Alex Guarnaschelli is one happy woman. She’s paid her chits and then some in a culinary world once dominated by men. Bright, funny, and deadly serious when she needs to be, Guarnaschelli earned her kitchen credentials in Paris and New York before embarking on her own as executive chef at Butter, a restaurant in midtown Manhattan, where she continually wows diners via her French/American cuisine with its touches of Italian.
Catch Guarnaschelli kibitzing with the likes of Scott Conant on Food Networks Chopped or Bobby Flay on Beat Bobby Flay show and you’ll find a woman who looks at food as an expression of who she is. Her newly released second cookbook, The Home Cook: Recipes to Know by Heart, promises to take the intimidation out of cooking and get you comfortable wielding that spatula.
If last year’s Greenwich Wine and Food festival is any indication, area residents are again in for a treat when Guarnaschelli appears for the second consecutive year on a Masters Panel, this year with Conant, Mary Giuliani, and Adam Richman on Saturday, Sept. 23, at the Roger Sherman Baldwin Park in Greenwich. The entire day is the culmination of a weekend of food and drink.
Westchester Magazine recently caught up with Guarnaschelli to ask her about, what else, all things food.
Many people buy cookbooks and read them for entertainment not for cooking purposes. And there certainly is a plethora of cooking shows on TV and food magazines on newsstands. Do you think more people are cooking today than they did in your mother’s and grandmother’s time?
I think people are using all the various forms of media to inform their cooking and their food choices. I think a cookbook plus television shows have an opportunity to educate the consumer above and beyond on their own cooking. It extends into their shopping choices and their dining choices in all capacities. Consumers are more excited than ever about eating!
What are some foods that are seldom used today that you are using in your cuisine?
I think a lot of people are learning about varied produce — there’s so much to choose from at the supermarket! I would like to see a resurgence of root vegetables. I always think that the more varied produce we eat, and more bio diversity can emerge victorious! Let’s make turnips and rutabaga chic again.
Years ago there was no such thing as white balsamic vinegar or even panko crumbs. Are there any new culinary ingredients on the horizon that you know of and are anxious to try?
I am a purist at heart so I really enjoy heirloom varieties of fruits and vegetables. I never tire of a finding a new type of tomato or plum or potato, for example. It’s an endless horizon. I am also very interested in “meatless” meat concepts.
Some cookbooks presume the cook knows more than a thing or two about cooking techniques. What basic techniques should every home cook know?
Great vinaigrette and a batch of biscuits, and you’re good to go in just about any situation. I would say the technique of pan searing and roasting cuts of meat and fish are probably a really good place to start.
What if the home cook does not have all the ingredients on hand that you specify in a recipe? Can substitutions work successfully?
I really like the idea of someone making a recipe from what they do have on hand. I think the refrigerator always has something to offer and repurposed leftovers can be totally delicious. Some substitutions work fine, but if you start interspersing things like baking soda and baking powder, then it becomes an issue. An apple for a pear? Okay.
What gives you the most satisfaction in writing a cookbook, and where the heck do you find the time to test and then to write?
I spend most of my time cooking and thinking about food. I’ve also always collected recipes and tidbits of information like a packrat. The joy is putting a book together like a scrapbook of everything I’ve explored about food. It tells a story through onions. Testing is always happening.
Have you ever had a recipe that didn’t work out?
I have had many failed recipes and many successes. It’s the law of averages. Sometimes a mistake becomes something else — like a soup turns into a great sauce. Some things don’t work out at all. My favorite is something simple that far exceeds expectations; when that happens, it’s golden.
How often do you think it is prudent for a chef to change his restaurant menu?
I think tweaks to a menu all the time to allow for seasonal changes are important. I think it’s also prudent to keep the classics the people come back for time and time again. Somewhere in those two lines of thinking is the right balance to strike with a menu in my opinion.
I have to presume you are an instinctive cook. But what does that mean to you?
Yes, I am. And I think most cooks rely heavily on their instincts. I think it means that you can make something and the process can have many twists and turns. It’s about depending on the ingredients, the cooking going on around you, and just taste. A cook that tastes as she goes along has a higher chance for success.
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