Many women would readily admit to giving in to some retail therapy now and then—and renowned chef (and Food Network star, cookbook author, and loving mom) Alex Guarnaschelli is no exception. The only difference is, instead of hitting the racks in search of handbags and heels, she’s at local green markets (Union Square is her favorite) on the prowl for the freshest fruits and veggies.
“I have a real produce problem,” Guarnaschelli confesses. “Some people buy jewelry, I buy apples! So I have to be careful—if I go to the market with too much money, it’s bad news!”
Luckily for foodies and Food Network viewers, the 43-year-old native New Yorker’s so-called “problem” has turned out to be the culinary world’s gain. Though a self-described “late-bloomer” in the food realm—she didn’t even consider working as a chef until after graduating from Barnard College with an art history degree in 1991—Guarnaschelli has, in recent years, become one of the most visible and respected chefs on the scene. For the past 12 years, she has served as the executive chef at Butter—a gastronomic hot-spot where she practices her signature style of “French technique, American ingredients”—and she’s currently continuing to celebrate her first cookbook, Old-School Comfort Food: The Way I Learned To Cook, which was published last spring. Of course, many arm-chair cooks also know Guarnaschelli as a Food Network star thanks to her hard-won “Iron Chef” title (a distinction she earned in 2012, and is only the second female chef to receive, her role as an empathetic and discerning judge on “Chopped,” and her inspiring instructional work on “The Cooking Loft With Alex Guarnaschelli” and “Alex’s Day Off.”
But when the ovens cool and the cameras turn off? Guarnaschelli relishes spending quality time exploring museums, specialty markets, and playgrounds with her 6-year-old daughter, Ava (who actually—according to Guarnaschelli—prefers the televised culinary stylings of Ina Garten over her own mother’s). Though she faces the age-old challenges of parenting on a busy schedule, selling her child on the merits of broccoli, and keeping her maternal anxieties in check, it’s clear that Guarnaschelli has mastered the art of putting family first while still keeping her delicious passion for cooking alive and well (or well-seasoned, if you will)!
You’re a native New Yorker and the daughter of respected cookbook editor Maria Guarnaschelli. How did these factors shape your career path?
I grew up in Manhattan in the 1970s, and it was a big time for food. Dean & DeLuca opened, and a lot of specialty markets opened, and my mom and I—we just went to all of them. My mom was a great forager, and she still is. And also my mother did a lot of cooking from books: Julia Child, James Beard, Dione Lucas, Diana Kennedy…so the early formative years were not about eating in restaurants, they were about watching my mother and father cook collaboratively.
How did you conceive of the name and concept for your own cookbook?
The title and frame for the book were kind of disclaimers so I could just do what I wanted. I realized I had a backpack of recipes and stories, and I needed a way to tie them together that made sense. In my mind, a lot of what my mom did growing up—and my dad too—was very old-school.
When you’re off-duty at home, do you cook a lot?
When it comes to food, I’m never off-duty because I have a 6-year-old and I’m kind of taking her through the same experiences that I had. I have a responsibility, generationally, to pass the baton. So, I cook a lot at home. I don’t cook super-elaborately, but I cook with the exact same sensibility.
What are some of your favorite things to make with and for your daughter?
I don’t push my daughter to cook, because I don’t want to force that on her, I don’t feel the need. If I’m cooking she’ll come into the kitchen and kind of flit in and out in her own way, and I think that’s more important. She loves chicken, she loves steak, she loves mushrooms cooked with Marsala, she loves certain flavors—which I find interesting—and she’s a big fruit-eater. But [she has] no interest in cake—which is why I need to do a DNA test to see if she’s my daughter.
As a parent, do you struggle with balancing nutritious meals with the foods kids are naturally drawn to?
I don’t really have that much of an issue with my daughter because we talk things through and we negotiate a lot. And I don’t really see anything wrong with chicken fingers and French fries and hot dogs—I think they’re part of being a kid—so that’s part of what we eat. We’re not at home eating scoops of caviar and organic eggs! We vary our diets. Sometimes we have really good days where we have lots of vegetables, and some days we’ll just have a cheeseburger and fries. I think it’s really important to be human about food as much as possible. I also try not to worry too much—what’s wrong with loving mac ‘n cheese? What’s wrong with loving potato chips? They’re so delicious! I think people say [to my daughter]: “Oh, your mom’s a chef.” So what? She’s a kid! It doesn’t matter if I’m a NASCAR driver or a chef—she’s a kid and kids like stuff.
What do you and your daughter like to do in the city?
We go to the Children’s Museum of Manhattan, [and] we go to the Museum of Modern Art a lot—those are her two favorites… We go to the Union Square playground—she likes to run around like crazy at the playground—a lot. She likes to go to specific destinations and eat, which I find funny… We go to Eisenberg’s Sandwich Shop on 5th Avenue and we have eggs and a Lime Rickey. I take her to Little Italy a lot. I like to take her to Ferrara Bakery, Di Palo’s, Alleva—I like to show her remnants of cultures and neighborhoods that I went to as a kid.
How would you describe your parenting style?
