Deputy Editor Vivian Zhou is a huge foodie– as seen in her love letter to Marlow and her review of Hula Poke. Alex Guarnaschelli returned to her alma mater on Tuesday, February 5th to talk about her time at Barnard, her career path, and give out general life advice. It is only appropriate that Vivian attended.
Alex Guarnaschelli is the executive chef of Butter (yes, Blair Waldorf’s favorite restaurant from Gossip Girl) and a television personality– a judge on Chopped, winner of the 2012 season of Iron Chef America, and appears on various other Food Network shows. She is friends with Bobby Flay, she was a chef at Daniel by Daniel Boulud, and has worked with 3-starred Michelin chef Guy Savoy. For those heavily invested in the food industry or for those who like to spend nights in watching Food Network, Guarnaschelli is impressive, to say the least. And she attended Barnard College.
It’s hard to put Guarnaschelli’s energy, bluntness, and humor into words. Her entire talk was done without a script, capturing her authenticity. She started off the talk by revealing that back when she attended Barnard, she never left her dorm room except to drink. That confession itself set the tone for the rest of the evening. She told the audience that she didn’t have good grades, slept through her art history classes, and she had no idea what she wanted to do. “I did learn honesty at Barnard,” she says, as she continues to talk about how her parents both attended Yale and that academia skipped her generation. Guarnaschelli was first exposed to cooking because of her mom. Her mom was a cookbook editor and would constantly make home-cooked meals and leave cookbooks around the house, which Guarnaschelli would read.
Guarnaschelli majored in Art History but she really did not have a career in mind. She decided her profession on her graduation day– she sat on a bench in the lawn in front of JJ’s, caught a whiff of the oily chicken wings, and remembered how much she loves food. She told the audience, “You probably don’t actually want to do the things you say you want to do.” She believes that people pursue a narrow range of careers because they think they’re supposed to follow these traditional paths. Often, there is a little voice in the back of the head that contradicts all these set plans. She decided to listen to her little voice because “whatever you choose to do, you’re going to do it a lot.” Nobody around her wanted to be chef, so it was a daunting choice for her to give up all that she had learned to pursue cooking.
Once Guarnaschelli started working for a chef in Midtown, she knew that her decision was right and it was exactly what she wanted to do. She believes that there is only one thing everyone should do, and she found her thing. She wasn’t talented at first, but she loved cooking and she still loves it to this day. “Someone’s always looking for people to cook food,” she says. The kitchen was dangerous, challenging, new, and exciting and she didn’t feel sorry that she traded in conforming to a traditional career path of going to an office early in the morning for the excitement of the kitchen. Thus began her career in Paris with Guy Savoy, in New York with Daniel Boulud, and temporarily in California with Joachim Splichal.
By the time she started working at Butter, the little voice at the back of her head was telling her that she did not want to be a chef anymore. It was only when she went to the kitchen and saw “one kid cooking scallops in the kitchen and he looked so happy… it was like the sensation of scallops was going through his arm into his brain and making him happy” that she decided Butter was the place for her. Her staff at Butter have worked with her for 17 years and they’ve all grown into a family. She told the audience to invest in what they believe in, because her success with Butter was due to her investing time and money to her restaurant family.
As for her career as a TV personality, Guarnaschelli watched a lot of cooking shows but only deemed Iron Chef worthy because it has crazy, psychotic energy. She wanted to be a contestant on the show, but instead she was invited to judge Bobby Flay (who she found annoying at the time). That’s when she realized she really liked being a food judge. Bobby Flay encouraged her and served as a mentor to her throughout this time. She shares that she loves the authenticity of being a Chopped judge. Being a judge that is also a chef, her reactions to people making mistakes are very real because she understands what it’s like being in that position.
Making sacrifices is a huge part of Guarnaschelli’s success. She sacrificed spending time with her daughter for her career. She competed in Iron Chef again, and dedicated a lot of time and money for the preparation– she bought 150 cookbooks and read them in her hotel room while the competition was going on. When she won, Bobby Flay told her that the best thing about her winning is that she deserved it.
To the students in the audience, Guarnaschelli simply suggests starting somewhere. In terms of cooking, she suggests getting really comfortable with one ingredient, such as eggs, then through the chain effect, all cooking will feel more comfortable. “If you want to work at a restaurant, go to a restaurant and ask them if you can work there,” she says. Instead of sitting at home and asking a million questions, just go out and do what you want to do.
Photo via Vivian