Keeping It Simple

Alex Guarnaschelli

Chef and Food Network star Alex Guarnaschelli will soon debut a cookbook designed to be a kitchen staple

By Sara Perez Webber

Alex Guarnaschelli knew she wanted to be a chef since the day she graduated from New York’s Barnard College in 1991. The seed had been planted much earlier, however, when as a child she’d watch her mother, esteemed cookbook editor Maria Guarnaschelli, experiment with recipes from whatever project she was working on at the time, while encouraging Alex to help her in the kitchen.

After college, Guarnaschelli trained under chef and restaurateur Larry Forgione in New York before attending culinary school in France and landing a sous chef position at one of Guy Savoy’s restaurants in Paris. She returned to her hometown for a job at New York’s Daniel under Daniel Boulud, working her way up to sous chef. After a stint with Joachim Splichal’s Patina Group in Los Angeles, Guarnaschelli again made her way back to Manhattan, to open Splichal’s first New York City venture.

Today Guarnaschelli helms Butter Restaurant in New York as executive chef, and works as a chef-instructor at New York’s Institute of Culinary Education. She’s best-known, however, as a recurring judge on several Food Network primetime series, including Chopped, Cooks vs. Cons, and the new series Iron Chef Gauntlet. Guarnaschelli beat nine rival chefs to win The Next Iron Chef: Redemption in 2012, and won the last season of Guy’s Superstar Grocery Games in September 2016.

As if that weren’t enough to keep a chef busy, Guarnaschelli embarked on a comedy career in 2015 by writing and performing live her one-woman show, “Busting My Chops,” at Caroline’s on Broadway in 2015. And she’s getting ready to debut her second cookbook, The Home Cook, this fall. Catering Magazine recently caught up with Guarnaschelli to find out more about her career, advice she has for aspiring chefs and how her mother inspired the theme of her new cookbook.

CM: What’s the theme of The Home Cook, your cookbook coming out in September?

AG: My mom always has a few of her favorite cookbooks on a shelf in the kitchen. They are the books she reaches for so frequently, they inhabit their own special place near the stove. I wrote this cookbook imagining that it would be so useful to the home cook that it would be parked in the kitchen. It is really like a compilation, where you can get an appetizer or a main course or a dessert or an idea for a snack, all in the same place.

CM: When you were growing up and learning about food from your mother, cookbook editor Maria Guarnaschelli, did it ever occur to you that you would be writing your own cookbooks someday? Do you solicit your mother’s advice on how to structure your cookbooks and what recipes to include?

AG: Do you think that Steven Spielberg’s children ask him how they should direct a movie? My mother is a force of nature and is still editing some of the best cookbooks on the shelves. To that end, I thought that I would never write a cookbook because I would be too afraid of what she would say! I did have a few anxiety dreams, where she was standing over me with a pencil waiting to cross out what I wrote. She is very helpful and encouraging to me in real life. I did consult with her about the structure and the message of this book. I want people to use it to cook simple dishes that make them happy. While I am a restaurant chef and I totally support eating out, cooking at home with friends and family is a really great way to live.

CM: What cookbook has influenced you the most?

AG: There are a few cookbooks I grew up with that are just sacred to me: The Fannie Farmer Cookbook by Marion Cunningham; The 1997 Joy of Cooking by Irma S. Rombauer; The Zuni Cafe Cookbook by Judy Rodgers; and Gourmet Cooking School Cookbook by Dione Lucas.

CM: You studied in France and worked as a sous chef in Paris. How do you think studying and working abroad influenced your career, and do you advise young chefs starting out to do the same?

AG: I think it’s important to have experiences along the road to becoming a chef that make you forge an independent path. I think travel is a good way to learn about food and expand your ideas about cooking. Sometimes your first job, though, should be close to home, so you spread your wings more gradually.

CM: How has being a judge and celebrity chef on Food Network changed your life? Do you have a favorite show?

AG: I try not to think of myself as a celebrity chef, although I appreciate the compliment. When I started doing television, my father told me, “Don’t forget what you really are, which is a chef.” That said, I deeply enjoy the privilege of being on TV. My favorite show? I have so many because each one is different. I will say that Iron Chef America is very near and dear to my heart. I also think Chopped is just amazing.

CM: What inspired you to write and perform
“Busting My Chops”?

AG: I don’t think anybody realizes what a comedy show each professional kitchen really is. In restaurants, chefs joke with one another as a way of getting through the tough times and cooking all those chicken breasts. It seemed inevitable that I would condense the material into an act and perform on stage in front of people. I can tell you that going to an open mic is more difficult and challenging than being on national television. Being a comedian (excuse the pun) is no joke, and I have tremendous respect for the craft.

CM: Do you plan to continue performing and doing comedy, and have you found any similarities between performing and being a chef?

AG: I do intend to keep performing. There are a lot of similarities between the two—particularly with regard to timing. The reward of making a good joke in front of a crowd is the same as making a dish that makes customers happy in a restaurant. They are both hard work, and they both require a lot of thought and planning. The best jokes and the best dishes are ones where the recipients don’t feel all the work behind it; they just know that they’re enjoying something good.

CM: How do you like to entertain friends and family during the summer?

AG: There are so many recipes in my new cookbook that reflect my love of summer entertaining in particular. I do have a group of friends and we cook a lot together—that keeps me inspired and keeps my skills sharp. Practicing cooking as a craft is underrated.

CM: What, in your opinion, makes for an ideal outdoor summer party? Do you have any tips for caterers on how to enhance their outdoor events?

AG: My favorite tip is never write a menu without knowing what equipment you actually have to work with, and never write a menu when you’re really hungry. To me, an ideal summer party is one where the guests in the house are enjoying their time together because everything was made in advance. I think it’s important to have a lot of little dips and snacks for an outdoor party so people can nibble, wander around and socialize without being tied down by a full plate of food. I also think drinks are essential: a good glass of white wine, some sangria and some sparkling wine with fresh berries. That’s what makes it fun!

CM: You have so much going on in your career, between your upcoming cookbook, Food Network appearances and your restaurant, Butter. Do you have any goals you’d still like to achieve?

AG: I do have many goals. Every January I make a list of all the things I hope to achieve in the coming year and do my best to get at least two out of 10 things done. I would say that my biggest goal for this year is to get people to use this cookbook. It has a lot of great simple recipes that are sentimental to me and hopefully useful for the home cook.