I’m probably a mixture of hysterical and totally calm. I try to hide a lot of what I feel anxious about from my daughter. I’m obviously anxious about her relationships in school and navigating that landscape. The balance I find hardest is trying not to smother my child, and just giving her room to breathe… But I like having a child. I’m enthusiastic. I would call myself enthusiastic and worried. I really enjoy having a child. I like being around her, I like talking to her.
You have a busy schedule. How do you maintain work-life balance?
I don’t. I think I’d be lying if I said there was a balance. I just do the best I can to spend a lot of time with my daughter. That’s my balance.
In a nutshell, tell us about your culinary journey.
I started working in an American kitchen in Manhattan, then I went to France for a number of years [for work-study at La Varenne Culinary School, and later to work at Guy Savoy and La Butte Chaillot], then I came home. I started working at restaurant Daniel—which at that time was on 76th, and now is on 65th—so that was certainly eye-opening—to come back and have that mixture of France and America. Then I moved to California and worked there for two years. I worked at restaurant called Patina in Los Angeles, and that’s where I fell in love with markets… I started working at Butter about 12 years ago. It was a job I didn’t want to take, but I went in and fell in love with the restaurant and fell in love with the staff, and I kind of had my own personal renaissance with food. Like I’d “Coco-Chanel” it and take one ingredient off of every plate and let stuff speak for itself.
Tell us about Butter’s new location.
It’s got the same feeling as the old Butter, which was on Lafayette Street [and is now closed for renovations]. It has the same look and feel, but it’s in midtown. It’s doing well. Restaurants are a constant work in progress, but we’re getting there.
What is your schedule like at Butter?
I go to the restaurant anywhere from 2-5pm in the afternoon and I leave anywhere from 10pm to 1am in the morning. I work in the kitchen with my cooks. We cook, we test recipes, we talk about how we can make recipes better, we eat staff meal…I call it “Camp Butter.”
Aside from scheduling, how has motherhood influenced your professional life?
I definitely have this sentiment now that I have a bigger priority that I never had before. Nothing had ever been more important or equally important to me as the restaurant—obviously my parents—but my main focus and the bulk of my energy [went] to the restaurant. But now I have a little person that I’m in charge of, and I think about that. If she needs me, it would not be implausible for me to have to say: “I gotta go take care of her…” I think it has calmed me down at the restaurant.
What inspires you as a chef?
I’m very inspired by produce. When it’s snowing outside, I’m worried about how the produce upstate is growing and whether it will be able to survive the cold. I don’t think most people get up on a cold day and think: “Oh, this isn’t good for the vegetables.” Or when it rains too much I say: “Oh, we won’t have good cherries this spring.” That’s how I orient myself in the universe… Secretly, I think I could have a purely vegetarian restaurant and be just fine—but I’m not at all a vegetarian.
Who are some of your mentors?
Certainly Guy Savoy, the chef I worked for in Paris, is a huge inspiration to me—I hear his voice in my head when I cook. And I’m very inspired by Bobby Flay, who’s someone I’ve worked with more in television—I’ve not worked with him collaboratively on any restaurant projects—but I admire how grounded he stays in cooking and being a chef, as well as having these other facets to his career… And of course, my parents. I go home, they cook, we eat. I sit at the same table I did when I was a kid. There’s a full circle feeling I can get very easily, and I’m very fortunate to have that.
How has it been working with the Food Network?
The TV shows are shot in chunks, so you’ll have a week where you’ll do a lot of that but then you’ll just go back to your regularly scheduled programming… I still do a lot of cooking [on TV] and that I really love. I’m glad that I still love cooking—that’s intact.
On camera, what comes most naturally—being a competitor, being a critic, or speaking to an audience?
I love speaking to an audience, and I love talking to people about cooking, but, oh, I’m a competitor, definitely! I mean, I enjoy the privilege of being a judge [on “Chopped”], I do—and I consider it a privilege—but I’m a competitor, yeah. I love to roll up my sleeves and compete [on “Iron Chef”]. I always say: “Oh, I don’t care about that, I’m not gonna go there.” Then I’m like: “Rawr!” It’s like a knee-jerk reflex… I get there and I start sharpening my knives and my chin lowers, and it’s like biological.
Speaking of competition, if you had to design the ultimate “Chopped” ingredient basket, what would you put in it?
Flour, eggs, butter, and cream. I think forcing people to take a good, hard look at the fundamentals with the simplest of ingredients is just as hard as wasabi, gummy bears, turkey leg, and tomatoes. I would like a basket that is—straight up—a trip to fundamental town.
If you were on a desert island and had to choose one comfort food, what would it be?
I couldn’t live without lemons because, if I were on a desert island, I’d be catching a lot of my own fish and if I didn’t have lemons I’d be really, really lost at sea—all puns intended! But if I could bring an endless supply of comfort food? Well, I’m not the most logical or balanced of people and I think, if I could figure out the protein situation, I couldn’t live without cake. So I would need a conveyor belt of devil’s food cake at all times to balance out the crab/mussels/speared-fish diet.
Valentine’s Day is coming up—do you have a favorite holiday treat?
I’m a big fan of treats so I think you should make a treat for yourself—and if you like it, give it to someone else. My favorite thing is Linzer cookies with raspberry jam. I like there to be something red for Valentine’s Day and I love that almond-based cookie dough…I make a few dozen and I give them out, and maybe I’ll eat a few.