Alex Guarnaschelli is an Iron Chef, a cookbook author, the partner at New York’s Butter restaurant, and a busy mom. I’ve seen her at many an event, cooking alongside her team and not slowing until the last hungry eater was satiated. She’s what you might call a “tough broad” in the most complimentary sense of the term: focused, hard working, with high expectations and an unstoppable work ethic. She can be disarmingly determined or disarmingly charming, depending on how much time she has to give you. The woman’s busy, and the woman’s incredibly good at what she does.
In a feature for the Village Voice, Alex shared the items in her Butter kitchen that help make her the chef she is today. But in our rambling conversation she also shared how certain things have affected her beyond that kitchen, and a lot of the things she values could be traced back to her relationship with her mother.
Here’s a bit of the full conversation that made me stop and sigh.
Chef Alex Guarnaschelli On Family, Nostalgia and Making It Personal
Full interview taken October, 2014
What item in your kitchen connects you most with your past or family?
There isn’t much that sits on your kitchen table as a kid that you remember, but I grew up in midtown Manhattan, and we ate at the same table my whole childhood. And so I had this sort of feeling that my childhood was frozen in amber, and certain things were constants. As strange as it sounds, I didn’t use this pepper mill very often because food came to the table highly seasoned, but it was always there. There was something about gripping the wood and holding something so big, being careful with it because one big turn would give out a lot of pepper. I love the ritual of that; you become really aware of what you’re holding, and it feels really dramatic.
I do that in my kitchen now. The one I have is much smaller, so every time I turn I get less pepper, but every pepper mill and the way I dose pepper in my cooking stems back to that pepper mill. This is, like, 1972 in effect. I would die if I lost it. It’s grubby looking, it’s scrappy, and it’s been in the game a long time–there’s something about that I love. Grubby but precious is underrated.
You have a daughter. Is there anything you foresee being her pepper mill?
I think there are a number of more innocuous objects that she’ll find sentimental value in. It doesn’t mean I need her to become a chef and the peppermill compulsively falls into some weird third generation heirloom. And she doesn’t like pepper, so I generally avoid it when I cook for her. But she’s starting to like a little bit of heat, like chili, here and there. So we’ll see. It’s just interesting how you develop an idea of taste and sometimes associate a flavor through an object very strongly.
Tell me about all the china here that you love so much.
We had certain plates at home; this is the mashed potato bowl, this is the leek soup terrine etc. My parents are very old school, so I would not put it past my mother to make soup, put it in a terrine, and serve it to use at the table. My parents are sort of very casual in unusual ways, and very formal in very unusual ways. That sort of lack of conventionality and formality in honoring the specifics of something with the right china is something I grew up not realizing was important, but now I find myself gravitating towards it.
And your mother’s olive dish?
I think, going back to the idea that a soup goes in a soup terrine, you don’t look at this dish and go, “Oh, that’s an olive dish.” You go, “Yeah, it looks nice, and it’s a nice color.” But for some reason my mom always put olives in it, in a layer with herbs coming out. She wouldn’t pile them; she’d put them in a single layer. And I find myself doing that now with my cooking, spreading things out so you can see everything.
When I see this plate, I have a Pavlovian need for olives, and go into my pantry and eat one. And then say, “Oh my god, what have I done? I am my mother’s daughter.”
Have you ever rebelled against that idea?
My mother’s an editor and a curator of words and books and ideas, of people’s points of view and philosophies. It’s very important to her that she takes a manuscript from its inception and takes that person, folding them in like a cake batter, and make sure they’re clear. When you look at a book like The Zuni Café cookbook that my mom edited; I watched my mother kind of knead that dough until it just screamed Judy Rodgers. I think Judy Rodgers is wonderful, and a pioneer of American cooking that we know and love.
I’m of Italian heritage and I’m French trained, and I think Judy’s food has a lot of French and Italian to it, and so as I was reading it was resonating with me because it’s near and dear to my heart. And she worked at Troisgros in Roanne, France, and I worked for Guy Savoy in Paris. And Guy did his culinary internship and apprenticeship at Troisgros with Bernard Loiseau at his side, another (unfortunately deceased) 3-star Michelin chef. So when she talked about walking into the Toisgros kitchen and all the things she saw there, I saw touches of that in the kitchen at Guy Savoy. So she’s resonating with me and Toisgros resonated with Guy. And so it’s kind of like we’re all wearing a different outfit but when Guy left Toisgros he took a sweater with him, and wore it in his own kitchen.
There’s something about her that I carry with me, and my mom made that voice very clear. My mom and her work made the clarity of Judy Rodgers’ vision resonate with me. And having my mom in the mix makes it ever cooler. It’s a hard thing to find in an editor. I guess I cook, so maybe I’m actually using dough, whereas she uses words. But we’re pointed in the same direction, just armed with different weapons.
