'Burning Every Finger' in Pursuit of Culinary Success

For chef Alex Guarnaschelli, creating delicious and inspiring food is part of a lifelong passion born out of her metropolitan roots and her food-focused upbringing.

"Well, I am a native New Yorker," said Guarnaschelli, executive chef at Butter Restaurant in New York. "I grew up in Midtown Manhattan, and with that said, I don't see how I could have avoided eventually gravitating to the restaurant world."

It also helped that Guarnaschelli, whose mother is respected cookbook editor Maria Guarnaschelli, was brought up surrounded by food and food culture.

"My mother cooked a lot from very classical. There was always a [James] Beard or a Craig Claiborne or Julia Child book out on the counter, half-covered with flour and butter," Guarnaschelli recalled. "[I] grew up in a house where there was always something cooking; always something homemade."

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Guarnaschelli's father experimented with food as well. "My father cooked Chinese food, so he would do stuff like hang a duck in the middle of the dining room from a chandelier for three or four days. So I'd have friends over, we'd be playing, you know, Barbie dolls become Rockettes, and there would be a duck hanging there and it'd be like, 'What's that?' And I'm like, "I don't know, but in a few days I'm sure it will taste really good."

The decision to become a professional chef was not one Guarnaschelli took lightly. But it was also not one she ruminated over for weeks or days. It took her only a few hours. In 199, on the day she graduated from Barnard College in New York, she officially decided to explore her culinary interests.

"I woke up on the day of my graduation. I said to myself I need to do what I love. ... And by the end of the day, I'm going to figure it out."

That afternoon, Guarnaschelli called her mother at home with the big news. "I said, 'You know, I'm going to be a chef.' And my mom, I could hear the silence on the other end, you know, like, really? And I said, 'Doesn't it seem inevitable that this happened?'"

From Four Days to Four Years

From that phone call Guarnaschelli powered through the culinary world with huge goals in mind. She began working immediately under the tutelage of renowned American chef Larry Forgione. "I spent about a year cutting and burning every finger in pursuit of that goal," she said.

To help fine-tune her skills, she soon moved to France to study at La Varenne Culinary School in Burgundy.

Upon finishing culinary school and traveling throughout France, she moved to Paris to begin a four-day stage at the Michelin three-star restaurant Guy Savoy. Staging is when a cook or chef works briefly in another chef's kitchen to gain exposure to new techniques and cuisines. It was there where Guarnaschelli learned to thrive as a female chef in a mostly male environment.

"When you walk into a 3-star Michelin in Paris, and you're 24 years old and there are 22 men and maybe a woman in the office getting the phone, you suddenly realize you're the black sheep and you didn't even ask to be," Guarnaschelli recalled.

"But I took it positively, and really, I think that was the only way for anyone to get through, which is, you know, I'm a little different, I have something that distinguishes me, and [rather than] be ashamed of that, whether it hurt me or helped me I always conducted myself in a way that made it seem as if I thought it was a good thing."

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