By Yitzi Weiner
Words of Wisdom With Chef Alexandra Guarnaschelli
“I am really obsessed with the idea that when you really hunker down and practice, you can get really good at something. I don’t think there is any shortcut for this. I remember the first time I made a meat sauce and instead of reducing the wine all the way and then adding the stock, I just added them both at the same time and reduced them because it was easier. Let me tell you that was the last time I made a meat sauce like that… raw wine doesn’t taste good in sauce.”
I had the pleasure to interview Chef Alexandra Guarnaschelli. In 2003, Guarnaschelli became the executive chef at Butter Restaurant, where she really had a chance to spread her wings and develop a menu based on her own choices and point of view. Guarnaschelli created an American menu spotlighting local ingredients and allowing their flavors to shine. After the success of Butter, in 2011, she opened The Darby, a unique supper club. In addition to restaurant work, Guarnaschelli also spent a few years instructing budding professional chefs as a chef-Instructor at New York City’s Institute of Culinary Education and became a member of the ICE Advisory Council. In Fall of 2015, Chef Guarnaschelli opened Driftwood Room at Nautilus South Beach in Miami, Florida. Also in Fall 2015, Guarnaschelli premiered her one-woman live comedy show, Busting My Chops at Carolines on Broadway. Alex continued her comedy career with an appearance in East Hampton at CAROLINES @ THE BEACH in August 2016. Most recently, Guarnaschelli was named the Head of Twitter’s Food Council, a group of leading culinary figures who regularly join the Twitter conversation on all things food and food culture. Chef Guarnaschelli is a recurring and guest judge on several Food Network prime-time series such as Chopped, Beat Bobby Flay, Cooks vs. Cons and Bakers vs. Fakers. Alex has appeared as a judge on Food Network’s new series Iron Chef Gauntlet, and as both a challenger and a judge on Food Network’s Iron Chef America where she went on to compete on season 4 of The Next Iron Chef. In 2012, she beat nine rival chefs to win The Next Iron Chef: Redemption and joined the ranks of Kitchen Stadium Iron Chefs. Guarnaschelli won the last season of Food Network’s Guy’s Superstar Grocery Games in September 2016 and was a mentor on the second season of Food Network’s All-Star Academy. Alex hosted her own shows, The Cooking Loft and Alex’s Day Off, which launched in October 2009. Most recently, she has appeared on NBC’s Late Night with Seth Meyers, NBC’s TODAY, The Dr. Oz Show, ABC’s Good Morning America and ABC’s Live! With Kelly. Alex has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Food & Wine, Food Networking Magazine and Every Day with Rachael Ray. In 2018, Alex launched her own Food Network digital series Fix Me A Plate, where the New York native takes audiences on an insider’s tour of the city’s best no-frills food spots. Alex released her first cookbook, “Old-School Comfort Food: The Way I Learned to Cook”, in Spring 2013. Alex’s second cookbook, “The Home Cook: Recipes to Know by Heart”, debuted in Fall 2017.
Thank you so much for joining us. What is your “backstory”?
I am the daughter of esteemed cookbook editor Maria Guarnaschelli, and spent my childhood surrounded by food. I learned to eat according to whatever book my mother was working on at the time: one year was devoted to Indian as she cooked her way through the manuscript of Classic Indian Cooking by Julie Sahni; another year was devoted to Italian with The Splendid Table by Lynne Rossetto Kasper. My mother was always coaxing me from my ‘Barbie land’ under the dining room table to peel potatoes, knead bread or assemble a trifle. What else could a seven-year-old have wanted from life?
This early emphasis on my palate shaped my future in food. On the day of my graduation from Barnard College in 1991, I decided to explore my culinary interests and began working under the tutelage of the acclaimed American chef and restaurateur Larry Forgione.
Forgione encouraged me to travel and expand my skill set, so I obligingly moved to France to do a work study at La Varenne Culinary School in Burgundy. After school and traveling throughout France, I moved to Paris to begin a four day stage at the Michelin three-star restaurant Guy Savoy. Four days turned into four years when I was promoted to sous chef at La Butte Chaillot, another Savoy establishment. The first three months were terrifying — imagine being a young American woman in charge of a French kitchen with 10 young, male cooks under you? But, professionally, it was a life-changing experience.
After seven successful years in France, I returned stateside. Though I left the country, I maintained my connection with the cuisine, joining the venerable Daniel Boulud at restaurant Daniel, where I rose through the ranks to become sous chef at the Manhattan standard. I later moved to Los Angeles for two years to join Joachim Splichal’s Patina Group, where I worked at the acclaimed Patina restaurant in West Hollywood before moving to New York to open Splichal’s first New York City venture.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?
This is one of those moments when it’s funny after-the-fact rather than when it’s happening. I was working at a steakhouse in Midtown and it was one of the first times I was really responsible for running the kitchen. We had a very busy dinner service and two people didn’t show up for work. I was working in the pantry making salads and I had a very capable gentleman working his first night on the grill. Now you know how the grill can get busy in a steakhouse, so I kept calling out the orders for New York Strip Steaks and I kept yelling orders: “two strips medium rare!” and “ordering for strips medium!” and so on. Well, I went over to the tray where all of the steaks had been seared and were resting and getting ready to serve. They were all cut in half right down the middle, which makes the steaks useless to serve. I said “why are all these cut in half?” and he responded “you keep saying New York split”. That’s how a noisy kitchen can really get you in trouble.
