Cooking Rules

Iron Chef Alex Guarnaschelli Shares Her Kitchen Secrets

The celebrity chef dishes on growing up a foodie, her new book, ‘The Home Cook,’ and how cooking on TV is nothing like cooking in real life.

How to Cook Like Iron Chef Alex Guarnaschelli

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You grew up in New York City, your mom is a famous cookbook editor, and your dad is a talented home cook, right? “My parents definitely played into my career choice! My mother and father were always cooking. They generally didn’t cook together: Dad would make traditional Italian-American and Chinese food as a hobby, and my mother was all about the James Beard, Julia Child, Craig Claiborne stuff. Mom was always the type to take two buses and a subway to get the special bottle of balsamic vinegar. Everything was about quality ingredients.”

How did you first learn to cook? Learning anything, you start as a spectator, and I don’t think we talk about that enough. I’d help Mom peel potatoes, knead bread, stuff like that. But my mom is a perfectionist, so I didn’t ever make anything from A to Z. But then when I graduated from Barnard College, I got a job at Larry Forgione’s restaurant, An American Place, and it’s the guys there who really taught me the fundamentals. How to cook a steak and not cut your hand off—those kind of fundamentals. That plus working for six years at Restaurant Guy Savoy in France.”

You’re from an Italian family and your books include a lot of Italian recipes; is it your favorite type of food to eat and cook? When it comes to eating, I really love Italian-American and classic Americana, big-time. Lasagna, a Reuben; that’s my jam. I’m also a closet vegetarian part-time. When I was growing up, my father did a ton of stuff with veggies that really influenced me. For cooking, I’m all about the Frenchies. French food may not be chic right now, but it’s timeless and it always comes back into style. Team Frenchie!”

Your career has been mostly at high-end restaurants, but both your new cookbook, The Home Cook, and your first cookbook, Old-School Comfort Food, feature recipes targeted firmly at home cooks. What are the biggest differences between cooking at home and professionally? “You know, I have to load the dishwasher at home! When you’re thinking about a recipe that has 20 steps and uses a lot of equipment, you don’t think about it in a restaurant. I have a child at home, and when you have a child at home, you don’t want making a grilled cheese sandwich to create a sink full of dishes. The goal is to fuse the elegance of restaurant and the simplicity of home cooking.”

Your new book is subtitled Recipes to Know by Heart. Which three recipes do you think every home cook should memorize? “You should know how to cook rice, how to make a biscuit and how to make a basic salad dressing. If you can do that, you can conquer the world. You can go in a million directions from there.”

What does your home kitchen look like? “It’s a galley kitchen with old equipment and I love it! I do cook at home quite a bit, mostly because of my 10-year-old. She makes me want to bust out a sauté pan.”

Any tips on cooking for kids? What about teaching kids to cook? “My mother never went at me like ‘you have to learn to cook.’ There was no compelling argument made, and that left room for my own desire. As far as cooking for kids, I don’t really believe in cooking for kids. You make dinner and you say, ‘This is what’s for dinner. You don’t like it? I guess you’re not hungry.’ I’m kidding, but I mean not really. I take requests, though; I’m a flexible food DJ. I think it should be a dialogue with your kid. But I do believe in picky eaters. And if your kid is a picky eater, the best recipe is patience. Eventually, they’ll eat an oyster.”

Are there any secret ingredients pro chefs love to use that home cooks don’t? Miso paste is a good one. It adds such great umami and richness. Chefs like to use fish sauce and soy sauce as forms of adding a built-in salt flavor in unexpected places. Mustard is big too—it can add thickness and acidity; soy can add salt; miso can add umami and body. I think of ingredients like paints on a palette while home cooks might think of them as individual ingredients.”

You’ve appeared on Iron Chef America, Chopped, Food Network Challenge, and a bunch of other cooking shows. Is cooking on TV anything like cooking in a real kitchen? “No. The whole answer to that is no. It’s a different kind of thing; it’s a different skill. It’s like if you had a sushi chef and a pasta chef; they both fall under cooking, but it’s a different sensibility. I don’t consider the skills to cross over in that particular way.”

What are some of your favorite places to eat and drink in New York? “I like Via Carota. I like Joe’s Pizza. I like Il Cortile. I like Hearth a lot. I like the old-school places. I’m big into highbrow/lowbrow: I like to have an egg sandwich at Eisenberg’s Sandwich Shop, and I love La Grenouille. For bars, I tend to get a little fancy-pants. I go to the King Cole Bar at the St. Regis Hotel.”

You travel quite a bit as well. What are some of your other favorite food and drink cities? I love Los Angeles. I always think no matter how highly people think of it, it’s underrated. I love Charleston, South Carolina. And Minneapolis. I like Minneapolis a lot. Those are three of my favorites.”

If you had to eat the same dish for every meal for the rest of your life, what would you pick? I would have slices of baguette with butter on one side, mayonnaise on the other and brie in the middle. Every day, every meal.”

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Besides the new cookbook, what’s next for you? I’m working on a cool fast-casual restaurant concept, but I’m not in any hurry—all puns and irony intended. Some TV. That’s really it. I’m gonna make a little time to go fishing. I’m terrible at it; that’s why I want to go!”

Alex Guarnaschelli’s new book The Home Cook will be released tomorrow. In addition to her regular TV appearances, she is also executive chef at Butter in Midtown Manhattan.

Interview has been condensed and edited.