As a familiar face on Food Network’s Chopped, Alex Guarnaschelli is smart, clear in her opinions and above all, passionate about food. That culinary clarity helped her find her way early on while learning her craft in competitive kitchens in France, at the La Varenne Culinary School and the Michelin three-star establishment Guy Savoy. After returning to the U.S., she worked under Daniel Boulud, before opening up her own critically acclaimed restaurant Butter in NYC in 2002. Aside from conquering the hearts of prime-time television viewers and restaurant critics, Guarnaschelli has garnered a literary following with her cookbook, Old-School Comfort Food: The Way I Learned to Cook, and even comedy fans, with a recent stint performing standup at Caroline’s on Broadway. Serendipity spoke with Chef Guarnaschelli, who will be appearing at the 2016 Greenwich Wine + Food Festival in September, about her storied career.
When did you realize cooking was for you?
My mom used to bake coffee cake. I would pull a chair in front of the oven and watch it cook with the oven light on through the little window. Then I started to make the cake myself!
What is your favorite show to appear on?
My favorites are Iron Chef America and Chopped. The heat of competition and the food that gets made in such short amounts of time are astounding to me!
Is it hard sending people home on Chopped?
Of course! Everyone plays to win and the odds are 75 percent that you will get chopped! Those are tough statistics. I respect every person that puts him or herself out there in the public eye. It’s bold!
What advice do you give to young chefs?
It takes a shockingly long time to build a good, real, true career. Be patient. Shuck those oysters. Cook that steak. Turn those artichokes. Build the skills. They will always serve you tenfold.
As a young female chef in France, what was it like working in male-dominated kitchens?
I had to look at being the only woman as a good thing. I enjoyed being the black sheep! And I really learned how to cook French food.
Have you experienced gender discrimination?
Everything, not just gender, affects how you are seen everywhere, no? It’s all about accentuating the positive and, in a kitchen, as Bobby Flay says: “Put on your apron and get to work.”
What’s something surprising that people don’t know about you?
I deeply love red licorice and tarragon (but preferably not together).
What’s your go-to after work snack?
Often I just slice an avocado and top it with coarse sea salt and lemon. I need a palate cleanser!
Who is your favorite celeb chef to work with?
I love Aarón Sánchez and recently worked with Daphne Oz—she’s hilarious! Michael Symon is so fun to cook with or for.
You’ve said you love to cook with your 8-year-old daughter Ava. What do you make?
My daughter always wants to cook eggplant and tomatoes in the oven with olive oil—so simple. I don’t push the cooking. I just quietly nurture interest in good ingredients. I love watching her cook and eat.
I heard that if you weren’t a chef you’d be a marine biologist. Why?
I love the ocean. It changes every day. It’s different everywhere you go. It’s like a restaurant!
Why experiment with standup comedy?
TV is a wholly satisfying experience. I just seem to have a life perspective adjacent to TV and restaurants that needs to be articulated. To me, comedy is the truth said in plain terms. I mostly cover the gym, restaurant screw ups and behind- the-scenes antics that happen in kitchens.
How do you view social media?
I actually love social media and do all of my own. It’s an interesting thing. Lots of people fancy themselves reviewers. But I look at it as a place to learn from customers. What they like. What they don’t like.
If you had one day to live, what would you eat?
I’d go to Paris for the whole day. I’d start with a full breakfast at The Bristol that would include croissants and an omelet. Then lunch at Restaurant Guy Savoy where I worked. I would have oysters and artichoke soup. Lastly, dinner would be a wedge of every cheese in France with several baguettes on a picnic blanket overlooking the Seine.
Angel Hair Pasta with Caviar and Lemon
Serves 4 as an appetizer
1 cup heavy cream
1 cup sour cream
Kosher salt and black pepper
A few grates of lemon zest and juice of ½ to 1 lemon
4 ounces dried angel hair pasta
1½ to 2 ounces American caviar or trout roe
1 small bunch chives, minced
- In a large skillet, whisk together the cream and sour cream. Season with salt and pepper. Simmer the cream mixture over medium heat to reduce, whisking until it thickens and sour cream melts, 2 to 3 minutes. Add lemon zest and some juice. Taste for seasoning. At this point, the sauce should be thick enough to coat pasta.
- In a large pot, bring 6 quarts of water to a boil. Add two tablespoons salt and bring the water back up to a boil. Add the pasta to the pot and cook until al dente, stirring occasionally to make sure it doesn’t clump or stick to the bottom as it cooks, for about two minutes. Drain the pasta in a colander, reserving ½ cup of the cooking liquid.
- Add the pasta to the skillet and toss to coat with the cream. Shut the heat off and allow the pasta to rest in the sauce for 2 minutes, tossing to coat from time to time. If the sauce is too thin, simmer over low heat for 2 additional minutes. If it is too thick, simply thin it out with some of the reserved pasta water. Taste for seasoning. Add more salt or lemon if needed.
- Spoon a small amount of caviar in the center of 4 bowls. Use a fork to twirl the pasta and make a large forkful. Use your index finger to gently coax the pasta off the fork and on top of the caviar in the plate. Ideally, the pasta should hide the caviar. Spoon any leftover sauce over the pasta and repeat with remaining plates. The sauce thickens quickly so keep it loose with pasta water, if needed, as you plate. Sprinkle with chives and a touch more zest and serve immediately.