really does use a lot of organic ingredients, which is why people always say, 'Oh I go to Italy and don't gain any weight' or 'I dont get sick' or whatever, because their food is just very pure. So, I would say that as much as I can I do.

I also think it's important to shop with the seasons, and that's what they do in Italy. I think it's just really important for people to understand that strawberries are not in season all year around and that's why when they're not in season you pay an arm and a leg and they have no flavor. And tomatoes aren't in season all year around, so there are times to make sauces out of canned tomatoes and then there are times when you make the sauces out of fresh tomatoes. And I think that is what is really important, people starting to understand what is in season and when things are in season...then we really will start cooking more organically and will use the farmers' markets to get a lot of our produce.

How would you describe your role as a chef? Obviously your specialty is Italian cooking, but what are your
priorities for what you'd like to provide for your audience?

My recipes are based on my mood and what I feel like eating, the inspirations that I get when I travel and meet people and talk to fans about what they want more of. Last season, I posted on the Internet that I was looking for and wanted my viewers to sort of guide me into a theme that they want ed me to take or what kind of food they wanted me to cook...The response was that people were looking for more flavorful vegetarian dishes. I think that I was taken aback by that a little bit, because I didn't realize that there was such a great need for that. Now, my mother is vegetarian, and she has been for about 15 years, so I do create vegetarian dishes. I wouldn't say that I do them constantly, because I'm married to someone who loves meat. My husband, Todd, is from Michigan and loves his meat and potatoes, so obviously I do that as well.

A lot of times people go out to eat and vegetarian dishes are an afterthought - just throw some vegetables on that plate, some rice, and we're good to go... And people don't want to feel like they're an afterthought. So a new focus is on a lot more vegetarian dishes that are easy to make and that the family will enjoy because the worst thing is having to make 3 different meals because there are all different eaters.

Now in my home, we have adopted meatless Monday, every Monday, regardless if my husband likes it or not...but he does seem to enjoy it. I make these unbelievable Swiss Chard rolls that have lentils and brown rice in them. So I blanche the Swiss chards, and these days you can actually buy brown rice that is parboiled, and lentils that come in a can, and you strain them, and mix them together with ricotta cheese and fresh basil. Then I take the Swiss chard leaves and put a mixture of the brown rice, lentils and cheese into the center, roll them up, put then on a baking sheet, top them with some tomato sauce and shredded Parmigiana cheese, put them in the oven, bake them, and it is like having any baked pasta, but there is no pasta and no meat. And it is delicious, and flavorful, and colorful, and you feel satisfied, and that is the bottom line.

Veganism has become very popular. Now, it is hard for me because Italian cooking uses a lot of cheese. I always say to people, it is really hard to go from being a meat eater and eating all that stuff to just becoming a vegan. It's a slow process, and you have to change your taste buds, as well as the way your body and mind think. Vegetarianism is a wonderful way, and you don't have to do it every day. Even if you did it one day a week, we would save so much in gas emissions. So, it is little by little, baby steps...so when people said that, I thought, change is about to happen.

So, what will be the motif for the next cookbook? Word on the street is that now that you have a 3 year old at home, it is quicker meals.

It is. That is good word on the street. Word's out! It is Weeknights with Giada, that is the title, and it comes out April of 2012. And yes, it is meals that you can pretty much make in under an hour – for your family. And the Swiss chard recipe is in there.


It was a pleasure having the opportunity to converse with the charming and beautiful Giada De Laurentiis. If you think you may have a winning recipe that could impress the likes of Giada, enter the Beautiful Evenings with Bella Sera and Giada Recipe Contest, and be sure to check out Weeknights with Giada early next Spring.