The year was 2005.
I was 14 and on the living room floor of our Eastern Kentucky home with a bowl of celebratory cereal. The occasion? Our local provider, Intermountain Cable, added new channels to my family’s basic television package. Up to this point in my life, the only televised exposure to cooking I had were Magic Bullet infomercials, which I admittedly knew by heart. It was this day, however, all of that changed thanks to two wonderful words.
I flipped to channel 58 for the first time and was surprised by what I saw. There were no chef hats or coats, no Emeril in front of a studio audience; there was a stunningly beautiful woman, in a gorgeous home kitchen, preparing a dish with pancetta.
What’s pancetta? And what was mascarpone? I would learn the answers to these culinary questions and many more, because from that day forward at 7:30 A.M., 4:30 P.M. and any time I would catch it on, I dropped everything to watch Giada De Laurentiis on Everyday Italian. This show, this woman, this is the reason I fell in love with food.
Flash forward. It’s 2015 and I’m 23 years old. Giada De Laurentiis walks up to me and asks, “Are you China?”
This is not a dream, I told myself. You have to breathe. You have to say something to Giada. The Giada. I’ve been blogging for two months and I’ve somehow managed to be the only writer in Washington, D.C. who gets to sit down and have a face-to-face conversation – with Giada.
In hindsight, I can barely remember what I said, just that it was a breathless, babbled opening of how much I adore her. Thankfully, Jill Collins suggested we move to the couch of MetroCooking DC’s VIP room so I could comfortably ask my questions. Within moments of sitting down, Giada’s approachability put me at ease. She looked casual and cozy for a blustery day in D.C., with a light fall scarf and leather jacket layered over her cream sweater and jeans. From her signature wavy locks, to her bright eyes and warm smile, Giada is just as lovely and bubbly in person as she is on television.
Giada discusses cooking with two audience members during an October 24 demonstration of her lamb osso bucco.
Like me, millions of other adoring fans already know her story: born in Rome to a family of film producers and stars, studied at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, Emmy award-winning host of a slew of fabulous shows, author of best-selling cookbooks, owner of her Las Vegas restaurant, GIADA – this list goes on and on.
After settling on the couch and collecting myself, I was finally able to remember my goal: bring the conversation to Giada and Washington. Thank god I had my questions written down, because my brain had gone as mushy as ricotta.
CR: I noticed you did an interview with WTOP ahead of your arrival to Washington. You mentioned liking Georgetown’s Bourbon Steak. Did you have dinner there last night?
GDL: I did. It’s kind of a tradition.
CR: When you mentioned Bourbon Steak to WTOP, you said a good steak and bourbon make you happy. As a Kentucky girl, and author of our Urban Bourbon column, I have to ask – what’s your favorite bourbon or whiskey?
GDL: Whistling Pig. I actually learned about bourbon from Alton Brown. We were on the set of Food Network Star and I said “Alton! I know nothing about bourbon. You have to teach me about bourbon!” So, Alton set up a full bourbon tasting class in his dressing room and we learned about bourbon between takes.
CR: You said your trips to Bourbon Steak are a tradition, and I’ve noticed in interviews, on your Twitter and on Instagram that you come to Washington often; that it’s one of your favorite cities.
GDL: It is. I find that I always try to pick gigs in Washington. I just like the vibe, the energy. It’s such a young city, with a diverse mix of cultures and races, which makes it fun. And it’s so nice this time of year, in the fall – it’s much warmer than New York.
CR: So if you could describe D.C. in a word, it would be diverse?
CR: Your website even features Washington as one of your favorite getaways. You have eleven recommended restaurants from notable D.C. chefs, such as José Andrés and Mike Isabella. Do you have personal relationships with these chefs? Who are you closest with in the D.C. food scene?
GDL: Well, I know José Andrés. I adore him. I also know Michael Mina. I know Mike Isabella and Spike Mendelsohn a little, as well.
CR: What do you think these chefs are bringing to the overall food scene? What are they doing to differentiate Washington from cities like New York or L.A.?
GDL: José definitely brought something special to this city. He said D.C. needed a new food scene, he thought he could start that culture and ultimately he did. Washington’s overall food scene has so many international cuisines and influences. Maybe even more so than New York and Vegas, where I located my own restaurant.
CR: What a perfect segway to my next question! I saw your restaurant just introduced its brunch menu. The strawberry polenta waffles look fantastic! I’m not sure if you know, but brunch is huge in D.C.
GDL [looking to her agent, then back at me]: Really? I didn’t know that.
CR: Yes! So, since Washington is one of your favorite cities, and brunch is Washington’s favorite meal, I have to ask – what’s your favorite brunch dish?
GDL: My polenta waffles topped with a fried egg. Did you also see we added my Italian chicken and waffles?
CR: Of course! As a girl with a Southern palette, chicken and waffles are one my favorites. So, another brunch question – bottomless bloody marys or bottomless mimosas?
GDL: Mimosas! Definitely mimosas. I hate tomato juice.
CR: So, on Feasting Famously, we like to play a few games. The first is a word game, where I say a word and you say the first thing that pops in your head, and the second is what I call “The Situation Room.” Are you up for playing?
GDL: Sure, let’s do it.
Famous Fast Four
Pasta – Rigatoni
Lobbyist – Jeff (her agent who was a lobbyist for four months)
Washington – José Andrés
MetroCooking DC – Christina Tosi (who took a break from opening Milk Bar in D.C. to headline at MCDC)
The Situation Room
GDL is in a food fight. What would she throw and at whom would she throw it?
Initially stumped by the question, Giada finally decided on a “blueberry pie…at…Bobby Flay.”
GDL is elected POTUS and has the power to pass all menu laws in America. What dish would all Americans be required to eat? What dish would she totally outlaw?
“Everyone would eat my lemon spaghetti,” said Giada, putting her famous Italian emphasis on spaghetti, another surreal moment, as I’ve spent years trying to pronounce words like her. “I would outlaw…diet drinks.”
CR: I know we only have a minute or two left, so I have one final question – can I have your autograph?
The room filled with a collective “awwww,” as I broke one of the cardinal interviewing rules. Giada laughed and said “I’ll do it for you, China!” I pulled out my Everyday Italian cookbook, watched her sign my name (even her autograph was perfect) and then Giada had to be on her way to a private meet and greet. Her entire day at MCDC was packed, so I was thankful to get a few of her spare minutes.
“That was so cute! You did great,” Giada said pulling me into a hug. “Good luck!”
I walked out of the VIP room feeling dazed from what just happened (did that actually happen?) and slightly embarrassed at having asked for Giada’s autograph. I cringed at my lack of professionalism and cursed myself for days, but then it hit me.
That autograph wasn’t just for 23-year-old China, attempting to find her way through the Washington food blogosphere. It was for 14-year-old China who ran to explain what pancetta was to her mother and ask where they could buy it. It was for 16-year-old China who glowed with pride after successfully preparing Giada’s ultimate grilled cheese. It was for 20-year-old China who had finally mastered the art of bruschetta mozzarella. It was for all of those versions of myself who although different, still shared the common influence of Giada De Laurentiis; America’s beloved chef, a household name, my culinary hero.
But ultimately, it was 23-year-old China who managed to be in the right place at the right time to meet Giada face-to-face; and despite being staggeringly different from all of my past selves, her presence (albeit this time in person) still had the same effect. I went home, feeling inspired, and I cooked.
Thank you to MetroCooking DC for hosting this spectacular event, to Jill Collins for making this interview possible and to Giada, for taking the time to speak with me, for indulging my unprofessional autograph request and for making a foodie’s dream come true.