If sheer determination was the only deciding factor in who became the next Iron Chef, Alex Guarnaschelli would have been taking on all comers in Kitchen Stadium years ago.
Unfortunately for her, in Season 4 of the show, a poorly prepared piece of lobster led to her elimination and possibly the end of her dream to join the Chairman’s elite crew.
Despite huge reservations, she was persuaded to return, and in Season 5, she battled her way to the finale and bested Amanda Freitag thanks to an extraordinary chili cherry tart (yes, folks, it really was that good).
I hope that the answers to the questions below will give you some added insight into the newest of the Iron Chefs.
You wanted to be an Iron Chef for such a long time. Now that you are one, is it everything it’s cracked up to be?
AG: That and then some. When you have a goal that means as much to you personally as the validation externally, there is no room for an anti-climax! Imagine some kid throws a football and dreams of becoming an NFL quarterback. I sauteed some onions and cleaned a million sea urchins and hoped for the same result: to become an Iron Chef.
Does it annoy you when people constantly refer to the fact that you are the only female Iron Chef?
AG: I don’t mind at all. To me, an Iron Chef is an Iron Chef. I hope I inspire other women in the field to set their sights on goals and pay no attention to gender.
Few chefs I know have such a distinct culinary personality as you. Where do you think that style originated?
AG: Take an Italian heritage and mix it with rigorous French training, a mother who was avidly baking cakes and making Indian food, and a father cooking Chinese food, and you get a culinary mutt who loves many things.
You and your mom made a fantastic and very funny team on All-Star Family Cook-Off recently. Have you discussed doing a show together?
AG: We have. We really love each other, but it’s definitely a healthy mother-daughter push-pull relationship. She likes things her way, and I wholeheartedly disagree.
France or Italy? And, no, you can’t say both.
AG: France. It’s the cheeses that are the deal breaker. And the croissants. And tarts. And boeuf bourguignon. And sel de Guerande and …
You have a huge collection of cookbooks. What is the one you could never do without?
AG: The Gourmet School Cookbook by Dione Lucas. It has so many of my favorite recipes my mother made for me growing up. The menus group flavors into interesting meals that build course after course. To me the structure this book offers is invaluable when conceptualizing dishes and menus.
Did the fact that you had been to Kitchen Stadium as sous chef to Iron Chef Zakarian help calm your nerves when you got to the finale of The Next Iron Chef?
AG: No. While I found working with Geoffrey an invaluable experience, I’m too passionate and too much of an overthinker to relax in Kitchen Stadium.
What piece of kitchen equipment could you never be without?
AG: A melon baller (joking). It’s a tie between my cast-iron skillet and my Vitamix blender. Cast iron is great for everything from cornbreads and pies to steak. Vitamix could puree car parts, if necessary.
Are the judges’ criticisms tougher to deal with on Iron Chef America or The Next Iron Chef?
AG: Hands down: The Next Iron Chef. You’re cooking alone (meaning without sous chefs) against your peers, and you don’t hear what the judges tell anyone but you. You can’t compare notes with what was said to your fellow competitors, and every little word (however negative) lands inside your head with a resounding “thud” for you to contemplate during your morning shower for the next 20 years.
What would be the one piece of advice that you would give to any aspiring chef?
AG: In a way, this field has never been more diverse or more complex to navigate. There are almost too many options. Food styling, magazines, restaurants, books, cruise ships, recipe testing, catering, food TV — the list goes on. To me, investing in yourself with a good culinary education and some practical experience in a restaurant you love are invaluable ways to build a solid foundation of knowledge and experience. Then, the food world is your oyster.