Q & A with Alex Guarnaschelli
The last time we caught up with Alex Guarnaschelli was two years ago. A lot has changed since then. She’s still the executive chef at the celebrity hangout, Butter. But now, she hosts Food Network’s “The Cooking Loft,” became a mom and an imminent cookbook author.
Guarnaschelli trained with some of the finest chefs, including Guy Savoy, Larry Fiorgione, and Daniel Boulud. Since 2005, she’s been in the kitchen at Butter. While her cooking may not get as much attention as the scene, it deserves it. She manages to pull off Greenmarket cuisine year-round. For spring, she’s created a spring pea salad with crispy bacon, chervil, tarragon and parmesan, as well as a Hudson Valley duck breast with sunchokes, roasted date puree and sunflower greens.
First thing’s first — how’s juggling motherhood and a fulltime restaurant job?
To me there is no such thing as juggling. It’s funny because people ask me this all the time. My husband works part time and we do all of the caretaking of our daughter – all of our happiness stems from that. I’m doing two things that I love, so that makes it easier, and you know, unlike a lot of people I don’t want to die when I go to work.
Did you really meet your husband in the kitchen?
We met while I was teaching a fish class at ICE – he was one of the students. The love story took over from there, and we were married on April 29th, 2007 at Butter.
Who cooks at home these days?
My husband. I do some, but I’d say I do all of the shopping. I love going to the farmer’s market, the Amish market – I’m an obsessive food shopper, especially now that we have a daughter. As a result, my husband has become an organic convert.
You’ve appeared on Iron Chef, but now you’re shooting The Cooking Loft on a regular basis. How the hell do you manage that on top of everything else?
It takes a chunk out of my life for a week or two, but after that I don’t have to worry about it so much. I think it’s a privilege to do what I love on TV, so I can’t say it’s a chore. Of course there are occasional bumps in the road where we (my family) don’t see each other for awhile, but we just take a minute to regroup. Believe me, I definitely wish there were more hours in the day.
Your mother is a noted cookbook editor Maria Guarnaschelli. Do you see yourself following in her footsteps and writing a cookbook of your own? “All About Butter?”
I’m actually working on one, but I’m having anxiety with my mother standing over me with a red pencil in her hand. I’m just trying to get there – that’s my intention – and hopefully with my mom looking the other way when that happens.
Butter is big on scene, so how do you manage to draw attention to your cooking as well? Have you ever considered moving to a restaurant where food is the primary focus?
Of course – do you have any suggestions? The question makes it sound like people don’t come for the food – and many of them do. It’s a labor of love – when I came to Butter it was very clubby. Funny – the restaurant is seven years old and people are still calling it trendy…how long does a restaurant remain like that? I mean, it’s good for my career and it’s hard to leave it – especially in this economy. I’d say I’m like a voluntary prisoner, because we’re all so committed and so much like a family. We’ve gone through so many things we’d never expect, and I never thought I’d be surprised at every turn. For instance, our wine list just won an award from Wine Spectator. However, yes, I definitely want to own my own place or work where the food is the main focus.
Speaking of which, who are some celebrity customers? What do they order? Steamed and on the side dishes or full out decadence?
I can’t answer that, but yes we do get a lot of celebrities. I’m tired of the idea that celebrities don’t eat. They do. They tip. They’re lovely people. Butter is a combination of serious food and celebrity attraction, and most certainly the celebrity factor helps business. It seduces people. It’s a funny collaboration that doesn’t always work with every restaurant.
The cocoa drop cookies sound amazing. How did you come up with the recipe? Do you have a sweet tooth?
A massive sweet tooth. I spend most of my time cooking savory, and yet I always eat what the pastry chef is making. It works in the reverse as well. I first developed the recipe when I was working at An American Place. I always store some of the dough in the freezer to pull out and have whenever I want – an alternative to slice and bake cookies. They make amazing ice cream sandwiches too. They’re like…the friend you can bring anywhere. You know that friend? The one who you can bring to any party and everyone will like them. These cookies are that friend – cookies are like people.
What inspired you to push the green movement in your kitchen?
The green movement makes me very happy but it was purely incidental – not that I wish to make it sound trivial. I realize that part of being a chef nowadays is thinking about larger issues. Really it all started out with wonderful relationships that I had with various farmers, and it seemed senseless to not use their food in my kitchen. Now it’s pervaded my thinking, and new decisions have led to a better place. It’s like when you buy new clothes and then you need a whole new wardrobe to go with them – the kitchen has been like that. Butter is a whimsical contradiction, because we indulge our own beliefs along with those of the customers. It seems logical, but you wouldn’t believe how many complicated mistakes I’ve had to make to get there. Now, my main goal is to serve greenmarket produce for an entire year at the restaurant.
Do you have a favorite dish at Butter right now?
Well, all chefs go through some period of self-loathing, but right now my favorite is the Heritage Farms pork chop with brussels sprouts and purple majesty potato gratin with hazelnuts. It’s what I’d eat in a restaurant and what I’d eat at home. I’ve also been obsessed with rutabaga, which we got from a farmer in Warwick, NY. He helped us through the winter with those.
A least favorite? And yes, you must pick one…
The mixed mushroom ravioli with fried oyster mushrooms and aged provalone. It’s simple, it’s straightforward, people love it, but it annoys me. It annoys me because people aren’t eating ramps, which is all they should be eating right now.
Any new projects on the horizon or is there already too much on your plate?
For this year, I’m just focused on turning out a good cooking show and finishing my cookbook proposal.
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My husband and I were watching foodnetwork this morning and saw Alex making the chicken cutlet sandwich recipe. We’ll my husband just made it for dinner and it was awesome with such a great flavor!!! Thanks Alex for sharing ur best chicken cutlet sandwich!!!
I’m interested in contacting (email or phone) Ms. Alex Guarnaschelli directly. I have a 9 year old daughter who is a huge fan. She actually cried when Alex was eliminated from the Next Iron Chef competition. I wanted to contact Alex to get some insight that might help me to better encourage and support my daughter if she decides to pursue a culinary-related career. You help would be much appreciated. Thanks.