Get To Know Giada

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GUSTAVO CABALLERO / GETTY IMAGES

Chef Giada De Laurentis during a cooking demonstration at the South Beach Food And Wine Festival in Miami Beach, Florida.

The 35-year Food Network chef may look like she was born to be in the kitchen, but De Laurentiis tells TIME's Alice Park that her family wasn't too keen on a life as a chef for her. Her grandfather, movie producer Dino De Laurentiis, had established strong roots in Hollywood, and had lured his daughters and other members of the clan to Tinseltown. Giada was supposed to follow suit, but she had her own ideas.

Q: How did you get interested in cooking?

A: Food was always a big part of my life. My grandfather was one of 14 kids, and his parents had a pasta factory, so as a kid, he and his siblings would sell pasta door to door. After he became a movie producer, he opened up De Laurentiis Food Stores — one in Los Angeles and one in New York. I was 12, and I would go there after school. I just fell in love with the whole scene. It was a gourmet grocery store that also had a kitchen and served food. I loved being in the kitchen, watching the customers come in and talk about what they liked and didn't like. He had to close the stores after two years, but for me, they left an imprint.

Q: With so many family members in the movie business, did you ever get bitten by the acting bug?

A: No! The summer before I went to culinary school, my family wanted me to take a job on a movie to make sure that I was making the right decision. I think they hoped I would change my mind about culinary school. They felt that being a woman, I didn't know what I wanted. They thought that cooking professionally was for men, not women. Being a traditional Italian family, I think they just wanted me to get married and have kids! But I went to the set, which was a movie my grandfather was producing with my aunt. She moved me everywhere, from costume design to set design, and nothing clicked for me. I hated it. Nothing about it made me want to get up and work — except for the catering truck. It was interesting for me to see how they did so much from such a little truck.

Q: You ended up going on to the Cordon Bleu in Paris. What ws that experience like?

A: After convincing my family that I really wanted to be a chef, I got to Paris and I hated it for the first two months. I was lonely; I had never been away from my family. It was rough, and school was rough. And the chefs were so hard on us. For an American girl who's used teachers that are nice to you, they were evil. They threw stuff at us — sauces, knives. It is a different mentality. They were treating us the way they were treated coming up, and they were letting us have it. Nobody can prepare you for that. But it's not like that any more.

Q: After graduating, you came back to Los Angeles and became personal chef. Who was your first client?

A: I'll admit, my family connections helped. Ron Howard became my first client. He had moved to LA for a while, and he needed a chef for a year. It was great. He has four kids, and I was having fun and they were wonderful to work for.

Q: How did you get spotted for Food Network?

A: I had been doing some food styling, and did some work for Martha Stewart Living and Food and Wine magazines. Then 9-11 happened, and Food and Wine decided to do a family-themed issue. They wanted to do a lunch with my family, and it happened to coincide with the year my grandfather was honored with a Lifetime Achievement award at the Oscars. And they said I could style my own food — that was the hook for me. After the issue came out, I got a call from the Food Network. The rest is history.

Q: You seem so comfortable in front of the camera. Was it easy to become a food host?

A: When the Food Network called, they said just put yourself on tape — they didn't care if I made a peanut butter jelly sandwich, they just needed to see how I looked on camera. It took me six months to make that tape! I was like, I can't do it, I can't talk to a camera, I'm too shy. They whole reason I wanted to be a chef was because chefs never came out of the kitchen. My husband said, we don't have to tell anybody, just do it. So I finally did. It's gotten much easier now.

Q: Where do you get your inspiration for your recipes?

A: My initial inspiration is threefold. My grandfather gave me inspiration to cook, and love food and flavors. My Aunt Raffie, gave me creativity and the inspiration to create new things. My mother inspires me to find simplicity in food. Those are the three people who molded me. Now my family inspires me, traveling inspires me, my viewers and fans, the people I meet on tours. Talking to people and other chefs, eating out, they all make me better.

Q: So what does your family think of your decision to become a chef now?

A: It's funny. My grandfather says it's mind boggling to him, because people say to him, 'Are you related to Giada?' And he says, 'You've got this all wrong, SHE'S related to ME.' For him, it's like 'Whoa, what happened?' Nobody in the food world can imagine that this is where we would be today, no one. Attitudes toward food have completely changed.

Q: You're in Kitchen Stadium — which Iron Chef do you want to take on?

A: Mario Batali. I love him. He's a wonderful, wonderful friend, and so giving in his knowledge. We have the same approach and a different approach. I'd like to see what happens.