'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."

Four days turned into four years, with Guarnaschelli getting rapidly promoted to sous chef at La Butte Chaillot, a top Savoy establishment. She returned to the United States and continued impressing the masses, serving spectacular dishes at upscale establishments like Manhattan's Restaurant Daniel and the restaurant Patina in West Hollywood, Calif.

"I love that in a restaurant every night is different," she reminisced. " It's like an opera or a play, and you never know what's going to happen. Now, that can be good or bad. Sometimes the grease trap breaks and the fuse box melts down and the dishwasher has had a couple of cocktails that you didn't know about -- that's not good.

"I love walking into a restaurant and looking at a bar and a roomful of people and hearing that buzz and that hum of people talking and eating and laughing and the clink of a forks and glasses, and it can make a very professional environment and a business feel like a home."

Guarnaschelli's special dishes tend to focus on the senses, modeled after her own instincts when a plate of food is placed in front of her.

"I imagine the best way I can say it is that tasting food … starts with a sniff. You know, we always get a whiff. It's like that leftover air that made it from the kitchen to the dining room, and then there is that visual moment. And then you know, I don't know about you … someone puts food in front of me [and] I'll touch, and I want to know, is the plate warm or is that meat really as tender as it looks?"

The Green Market Menu

Like many avid food lovers, the holidays provide fond memories of good food. Guarnaschelli's favorite memories from the holidays center on her parents.

"My father makes Thanksgiving stuffing with pepperoni and mozzarella," Guarnaschelli said. "He says that when they were coming over on the Mayflower, those were the essentials that they stocked on the ship -- mozzarella and pepperoni. And he said it so many times and so seriously that I almost believe him."

She also finds Christmas nostalgic. "[My] mother always made a minimum of 14 kinds of cookies, and she made pates and other things. But come on, the smell of butter wafting from the oven, I mean, can you focus on anything else?"

Guarnaschelli has been the executive chef, since 2003, at Butter Restaurant, where she created an eclectic American and green-market-inspired menu.

"That idea that we're connected to our ingredients, I absolutely love," she said. "And when I go to the market and I see potatoes that are covered in soil and they smell more like soil than anything else … I love when I roast … potatoes in the oven and I can smell -- even though they've been scrubbed -- that underhint of soil and earth that connects it to that farmer that grew them. And knowing that farmer, I mean, could I get anymore corny?"

Even though the green market is one of her favorite places, Guarnaschelli admits it isn't just organic onions and foie gras in her fridge. "I like that drive-by Dorito moment, you know? I do occasionally. A couple of Cool Ranch [chips] really does me right."

"But my favorite indulgence is definitely ice cream. Haagen-Dazs chocolate chocolate chip. The chocolate -- they're not chips, they're like little squares of the most gloriously waxy chocolate, it's almost like candle wax. And so when you eat that bite and you get that chocolate ice cream and then you get that little crunch in your molars … I wouldn't trade that moment for anything."