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The Food Network's Latest 'It' Girl

By Candy Sagon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 20, 2005

The line snaked around the Williams-Sonoma cookware store in Mazza Gallerie, spilled out the door and encircled the escalator landing on the second floor. Eventually, nearly 500 people would wait for up to two hours on a recent Sunday afternoon in Northwest Washington to see the woman inside, signing cookbooks at one of three appearances in the Washington area.

The author they were waiting for was Giada (pronounced JAH-da) De Laurentiis, granddaughter of the famed movie director Dino De Laurentiis and the Food Network's new "It" Girl. The 34-year-old former caterer has a popular television cooking show called "Everyday Italian," a new cookbook that's sold a quarter of a million copies in less than two months, and a look that has nearly every man in line wanting to have his photo taken with her.

Darrell Landon of Woodley Park says he watched her show just once and knew he wanted to see her in person. "I had no idea the line would be this long. My day is shot," he said with a grin. Landon, holding a cookbook, said he cooks a lot and likes her recipes. "I saw her make this broccoli rabe and pasta dish. The food seemed so easy and quick."

Lisa Lindberg, a mother of three from Columbia who had been waiting an hour, said she and her children watch De Laurentiis every afternoon: "I like her personality. She seems like someone you'd like to have over to your home."

Like her fellow Food Network stars Rachael Ray and Ina Garten -- the latter described as one of her favorite authors -- De Laurentiis' appeal is her reassuring demeanor and her easy, homey recipes.

It's all part of the Food Network's shift toward practical home cooking, said Susan Stockton, vice president for culinary productions. "We were very chef-y in the beginning, but viewers told us they wanted one-stop grocery store recipes they could make every day."

De Laurentiis clearly taps into that desire. She also is the latest Food Network star to use her television popularity to drive cookbook sales.

Six of the current 10 top-selling cookbooks on Amazon.com are by three Food Network stars: De Laurentiis (with the No. 1 best-selling book), Ray (four titles) and Paula Deen (one). Garten, whose previous three books have sold more than 1 million copies, has the No. 11 spot with her latest cookbook, "Barefoot in Paris." At Borders and Waldenbooks, 12 of the top 25 cookbooks in 2004 were by five Food Network authors (Garten, Ray, Deen, Emeril Lagasse and Alton Brown).

De Laurentiis' wild ride as a food celebrity began last September, she said, when her 3-year-old cooking show went from being aired twice a week to twice a day. "Viewership exploded," she said.

When it was announced that an "Everyday Italian" cookbook was being published in February, Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com were flooded with pre-orders. Although her contract with Clarkson Potter called for an initial 30,000-copy printing, the book has sold 250,000 copies in seven weeks, De Laurentiis said.

Taking a break after 2 1/2 hours of signing books and smiling for photos, she said she's still stunned by her sudden success. She has been touring the country, doing cooking demonstrations and book signings in cities from Atlanta to Los Angeles, with big crowds showing up at nearly every stop. "Every time I go into a new market, I'm amazed," she says.

On this afternoon, she's wearing fashionable jeans, a dark brown top and a peach knit scarf. She has a wide smile and blue eyes. Her long hair, usually worn pulled back on her show, is down. Although she's been up since well before dawn to catch a flight from Orlando, she's still energetic, with a sharp sense of humor.

Yet she worries -- about taking on too many projects, about becoming overexposed. She already has a second cookbook planned for next year (family-style entertaining, including holiday recipes) and a second, more travel-oriented show in the works.

De Laurentiis was born in Rome but moved to southern California when she was 7. Her large, extended family would gather every Sunday at her grandfather's house in Beverly Hills for a day of cooking and eating. She was always given dessert duty, a passion that continues today.

After graduating from UCLA in 1996 with a degree in social anthropology, she spent a year at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, studying pastry and cuisine.

She returned to California and worked in the kitchens of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Marina del Rey and at Spago in Beverly Hills, but decided the restaurant business was too grueling. Instead, she started her own catering company.

Three years ago, a friend at Food & Wine magazine asked her to do a story on her large Italian family and the food they loved. The article led to a call from the Food Network, who was looking for an Italian-style home cooking show. She shot a demo video (making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich) and was hired, much to her surprise.

"I'm a shy person," she says. "My husband says he always knew I had it in me. But in the beginning, I wasn't sure I could do it. The show has helped me come out of my shell. It's helped me blossom."

As for how television is reshaping the cookbook market, at least one publisher feels that food shows encourage more non-cooks to buy cookbooks.

"The Food Network is growing and expanding the market for cookbooks," says Pam Krauss, editorial director at Clarkson Potter, publishers of De Laurentiis, Ray and Garten. "What they have done is get people who never cook, cooking."

Hosts like De Laurentiis also represent a new generation of cooking shows, Krauss says, "because they cook in real time. There are no swap-outs and all that 'wink, wink, through the magic of television, here's the finished dish.' People watch her and feel empowered. They think, 'I can do that.' "

© 2005 The Washington Post Company