What would you advise to someone who wants to emulate your career?
I would say a lot of the things that have happened to me have happened very gradually and somewhat accidentally. I will say that one thing that has always been consistent with me is that I absolutely love cooking and so I get up every day with the intention of doing just that. I don’t get tired of repetition and have cooked many thousands of chicken breasts along the way. I think it was James Beard who said: “The best cooks are the ones who are always willing to chop the parsley”… I think that’s true.
Is there a person that made a profound impact on your life? Can you share a story?
I have had many people impact and influence my career. Probably the most precious and influential is Chef Guy Savoy. I worked in his kitchen for many years. The funny part about it is that I originally intended to go there for two days and then go home and start working in a kitchen in New York. But he walked in and took one look at me and I took one look at him and that was kind of it! He said: “My kitchen is your kitchen!” and I believe he really meant that. He was so generous with me in every way. I credit him with teaching me how to really cook.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world? Are you working on any meaningful or exciting non-profit projects?
I have a few causes I have been working with consistently and for a number of years. I do a lot of work with Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation and Cookies for Kids’ Cancer. They seek to fundraise for kids’ cancer research. I like these two organizations because their mission is to END childhood cancer. I also do some local work in NYC. I work with The Housing Works Bookstore, for example, that raises funds for HIV research and developing support systems. I also contribute time to Services for the UnderServed (SUS) with Andrew Zimmern. Andrew himself was helped by SUS and it provides support and services to members of the community that are looking to build a life but have limited resources.
Can you tell me a story about a person who was impacted by your cause?
I would say “my” cause is a stretch. I do know that with Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation, for example, I have raised a lot of money through various channels. I know money has a great impact. I like to think that many have been helped a little by my work! Childhood cancer is a cause that has a finite time on this earth, and I hope it comes to an end sooner rather than later as every child deserves the right to become an adult.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why.
1. Things take six times as long as you think they will and the less impatient you can be about that reality, the happier your life will be. As an example, I really thought that I could master the art of cooking in a couple of years and be chef of the entire universe by the time I turned 30. It is many years later and while I do feel like I can almost call myself some form of food expert, what I want to learn about cooking just increases instead of decreases.
2. Never shuck oysters when you’re nervous. I’ve heard it a few times before. How did I learn this was true? I have a couple of scars to prove it.
3. I am really obsessed with the idea that when you really hunker down and practice, you can get really good at something. I don’t think there is any shortcut for this. I remember the first time I made a meat sauce and instead of reducing the wine all the way and then adding the stock, I just added them both at the same time and reduced them because it was easier. Let me tell you that was the last time I made a meat sauce like that… raw wine doesn’t taste good in sauce.
4. Working in a restaurant is definitely a collective effort and while it’s also a somewhat solitary craft to cook every day, it’s important to remember everyone around you. I feel like this is a life lesson that could work in any scenario but it’s especially true in a restaurant kitchen. It took me a long time to realize that everyone working together as much as possible to get the meals out in a timely and delicious manner makes for a great environment. There were years when I just felt alone in the abyss in a room full of people. I wish I had understood that sooner.
5. Just like the shoemaker’s kids never have shoes, chefs rarely sit down and have a meal. I am still learning about regular eating and drinking a glass of water every few hours. Being around food all the time can make for a complex relationship with food. I wish I could ring a giant dinner bell across the universe and make chefs, cooks, dishwashers, waiters and bussers sit down and eat, drink water and take a break. It makes such a difference in the day and I’ll admit that I am only still marginally good at it.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”?
I have so many and I rely on life quotes on days when I need inspiration. One of my many favorites is: “Adornment, what a science! Beauty, what a weapon! Modesty, what elegance!” by Coco Chanel. I think this is true about food and also about attitude. I find that I am always checking myself and keeping it as real as possible. I have a 10-year-old daughter who manages that for me as well.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this.:)
Some of those the top my list: Chef Anne-Sophie Pic. I would like to sit down and have a meal with her and discuss her path, her achievements and her motivations. I want to eat pizza with writer and TV/movie creator Brian Koppelman. He is an honorary chef in my eyes and there is a whole topic of pizza that needs extensive exploration. We are the people for that job! I would also love to have a group breakfast with the Rockettes because I’ve always wanted to be one and I think they are so dedicated to their craft. Cooking millions of chicken breasts over and over again as a chef in a restaurant is the same as high kicking or learning those dance routines and practicing them time and time again. I am definitely a self-proclaimed honorary Rockette. Last but not least, I would love to have lunch with Frances McDormand and discuss how she prepares for her acting roles. She is so real and visceral. I just saw the original movie Fargo and was reminded of this. I aspire to be that authentic and skilled at my own craft.