You also covet James Oseland’s Cradle of Flavor, which she edited as well.
I like James because I think he’s kind of the champion of the unusual: street food, small things that make a big difference, cooking culture. When my mom started editing his book, I just thought that it was full of flavors that I love to eat but that are not really in my cooking, so I wasn’t really going to look through it. But then I thought, no, I should look at that book. I should get a bunch of books and do some traveling and some eating and get outside my Frenchie comfort zone. I find the way he did it was really accessible. My mom worked really hard on that book, and he worked really hard on that book.
So, again, what all these objects are coming down to are the people and the connections I make with them. I have a favorite knife, and I have an old, tattered notebook; I have all of those things, too. But things that are more part of my end game or more part of the thinking of a chef are the things that we don’t highlight as frequently. So the china that I put the food on that makes it look the way I want it to look or the way I fantasized the way it would look in my head is important, because it’s how people see how I’m thinking about what I’m doing. How I read and feed my brain is important, too.
I think a lot of home cooks get nervous when they push themselves beyond their comfort zone with a new technique or set of ingredients. But you’re obviously so skilled and accomplished in the kitchen. Do you ever get nervous when attempting a different technique or region of ingredients?
I don’t know if “nervous” is the word I would use. I’m just aware that they’re ingredients or techniques I’m not used to. For example, I bought a cookbook of Morimoto’s a number of years ago, and one of the techniques he talks about is using kombu, the seaweed, which has a natural MSG on the exterior of it. You wet it to wake the MSG up, then sandwich scallops or another protein with it, and then let it sit for 45 minutes or an hour. It naturally salts it, and then you can cook it. I thought, “What, I’m going to make a seaweed sandwich to salt something? Cool. We don’t do that in Paris.” Or in California or New York. I did it over and over again, fiddling with it. At first I didn’t think it would work, but it did, and it was certainly very interesting to me.
In what way was the result different than just salting scallops?
The salt was in there. It felt marinated and infused throughout.
So when it’s not something in my comfort zone I just do it again and again until I’m comfortable with it. Dried chilies are not something I learned to cook with, so I just keep hydrating them and trying different ones in different ways. I went through a big pasilla pepper phase, I went through a big ancho chili phase. I had to build a familiarity with how to use the ingredient and know what it does; when it builds body or how it builds heat. If it’s not something you’re familiar with or that you grew up with it takes practice, and practical application of an ingredient time and time again. Give some dried chilies to Aaron Sanchez and he’s ready to do fourteen different things. But for me I thought, well, geez, I gotta get up to speed here. Because I like them: you open the bag and there’s heat, there’s earth, there’s sweet, there’s raisins and tobacco and all these aromas and flavors. Sounds good to me, right?
What’s the most vital element to making your kitchen work?
I’m sorry my answer’s so hokey, but there’s only really one answer that’s off the cuff and true, which is that I have an incredible staff. You can take all the knives, pots and pans, the bump in the stove, the depression in the floor, the place in the walk-in where it’s not as cold, and it doesn’t matter. I’ve had a core group of people that I’ve had the privilege of working with for almost fifteen years, so you end up being able to say so much with so little. I appreciate the pulsating subtext where you just look at each other and nod, and a lot is conveyed with very little.
When I first started working with this group, I was much more kind of shouty and excitable. After the first couple of weeks they said, “You kind of don’t have to do that.” And I didn’t believe them, and kept on doing it for a while. But I found that being around my staff, it actually makes me simmer down. And you know what? Simmering down is underrated. Shut up, simmer down, settle down, and cook.
I hear many chefs saying longevity is hard to find in a time when kitchens change so quickly, with young chefs passing through in short stints. You’ve talked a lot about history and grounding yourself, and you have an expansive skill level and history that’s very admirable. So what’s the driving point of longevity with this core group of your staff?
I think probably the biggest way is that we like each other. The social aspect of the kitchen and the dynamics are very underrated in the grand scheme of things. I appreciate that people go into kitchens to learn about ingredients and techniques and cooking, and to find their own voice and style. That’s the objective. But did you enjoy the process of getting from A to Z? That’s about the people you spend your time with.
So, socially, we like each other. Every time someone comes to trail in the kitchen I always say to them, “You’re here today not because I’m worried about how you can dice an onion or not. We’ll get to that. What I want to know today is, do you like us and do we like you?” Because if we find we have synergy, then the process of finding a style and learning what’s going on in there is a more pleasurable one. Sometimes I’m wrong; that doesn’t work universally. There’s all sorts of stuff, but I don’t sweat the small stuff. If people are a little bit late or wearing two different socks or one pant leg is rolled up higher than the other, that’s not my jam. If your pickle juice vinaigrette doesn’t taste good, then we have to talk.