It seems automatic. A no-brainer. A piece of cake, or more specifically, a fresh batch of citrus-infused zeppoles.
Of course Giada de Laurentiis, one of the most popular food personalities in the world, should open her very first restaurant on the Las Vegas Strip. Of course the style and cuisine of the ever-smiling dynamo you know from TV’s Today, Everyday Italian, Giada at Home, Food Network Star and multiple New York Times-bestselling cookbooks, would be a smash-hit, out-of-the-park home run. Of course Giada fits perfectly among the many, many celebrity chefs whose names and restaurants litter almost every casino on Las Vegas Boulevard. Auto. Matic.
Giada the restaurant, which opened a year ago at the refashioned Cromwell boutique resort at the heart of the Strip, is an unequivocal success. For most of the past year, it was the toughest table in the city, packed for dinner every night. The space is vast, warm and relaxing; giant windows and awe-inspiring views of the Bellagio’s fountains don’t hurt. The food is delicious and even indulgent if you want it to be, yet light and delicate. It’s unlike any other Italian restaurant in the city, and that makes sense because Giada is unlike any other chef in Las Vegas. Maybe not in the way you think.
First, it wasn’t automatic. Far from it. And she was scared.
“I’ve never done this before, never had a restaurant ever. Ever,” she says over a plate of breakfast pastries. “This is a place where some of the best chefs in the world—not in the U.S., in the world—have restaurants. And I don’t have a track record. I know my food works for cookbooks, but how do I know it will work in a restaurant at this caliber, with more than 200 seats, in a hotel with 188 rooms? I was panicked I would never fill this place.”
Dig deeper into the situation, past the well-known brand and the ideal location, and challenges begin to reveal themselves. The Cromwell is tiny. Other restaurants have thousands of adjacent hotel rooms to support business, but this one—just like Drai’s Nightclub on the Cromwell’s roof—does not. “But Victor Drai has been doing clubs since I was a child. He knows his business, and he knows Vegas like the back of his hand,” Giada points out. She had to build her own team—and a relationship with Caesars Entertainment, which owns and operates the hotel—and create a dining experience that would live up to her fans’ and customers’ expectations.
“You can’t overstate how important Giada is to the property,” says Karie Hall, the Cromwell’s vice president and general manager. “We had a very unique opportunity to do something boutique and different, but it’s challenging without the room base. Giada has been incredible for us. She really sets a great presence.”
Hall says the restaurant served 260,000 visitors in its first year. That’s more than 700 covers a day, every day, between breakfast, lunch and dinner. Giada’s kitchen also handles the hotel’s room service and a light menu for lobby bar Bound. “It is very demanding,” Hall says. “We worked hard to get started at a pace she’s comfortable with, starting with dinner, then easing into [other service times]. It could be overwhelming, but she’s a great partner and she’s so good at getting all her unique touches into everything.”
A few of those touches took some convincing. Giada says she was told several of her favorite menu items wouldn’t work. “Everything had to have meat. My vegetable Bolognese? No, it has to be meat,” she says. “I said, ‘It’s going to be vegetables and that’s that.’ My lemon spaghetti? They didn’t think anyone would order that. And the branzino, the lightest thing on the menu, they said would never sell. I said, ‘Give me six months.’ And you know what? No. 1 sellers across the board.” Giada has been dedicated to creating a different experience from the traditional big Vegas restaurant from day one.
Building her first restaurant while negotiating Caesars’ corporate climate was challenging, “to say the least,” she says. “I have a vision of my brand and my food, and [maintaining that] isn’t something that just happens at the restaurant; it happens any time I do anything. Some people had a lot of confidence in my abilities, and others came on board later who were more skeptical. I was going into these big board meetings with all these men, trying to convince them this little Italian girl can actually make something work.”
Oh yeah, there’s that—she’s a woman. Very small, quite pretty. Giada is well aware she doesn’t look like other chefs on the Strip. But this challenge is a familiar one.
“When I started on television most people thought I was just some cute girl that decided to get put on television to sell Italian food,” she says. “Give her a couple of recipes and have her pretend and she can be a little actress. It didn’t help that my family was in the movie biz.” Her grandfather was the legendary film producer Dino De Laurentiis. Huge movie posters decorate Giada’s restaurant, which feels like a massive living room, and many of the bar’s cocktails are named after his films. “That didn’t legitimize me in any way. But I figured if I can sustain and show them over time, they would have to take me seriously. They can get to know me.”
