Alex Guarnaschelli: My Long, Tasty, Crunchy, Winding Road to Chef-dom
Alex Guarnaschelli is an Iron Chef, Food Network celebrity chef and the executive chef at New York City’s Butter restaurants. Read her PEOPLE.com blog every Tuesday to get her professional cooking tips, family-favorite recipes and personal stories of working in front of the camera and behind the kitchen doors. Follow her on Twitter at @guarnaschelli.
You see, I have this recurring dream: I am writing the first page to my own cookbook. I put a fresh piece of paper into an old-fashioned typewriter, line it up perfectly so that margin, the stars and the moon were all perfect and type one word. The word was so simple it pains me to say. It is a word that begins many sentences and opens the doors to endless possibilities: the.
I would type “the” and look over my shoulder as if feeling a little cold patch in the ocean or an unexplainable chill from a sip of a frozen cocktail at a barbecue. I look over my shoulder and my mom, the book editor, standing there, arms folded, holding a red pencil and ready to strike. But it is my life experiences as a cook and the very fabric of my childhood food experiences that compels me to park my mother’s well-meaning, protective ghost in the living room and go for walk with you in the most important room of my house: the kitchen.
I could almost tell you there was a specific moment in my childhood where I realized that nothing meant more to my parents than cooking and eating good food. I suppose the natural conclusion would be that I also realized that I wanted to become a chef.
Not even remotely.
I learned that art of eating way before I considered the art of cooking. To me, cooking was just a means to that delicious moment of enjoying an amazing meal or dish. I ate with vigor, everything my parents made, from my father’s super al dente broccoli spears with too much balsamic vinegar and bracing amounts of garlic powder to my mother’s version of marinara sauce with a ton of carrots and a pleasantly grainy and vegetal texture.
There was no prevailing cultural influence at home. I didn’t grow up in wall-to-wall cannoli or in the midst of an Udon and Soba noodle workshop. It was somewhat of a hodgepodge and largely based on whatever cookbook my mother was working on at that time.
One year, she edited Julie Sahni’s Classic Indian Cooking and we spent a year eating various dals and basmati rice pilafs, a parade of braised cabbage dishes, lentils and some other dishes that, at the tender age of 11, I affectionately referred to as: “different degrees of freshly mowed lawn”
We ate dinner at Julie Sahni’s house in Brooklyn and the smells and food emanating from her kitchen were captivating: toasted cumin, cilantro, wok-fried garlic, crispy fried onions … She roasted chilies in a wok filled with hot grease and the smell was so strong in the air, we had to run out in the hallway of the building, gasping for air.
We moved from that to Barbra Tropp’s Modern Art of Chinese Cooking and though my mother cooked a few of the recipes, it was my father’s passion for Chinese food that prevailed on this project. I can remember a inviting a girlfriend over to play. We decided were Rockettes living the dream at Radio City Music Hall and completed our fantasy by donning tutus and ballet slippers. As we danced and twirled on the splintery wood floor in the dining room, I almost knocked over a nebulous pot of hard-boiled eggs soaking in a pot of smoky black tea. I suppose that would have been passable but the cooked duck hanging from a string on the chandelier was a little hard for my girlfriend to understand.
“Eat the duck, bones and all” my father explained when we ate it three days later. And it was so tender and crunchy. I had never eaten anything like that. String beans with a fermented taste somewhere between black beans and pure yeast were followed by a “hacked chicken” so spicy the first bite seared your whole mouth. The sensations of eating food were layered in to my first memories of flavor. I was starting to see that food and eating was a multi-sensory experience. In other words, the irreversible path to becoming a cook had long since begun.
Then came Rose Levy Beranbaum’s The Cake Bible. Ahhh. Dessert is such a comforting, familiar ground, I remember thinking. “Do you know Rose wrote her thesis on sifting four?” my mother chattered excitedly as she turned the first pages of her manuscript. What ensued were buttery layer cakes, chocolate and mocha mousse cakes, strawberry pistachio trifles and a parade of fluffy marshmallow frostings. Rose’s cakes were precise to the gram. Chocolate butter creams, cakes with Oreo cookies baked in the center, lemony flavors like I had never experienced.
Then came the year of balsamic, and Lynne Rosetto Kasper’s The Splendid Table. “Do you know that in Emiglia Romagna they wear little vials of balsamic on ropes around their neck so they can add vinegar to their food as they eat?” my mother chatted excitedly. My mother moved through manuscripts with the zealousness of a serial dater. We ate more chicken, balsamic and grated Parmesan than I ever knew. Sometimes I most enjoyed the nights we would have a pork chop and some carrots or a bowl of spaghetti. The good stuff. When I graduated from college with a degree in art history, the answer seemed sudden and yet there all along: it was time to grab a sauté pan and start burning some stuff of my own.