A new Iron Chef has officially been crowned and added to the prestigious roster. Chef Alex Guarnaschelli prevailed in the final showdown, a full-out Kitchen Stadium battle that paid homage to three long-standing Iron Chefs: Chefs Flay, Symon and Morimoto.
Iron Chef Guarnaschelli is the executive chef at both The Darby and Butter Restaurants (take a photo tour here) in New York City. She’s also a veteran judge on Chopped. Returning for a chance at redemption, Chef Guarnaschelli survived all eight of the Chairman’s intense challenges, only finding herself in the Secret Ingredient Showdown once.
We recently sat down with Chef Guarnaschelli at Butter to chat about her experience on The Next Iron Chef: Redemption — why she decided to go for it a second time and what her biggest fear about Kitchen Stadium is.
What inspired you to sign on for a second season?
You know, if you can be on Food Network and be part of the shows and also be a fan at the same time — then that’s how I would categorize myself. Someone who has learned so much from the show and has watched it avidly for years and admired the Iron Chefs — the resolve it takes, as well as the technique behind every choice. If someone said, “Hey! You have a 10-percent chance of winning,” that sounds perfectly natural to me.
Did you know all of your fellow rival chefs this season?
I did not know Chef Vigneron at all and I was pleasantly surprised to find a skilled, passionate man behind all that hair! I had also never met Chef Mehta — he’s a wizard with spices and an amazing person and parent. One more — I had never met Chef Estes. What a firecracker and a peach (and an amazing chef).
Was there something that any of the chefs did on Redemption where you thought, how clever?
So many things. How much time have you got? The one that really stuck out to me was when Chef Falkner made the anchovy sphere for her Caesar dressing in her final challenge. I didn’t get to taste it, but it was so clever.
Where did you watch the show every Sunday night?
I watched it at home with my daughter, who kept saying, “Mommy, why is this show on again? I want to watch Ina (the Barefoot Contessa).” She loves Ina Garten.
Was there a chef you went to during The Next Iron Chef so you could vent?
Chef Falkner and I really bonded this season and I think that’s because we had gone through it together last season, so we would compare notes or talk about what happened during the challenge. We’d go over mistakes we made and how we could improve for next time. It was sort of like chef therapy.
What was the toughest ingredient you worked with on the show and why?
The toughest ingredients for me were definitely the chicken livers with the peppermint candy. And I say that because I thought of a million things to do with that peppermint candy, but in my heart of hearts, I knew that it would take away from the deliciousness of my dish, and that presented a real crossroads for me. How much are you willing to let deliciousness go to integrate an ingredient you’re obligated to use? It’s the same question people ask themselves when they open a Chopped basket. I refuse to give up delicious. I struggled with that a lot.
What is something the viewers didn’t get to see about you that you would like them to know?
I think people got to see a lot of different sides of how human I am. I hope no one missed how much I wanted to win this. And how much of an honor I believe it is to have this title. It deeply resonates with my chef DNA.
How are you going to balance work, Iron Chef America and Chopped?
I have the good fortune of living close to where I work. And that makes all the difference. Most importantly, I’m going to make sure that I spend enough time with my daughter. Because that’s time that I can’t get back. But I’ll find a way.
Now that you’ve won your first battle, do you foresee yourself creating a routine or ritual before you compete in Kitchen Stadium?
I will either wear my claw necklace or have it in my pocket. I would never leave the house without it. I also plan on wearing the purple sneakers that I purchased while competing on The Next Iron Chef: Redemption. After the first episode, I realized I needed more traction! Those are my Iron Chef shoes — they’ve been through thick and thin.
What qualities did you look for in your sous chefs when you were deciding who to pick?
I felt that it was important to pick two people that have worked with me for a long time, and yet are distinctive in their own right. There’s a little bit of imagination that person on an Iron Chef team needs to bring to the table; it’s not just the Iron Chef by any means. That would be like saying any restaurant is just the chef. It’s always about the people you collaborate with. I wanted a mixture of creative people, but coming together for the same idea. My two sous chefs, Ashley Merriman and Wirt Cook, who happen to be very overqualified, are very dedicated to their craft.
What’s your biggest fear about Kitchen Stadium?
When I think about Iron Chefs, I think about how they’ve been role models to me. I feel very passionate about maintaining the same level of standard and respect for the food as an Iron Chef myself. I think Chef Appleman put it best when he said during the final episode, “I don’t see these two people as females, I see them as chefs.” Gender’s a big issue. Simon Majumdar said something similar: “These aren’t two women who made it to the finale; these are two chefs who cooked the best food and happened to be women.”
Have any of the Iron Chefs shared a piece of advice with you that you’ll take away?
Iron Chef Jose Garces said, “No matter how much you think you know about food and cooking, it’s so important to practice, learn and grow.” And Iron Chef Bobby Flay told me, “Whatever you do, don’t slouch.” I tend to do that.