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If Giada De Laurentiis had listened to her famous grandfather, she would never have become a famous chef. "My grandfather felt that cooking was a man's job," she says, referring to film producer Dino De Laurentiis, known for such classics as Serpico and King Kong. "He'd say, 'You're too petite to be a chef. Get married, have kids, and bake cookies on the side.' But I wasn't interested in that life."
Instead, De Laurentiis was intent on chasing her dream. After graduating from UCLA in 1996, she moved to Paris and trained at Le Cordon Bleu cooking school before heading back to California, where she worked for Wolfgang Puck.
Taking bold leaps is part of her heritage. She was born in Rome, but her family moved to Los Angeles when she was 8 to be closer to her grandfather, who had settled in Hollywood the year before. "At the time I didn't speak English," she says. "The kids at school ridiculed me for looking different and having a strange name." She found comfort in the kitchen, cooking alongside her food-loving grandmother and bonding with her grandfather [who died in 2010 at the age of 92] over quirky dishes like fresh ricotta cheese topped with sugar and cocoa powder. "We were the only two at the table who would touch it," she says.
Now married and mother to a 4-year-old daughter named Jade, De Laurentiis, 41, has built her own branded empire that includes several Food Network shows, a line of cookware at Target, and six cookbooks. The latest, Weeknights with Giada, focuses on simple recipes that are perfect for cozy family evenings. Smart and surprisingly open, De Laurentiis talked to Ladies' Home Journal about how she found the courage to follow her bliss.
How difficult was it to go against your grandfather's wishes?
It was very hard. I was the oldest grandchild. My grandfather was the patriarch of the family and everybody did what he said.
What made you stand firm and say, "This is what I want"?
I grew up in a traditional Italian family where my dad controlled everything and my mom wasn't happy. She wanted to be an actress, and instead, she had four children. She always regretted it, and I didn't want that for myself. I admired my Aunt Raffy, my mother's sister, who made movies and was independent, traveling the world, having fun. She didn't have any children and early on she said to me, "Don't worry what everybody tells you -- pursue whatever it is you want." Women tend to give up their own dreams for their husbands or children. But if you do, you will wake up one day and feel trapped. We should take a lesson from men because in general -- they're a lot more selfish than we are. My grandfather lived a long, fabulous life, but I don't think he spent one minute doing something for someone else that he didn't want to do.
When did you know that you'd found your passion?
I got lucky because I figured it out early, but not everybody does. Some of us follow what our parents tell us to do and then realize later, "That's not what I want." When I got out of culinary school, I came back to Los Angeles and worked in restaurants and I was disillusioned. The environment in restaurant kitchens is pretty gnarly: You work 14- or 15-hour days and you don't get paid anything. At one point I was making $5.50 an hour and I said to my boyfriend [now her husband, clothing designer Todd Thompson], "I'm working like an animal and I can't afford to pay rent." So I started my own catering company. Around that time I did an article in Food & Wine about my family. That's when the Food Network called. It took me six months to even send them a tape because I had to convince myself I had nothing to lose. What if they wrote back and said, "You suck"? But you're only here once. You need to live with no regrets because you don't know how long your time is.
Is this a lesson you learned after your younger brother, Dino, died?
Yes, when he was 29 he found out he had skin cancer and was dead within nine months. It was such a shock to have someone die that fast, that young. I realized at that point that life is so fragile, you have to make the most of it.
With all the TV shows and businesses you keep adding to your schedule, how are you able to stay calm?
Any woman who has children and a career feels a lot of stress. We think we're superwomen, but we're not, and it's okay to ask for help. My husband puts my daughter to bed and gets her up in the morning. And I have two wonderful women who help take care of Jade with me. But I want my daughter to see a strong woman who goes after what she wants. I used to feel so guilty when I left to travel for work, but now I think of it as my escape. It gives my husband time to miss me, and it's bonding time for him and Jade.
You've said you didn't care about getting married or having kids, yet you did both.
I met my husband when I was 19 and he was 28. There were a lot of things I wanted to do, and getting married wasn't one of them. I didn't want a man to rule my life, and I knew that having a career and making my own money would be important. Fortunately, Todd helped me gain the confidence to continue in our relationship even when there were ups and downs. It took us 13 years to get married, and when he asked me, I was ready.
What changed your mind about kids?
To be honest, I got pregnant by accident. I didn't even admit the pregnancy to myself until I started showing at five months. I remember going into labor and saying to my husband, "Oh my God, this baby is going to change our lives forever." It was a scary moment. But our daughter has been such a joy, and now I can't imagine life without her. Everyone asks when I'm going to have another one. I'm 41. The clock is ticking. If it happens, it happens.
Have you been able to appreciate what has happened to you and see yourself as a success?
My grandfather told me once he was going through an airport and someone stopped him and said, "Are you related to Giada?" He looked at her and said, "No, she's related to me." We all laughed. People ask me all the time, "How did you get to where you are?" I don't know. Opportunities present themselves and you have to enjoy the ride. All of us get so worried about the next step that we don't enjoy the moment we're in right now. When I turned 40 I discovered a sense of self I've never had before. I also realized how much I need my girlfriends and appreciate the power of women to help each other through.
Can you give me an example of when you and your girlfriends were there for one another?
One of my close friends with two children was diagnosed with breast cancer. My husband was throwing me a birthday party and she didn't want to come because she'd lost all her hair. I said, "Let's go find a wig that makes you feel beautiful." We got her a blond wig and I wore one that night, too, in solidarity. It was so much fun to see her laugh. Those are the kind of things you do to support your friends that no man ever could.
And maybe something you can do only when you're older and you feel more secure.
Yeah, if I was younger I might have said, "It's my birthday party and I want to look the best I can." Now I can be playful about how I look.
Speaking of which, there are any number of YouTube videos dedicated to your appearance.
One particular body part, right?
People seem fascinated by your cleavage. But more importantly, you have a natural sensuality that seems different from American women's.
Being Italian, I embrace sensuality. In the old days people like Sophia Loren were sexy, but sophisticated sexy. You have to leave something for people to fantasize about. Do some men watch my show only for my chest? Sure. But you take the good with the bad. My job is to help women feel good about themselves -- and to learn how to cook in the process. When I do those things, I feel good about myself.
Giving and getting validation seems important to you.
It meant the world to me when my grandfather said to me shortly before he died, "I'm proud of you. You were able to make such a life for yourself that didn't have anything to do with me." Of course, my family is a big part of what I do. But hearing that, I suddenly felt like I was good enough, that my family really liked me. At the end of the day, that's what I care about.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, April 2012.