There are only two other famous female chefs with restaurants on Las Vegas Boulevard, and they are business partners—Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger at Border Grill.
“There’s no question—it is a man’s world when you’re talking about Las Vegas,” Feniger says. “It’s never gotten in my way, and I always felt like we’ve been treated respectfully, but there is definitely that thing and you feel it.” Feniger and Milliken are independent operators, so their casino bosses are landlord-partners, but Feniger does wonder why more female restaurateurs and chefs haven’t found investment from casinos.
“My first question was why aren’t there more women here, and [the answer] was, ‘We don’t think anybody can draw,’” Giada says. “There’s just more confidence in a male chef, because male chefs have been successful here.”
Giada differs from the Border Girl duo because she started in media and then did the restaurant, and they did the opposite. So when she decided to try Vegas, she had to prove herself as a chef, again; as a restaurateur, for the first time; and as a capable businesswoman, always. “This is a boys club. Women don’t usually get let in very easily, ever,” she says. “But I will tell you I have good friends that are big-time chefs here and in other places that are surprised and somewhat impressed. I truly work hard. I come here and force them to tell me everything and force myself into this world and make sure they don’t just take my name, and hopefully that shows in the experience.”
A chef friend and fellow LA resident, Jet Tila did his time in Las Vegas with a restaurant at Encore. He dropped by Giada for the grand opening last year and was impressed, but he’s more impressed with its consistent success and growth. “I think a lot of industry people were pooh-poohing her behind her back when she got there,” Tila says. “She played it perfectly. She knows what’s up.”
Giada is in Las Vegas often, far more than many of her celebrity peers. She often takes two-day trips early in the week, when it’s easier to spend time in the dining room visiting guests without getting mobbed and creating problems for service. Her Vegas chef friends tell her she has to get out of the restaurant more, to see what else is happening on and off the Strip, to take a break. But once she’s in her restaurant, leaving is close to impossible.
This long, grinding first year has yielded success, but with a price. In December Giada made it public that she and her husband of 11 years, Todd Thompson, had been separated since July (right around the restaurant’s opening). They are divorcing. They have a daughter, Jade, who just graduated from first grade.
“This year has been an immense learning curve, and I’ve gone through a lot of change,” Giada says. “This restaurant unfortunately wasn’t good for my personal life. But you live and you learn, and I was warned this could happen because of the way I do business. I put myself 100 percent into it. But you roll with the punches, and you do what you do.”
The day after tasting pastries in her restaurant (you have to try the rosemary scone with strawberry jam), Giada is working the annual Keep Memory Alive Power of Love Gala at MGM Grand. She was supposed to be cooking with Wolfgang Puck, the culinary legend she worked for at Spago in Beverly Hills before her celebrity status. But Puck had to cancel. Giada was a little disappointed but maybe also a little pleased to be the only celeb chef on the bill.
Moving from task to task behind the scenes at the banquet, Giada claimed to be tired from being dragged through Omnia Nightclub the previous night with her niece, who “just had to stay until Calvin Harris came on.” But Giada’s energy level was just as high as the previous morning as she bounced between chores and smilingly allowed lots of backstage crew and F&B folks to take selfies with her. She chatted with Quincy Jones (“I met you when you were a little girl!”), hugged Larry Ruvo and delivered a bottle of Dom Pérignon to the dressing room of Grammy-winning jazz guitarist George Benson, whom she introduced to the crowd after leading her team in plating 1,500 dishes of braised Wagyu beef shortrib with Barolo wine reduction sauce, crispy lemon potatoes and roasted baby carrots.
That sounds like a lot, but there was plenty of standing around. She spent every free moment talking to her staff about the restaurant, working through problems and figuring out when to launch brunch—and whether they should sell pastry and coffee to-go in the mornings. (They should. That scone!) If you didn’t know this was driven, ambitious, world-famous Giada, you might think she’s obsessed with such details, or at least that she’s a very intense perfectionist. But there are lots of details. There have been lots of challenges. This is her first restaurant, and her name is on the building.
“You know how many people said to me I should do what Curtis Stone did in LA and open a little 20-seater to get my feet wet and understand the business?” Giada says. “I tell everyone the reason I did this is because I’m on television, and yes, I worked in restaurants, but people know me from TV.
“This is the entertainment city, and people come to be wined and dined like no other place in the world. I can’t do this in LA or New York or anywhere else. Where else can I open a restaurant and have this kind of company? You wanna be legit as a chef? Sh*t! Put yourself in this community and it’s sink or swim. Let’s do it.”