For this month’s exclusive Q&A interview, Total Food Service sat down to talk with Alex Guarnaschelli, Celebrity Chef and Executive Chef at NYC’s Butter Restaurant.
You grew up as the daughter of a cookbook editor – What impact did that have on what you have become?
I won’t say that growing up with my mother made me turn into a chef. It’s more that I grew up in a house where there was always cooking going on. The kitchen was the heart of the home growing up and I think that made me gravitate towards that energy in a professional kitchen when I chose my career.
Who was instrumental in mentoring you as you grew into the star you have become?
I definitely don’t see myself as a “star” and I think that most of the mentors I have don’t see themselves that way either. Guy Savoy definitely taught me about cooking and developing flavor. He also gave me some much-needed confidence which is what a mentor needs to do in the first place. I’ve had some surprise mentors sneak up on me like Bobby Flay. He encourages keeping it real and remembering what you are: first and foremost, a chef.
Does your success surprise you? Or did you always just know that it was there to find?
I don’t need to get poetic about the concept of success but I’m not sure how to define success for myself? I’m happy that I have a daughter. That is a real success story for me that I didn’t think would happen. As far as cooking and television, I never dreamed any of the things that have happened would happen!
You had the opportunity to apprentice in NYC, LA and France: What did you learn at each of those stops that has stayed with you? What are the similar traits that make restaurants successful no mater where they are located?
I really only apprenticed in France and that was for a number of years. I think the two things that stuck with me through all of those experiences are as follows: number one, kitchen together like a family. The kitchen is a dangerous place so you have to trust the people you work with and who share your space. I also learned cooking is hard work. We can romanticize it all we want. It is very romantic as a craft but it is also just straight up work and repetition.
How did the opportunity at the Darby evolve and what did you take away from that experience?
The Darby was an amazing concept. A speakeasy in an iconic New York City space where “Nell’s” was located. It was supposed to harken back to another time in New York when music and art and food all converged in the same space. I loved it.
What led to Butter and what impact did that have on your career?
To be honest, it was kind of an accident. Happy one. I met a number of staff members who still work with me to this day. I discovered the Green Market, great farmers and the value of ingredients on my own. Awesome.
How has your TV success impacted how you look at the industry?
There is no question the television does one great thing for restaurants: it raises awareness and it brings people to your restaurant to eat. To me, when I am on television and I know that it’s helping us to work the security of Butter and the great stuff inside it, it makes me happy.
What impact do you think the Food Network and the Cooking Channel have had on running a successful restaurant? Is today’s customer more sophisticated?
The level of awareness that Americans have about food and ingredients is astounding. My daughter watches the Food Network and is 8 years old; she asked me if red quinoa is the crispiest variety when cooked. Huh? She also loves gooseberries and Rambutans. I remember being eight and super excited about a mackintosh apple.
How has the path/glass ceiling evolved for a women looking to build a name in our industry?
My best advice is to ignore gender and do the work and try your best to kick some a** every day. The ceiling gets higher and higher that way, I think.
What makes you tick….what drives you everyday? Do you still like to cook? (Don’t laugh please) because of how much you have on your plate?
My daughter makes me tick and I love hanging out with her. Yes I still cook a lot and I still love it. My love affair with cooking is lifelong.
How do you balance Alex – “The TV Persona” with Alex – “The Chef” and Alex “The Entrepreneur”?
It’s really just one giant Gemini mood swing that moves from one thing to the next and honestly all my work is very intertwined so it makes sense.
You are now involved in branding hotel concepts in Miami – What role do you see for restaurants and food in hotels?
I am working on a hotel restaurant in Miami Beach called the The Driftwood Room in the Nautlius Hotel. It just opened a couple of weeks ago and I’m really excited about it. Concept is beachy and Mediterranean which I think is perfect for when you’re sitting by the ocean. I think from beginning to end, when you are staying in a hotel, from the room service to lunch to dinner, restaurants play a crucial role in having a great stay.
What’s the first thing you remember eating in NYC?
A corned-beef and pastrami and chicken-liver sandwich on rye from the Carnegie Deli. And the chicken liver was a spread where the mayonnaise would normally belong. I was 8, 9.
What’s your go-to, everyday restaurant?
Eisenberg’s Sandwich Shop on Fifth Avenue. I go in there and have an egg sandwich at the counter. I like a place where you can sit at a counter and look. Old school. And I like watching short-order cooking. It’s a dying art.
What restaurant is next on your list to try?
Gabriel Kreuther’s restaurant. I like his cooking a lot. I want to go to Vaucluse. Anything French, sign me up. But those are fancy. The fancy restaurants take me longer to get to. They involve dressing up, being on time, being accurate, planning.
Where do you take out-of-town guests?
I don’t treat out-of-town guests any differently than in-town guests. I really love to go to Hearth. That’s one of my favorites; it has been for a long time. I like Marco Canora, the chef; I like his sensibility a lot. I like to go to Cookshop. You go in there and it’s truly seasonal.
What should everyone in New York try?
You need to have a street hot dog. Just do it. Is it the most gourmet? No. But you need to have that sensory experience of the sauerkraut and the mustard and the hot-dog water wafting in your face.
Sara Jenkins has a place, Porchetta, you should probably go there and have a sandwich. I think you should go to the Donut Pub and have a really old-school doughnut at the counter. Before doughnuts got really tricked up, before there was a caviar smoothie goji-berry doughnut, there was just a cinnamon cruller.
Nom Wah Tea Parlor. I’d go there and have some dumplings. It’s a dim sum parlor from the 1920s. It’s a tradition kept alive, it’s a unique experience and so tasty and very unassuming, which I like. I think you probably need to have a deli sandwich or some matzo-ball soup. I might have a Black Seed bagel. You should probably have the mouth-burning curry at Brick Lane, too.
As you look in the Crystal Ball for 2016 and beyond for your brand, what’s the next project?
I have decided that 2016 will be the year I hunker down and focus on everything to make sure that it’s as great as it can be. I am working on a second cookbook which I am really excited about. Other than that, I will consider 2016 a success if I go to the circus, the aquarium and an amusement park with my daughter.