Alex Guarnaschelli, the successful chef—and Food Network-crowned “Iron Chef”—still remembers in vivid detail a fourth-grade bag lunch her mom (a noted cookbook editor) packed for her. Smushed meatballs in sauce, broccoli dripping in balsamic dressing, and four slices of bread. Um… PB&J, it wasn’t.
“Ma,” she said, calling her mother at work from a pay phone. “What kind of lunch is that?”
Her mother explained she was to construct the sandwich herself. Had mom done it at home, it’d be soggy.
Guarnaschelli would go on to conquer more complicated recipes and food issues, as executive chef at the Manhattan restaurant Butter, and on Food Network series (like “Chopped,” in which she appears as a judge, and as host of “Supermarket Stakeout”). But the basic lesson of that day, recalled in her 2013 cookbook “Old School Comfort Food,” has stayed with her. “Flavor trumps appearances and normalcy,” she wrote.
Her love for cooking comes from both her mother and father (who stir-fried and whipped up a mean tomato sauce), and now she’s sharing it with her own daughter, Ava Clark, 12, a burgeoning chef herself. (Ava’s recipe for whole roasted sea bass appears in Food Network Magazine’s September issue.)
Guarnaschelli, 47, who is divorced, splits her time between Manhattan and the Hamptons. She spoke recently by phone with Newsday contributor Joseph V. Amodio.
Looks like your daughter inherited your cooking genes.
Yes. She loves to cook. She loves eggplant. I come home and she’s roasting it. Or on weekends she wants to make eggplant parm’. But…she’s funny. She comes in the kitchen some days and looks over my shoulder when I’m cooking. Other days she’ll go right by me, watch TV and say, “I don’t want to be in the kitchen.” This morning she woke up and said, “Can I make a melon breakfast drink with ice?” She has room to enjoy the impulse and desire to cook. I don’t want her to feel obligated to become a chef. I just want her to be a kid.
Did you feel that from your mom, too?
Definitely. She cooked out of passion. Both my parents loved the whole process—buying the ingredients, finding the recipe, researching, learning, cooking, serving, eating. From A to Z. It was just part of my childhood, always.
Is there an old family recipe you’ve tried to replicate but can’t quite master?
No. A lot of people say, “I make my grandmother’s biscuits but they don’t taste like when she made them.” First of all, Grandma probably omitted an ingredient, because it’s her recipe and she wants to—secretly—not share it with you. And second, it doesn’t taste the same because your grandmother’s not making it for you.
How’s your East End farmer’s market these days? Stocked with tomatoes and corn?
Oh, yeah. Also basics—really great leeks. Peaches. Starting to see some apples. Big chili pepper moment—chilies to me are best in late August, September, October.
Any favorite farmstands?
I like Pike Farms (in Sagaponack). Balsam Farms and Amber Waves (both Amagansett). My favorite is Marilee Foster (a sixth-generation farmer with a farmstand in Sagaponack).
I’m amazed at the awful things you sometimes must consume on “Chopped.” Was there anything too disgusting to eat?
Are you sure you want me to talk about what’s disgusting?
I’d say it’s not so much the dishes—it’s the ingredients. In the Challenging Ingredients Hall of Fame it’s always fresh durian (a spiny Asian fruit with a potent stench). The smell—it fills the whole studio. We had a nine-pound gummy skull—a gummy-bear candy in the shape of a skull. But it weighed nine pounds. To watch that electric green gummy skull melt down in a pan on the stove…was really something. And then to eat it. That was a big moment.
It’s funny—kids can be like that about the basic foods. What tips can you offer parents trying to expand their kids’ menu?
Well, my father, who grew up in Garden City, always said when kids are hungry they’ll eat. That was his philosophy when I was growing up. I think the more you harp on it, the worse things get. Let a kid breathe a little, with food. I read in a book—I don’t remember which—that you can’t say your kid doesn’t like an ingredient until you’ve eaten it with them or in front of them at least 20 times. What are the parents eating? if you’re eating a cheeseburger, and trying to get your kid to eat a kale salad, you know…. I don’t say that judgmentally. I just think it’s a big piece of the equation people don’t talk about enough. Of course… the other thing is, leave ‘em alone. They’re kids. They’ll figure it out.