To say I was excited to have the opportunity to interview Alex Guarnaschelli is an understatement. As any good foodie does, I watch the Food Network regularly, and Alex is one of the chefs whose shows I truly love watching. Whether it’s on The Cooking Loft or Alex’s Day Off, I can’t help but admire how she seems to have a real reverence for her ingredients. Her love for cooking is infectious. Have you ever heard Alex describe how she feels about bacon? You will never be the same.
Can you describe your recipe creation process? Where does inspiration strike for you?
Honestly, I grew up in a house with a lot of cooking and I’ve been doing nothing but cooking for over 20 years, so I guess it’s really just about whatever mood I’m seeking to create with the dishes I choose, and then what ingredients are seasonal. Those are my two driving forces. But I couldn’t give you a time frame for creating my recipes—it doesn’t work that way for me. I think for some chefs it does, but you know sometimes I won’t make anything for a week and then I’ll make five things in one day. It’s not regimented, how my recipes come to be. Does that make sense?
Absolutely. You said you cook seasonally--do you have a preferred season for cooking, based on the ingredients that are available?
I really enjoy every season because by the time one season is ending and another is beginning, I’m looking forward to those ingredients. Of course, summer is kind of amazing, let’s face it. But my favorite time of year is August through November because it ranges from tomatoes to corn to squash to Brussels sprouts. That’s probably my favorite--end of summer, beginning of fall.
Okay, here’s a tough one. If you could spend a day in the kitchen with anyone, living or dead, who would it be?
The problem with the question you ask is that I already spend the days in the kitchen with the people I would choose! I have such an amazing kitchen staff at my restaurants (Butter and The Darby in NYC) and I’m so blessed. While I guess the logical answer to that question would be Julia Child or James Beard, I’m so happy and lucky to be surrounded by a great staff, that they’re my first pick.
Since the holidays are approaching, I have to ask: What’s your favorite holiday dish, either to cook and/or eat?
My favorite holiday food is cranberry sauce, to be honest. I love taking something bitter and inedible in raw form and watching it transform on the stove with spices and sugar and orange into something that’s so delicious. And I don’t think there’s a condiment that goes better with its partner than turkey with a dollop of cranberry. I find that really rewarding. It’s my favorite thing. And I have to say that the faster I answer these questions, the longer the answer has been true for me. I am kind of obsessed with cranberry sauce.
Does that mean you’re opposed to the cranberry sauce in a can?
No! My mother made fresh every year, and we also put a can out. You gotta have both.
So, let’s say it’s a busy weeknight. What’s your go-to recipe?
I cook whatever strikes me. I go to the store, I buy stuff, and I make different things all the time. You know, when you’ve cooked for so long, so intensively, I would say that it’s almost as if I don’t have a repertoire—but I do have the ingredients that I prefer. And it also depends on who I’m cooking for. If I’m making something for my daughter it’s one thing, if it’s cooking with or for a friend, it’s another. I have a pastry chef friend who doesn’t like to eat dessert! Totally depends on who I’m hanging out with—does that make sense? I would love to say, oh here it is, my perfect recipe, but that’s too complex for my brain.
Having been a judge on Chopped and a contestant on Iron Chef (and soon to be on The Next Iron Chef: Redemption), which position do you think is tougher---to judge someone’s food, or cook in a high-pressure situation and have your food judged?
You know, when you’re a judge you have the responsibility of honoring the person who cooked the food, and taking them through the judging process with as much integrity as possible. So that’s very hard emotionally. When you’re cooking and you’re being judged, it’s almost harder physically, because you’re pushing through and you’re trying to use your skills and experience to get things done. And you’re working against the clock. I’d say one is more draining mentally and emotionally, and one is more draining physically. But I think the choice really comes when you decide which you actually find more tiring. When you’re physically depleted and you’re brain is somewhat functioning--or the other way around. So they’re very different things, but equally stressful in their own ways. Like an orange and an apple—they’re both fruit but they couldn’t be more different.
I think the judging of people’s food would be the hardest for me. I watched the episode recently where the teen chefs competed. They were incredible.
They were amazing. It’s absolutely awful to have to tell someone they’re not going to win. I don’t enjoy that because I see how hard these chefs work on their dishes. I think it’s a show that looks very easy when you watch it at home on TV, but it’s so hard when you’re doing it for real.
Can we expect a cookbook from you in the future?
Oh, yes! Thank you for asking. My own cookbook will be coming out next fall. I’m publishing my first cookbook with Clarkson Potter. It’ll be a home-cook cookbook, using French techniques and American ingredients.
Okay, one last question that I have to ask. What’s your most indulgent guilty food pleasure?
You know, every day is an indulgent food pleasure for me. But Haagen Daaz Ice Cream, definitely.
And you’ve actually contributed to an eBook that Haagen Daaz has recently released, right?
Yes, and I’m really excited to work with them in this particular way. They created an eBook called Ode to Summer, which includes 50 favorite summer moments to help sustain us through the gloomy winter. The other thing that’s genuinely cool about it is that for every download of the book--which is free, by the way--Haagen Daaz is donating $5 to honey bee research, to protect honey bee colonies. And I didn’t know this before I starting working with them on it, but honey bees are responsible for pollenating a third of the world’s natural food supply. I think we think of bees as being pretty cool, but they are also critical for our food supply. So, as a chef, the fact that I can eat ice cream and think about summer moments and help sustain something so essential to our food supply is kind of amazing. All you have to do is download something for free, and honey bee research gets $5. It’s easy to get behind something like that. I love it.
Well, I’ll be downloading the Ode to Summer eBook right after I talk to you.
And I will be eating the Haagen Daaz. It’s such a rough life.
Download the free Ode to Summer eBook!