For the first time ever, eight chefs of the highest caliber and Food Network fame entered Guy’s Grocery Games for a five-part superstar tournament. Every week one chef unceremoniously checked out, until four remained in the finale. In the last round, Richard Blais, a highly skilled technician of cooking, and Alex Guarnaschelli, a chef with finessed French training, remained to cook for the $40,000 check for charity and the title of Guy’s Superstar Grocery Games Champion. After the chefs created their winning dishes based on the game 1 Ingredient Per Aisle, the judges had a difficult job ahead of them, but they chose a winner of immense experience and culinary excellence.
Although Richard had been the leader in much of the competition, Alex held her own, having only been in the elimination round once, she kept putting out winning dishes one after another. But in that last game of the finale, she created a dish that was so memorable for the judges in its finesse and flavor that she was deemed the champion of the Superstar tournament. Surprised as she was, Alex graciously accepted her new title and left with $40,000 for her charity, Alex’s Lemonade Stand.
What was it like competing in Guy’s Superstar Grocery Games?
Alex Guarnaschelli: You know, I’ve done a lot of competitions, and that’s no secret, but I really felt like — first of all, I was competing against some fellow Chopped judges, I was competing against some people whose work I’m really not familiar with, particularly, for example, Jet Tila and Richard Blais. So there was both a mixture — it’s like old and new kind of feeling, you know, what do they say something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue. I think we just about covered all that. But it was really fun. I love the grocery store. It’s probably one of my favorite places to go on Earth. My daughter’s 9. She wants to go to Disney and go on all the rides. I want to go to the supermarket. It’s an adult playground, and to have a context like that — first of all, Guy, you don’t know what he’s going to do. He’ll heap three, four different challenges on top of each other and not even bat an eye, but he does it with a wink. So you sort of end up saying to yourself, “Oh, my God, I have to take this, do that, do that and this.” And yet I have to also laugh at myself and enjoy myself. Like, that layer is there.
You mentioned all the curve balls Guy throws at the chefs. There were times where you probably thought, “Why did I sign up for this?” Did you have any regrets like that during the competition?
AG: I never felt regret. Regret would be the wrong word. Just like, hmm, so let’s recap internally. I knew what this was about. I knew the context. I know Guy. I know the game, and it’s so much easier to watch it than it is to actually experience it. So, you have to laugh. I mean, it’s just, you can’t say, “Oh, my God, why’d I do this?” The other thing is it’s a lot of money for a charity, and when you think about that, you sort of say, “You know what, I’ll take the risk and put myself out there.” But regret? No. Internal laughter? Yes.
Did you know that there’s a point in Episode 1 where Damaris says, “You know Alex is going to win this, right?”
AG: I can’t. Damaris and I really hit it off. You know, we just get along. She is tough as nails. I mean, she really is. You know, I’m not used to people saying that, so I was surprised when she said that. Like, really? I am? Like, hey, Scooby. Whuuuuu.
What were your goals and strategies coming in? Did you have a winning mindset, or were you just like, “I’m going to play along and see how far I go”?
AG: I never have an “I’m just going to play along and see how far I go.” I need to try to figure out how to do that. That’s one of my goals. By 2020 I should have it in the bag. No, I wanted to win. That’s all I thought was, “How can I consistently just keep chipping, chipping, chipping at this?” You know, like, I’m going to dig a hole that’s 8 miles long, and you’re on mile 1 and you get tired and you’re like, “Uh, I can’t do this.” I just thought, “Just keep your eye on the prize.”
Throughout the competition, it was great seeing the back and forth play that you had with Guy, you always ribbing him on the difficulty of the challenges. Was there a game that you hated the most, where you were stumped and had a reaction like “I don’t know what I’m going to do to put out a dish”?
AG: The hardest game. I didn’t hate any of the games. Let’s remember, I love the supermarket, so anyone who’s making my playground into an actual playground, I’m good with it. The hardest challenge was the last, because you’re the most tired and you’re most vulnerable and you’ve kind of exhausted a lot of your — you’ve gotten a lot of your bag of tricks out. Like, the things you always grab in the supermarket, you’ve already grabbed them. You’ve already gone to the jar of capers or the lemon or the whatever else, your bag of tricks, and he makes us go aisle by aisle and pick one ingredient out of every aisle, so aisle 9 you’re like, “This is awesome.” And then by aisle 5 you’re like, “Oh, my God, why didn’t I pick X in aisle 7 and X in aisle 8?” And you can’t go back. So, it’s like climbing up a mountain and getting a little too high and being like, “I wish I could just climb back down.” And you can’t. You can fall, but you can’t climb back down.
There’s a point in Episode 4 where it looked like you lost a little bit of steam and you had to come up with a dish based on Ryder’s grocery list and your dish was called Shrimp Ryder, and that ended up actually putting you in the elimination round, which was your first time up for elimination. Do you think at that point the game was getting to you a little bit? How did you end up in that elimination round?
AG: I was so annoyed that I was going to be eliminated, and I definitely think that the fatigue of firing on all cylinders for so long started to catch up with me — 100 percent. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t. I’m human just like anybody else, and I think that you have this whole grocery store and you’re confined to a Chopped basket. You’re sort of like: “Oh, my God, I can’t take any of that produce. I can’t grab a delicious mango. I can’t grab some chicken breasts.” There’s so many “noes” from Guy. Daddy Guy was just handing out the noes. Daddy Guy came with a stack of “no” cards and made it rain, and I just was, like, “Oh, God.” And I thought: “Really? I want to win $40,000 for Alex’s Lemonade. I just have to do this.” So, yeah, it definitely got the best of me, and it got inside my head. I got inside my own head.
In the finale, in the second game, there was a point where you were kind of talking to yourself and the judges were commenting on it. You were almost narrating what you were doing. How would you describe the mindset you were going through knowing, “Wow, this is the game before the last game, and I could be going home or I could be going on to the last game”?
AG: It’s crazy when you get really close to the end when maybe you thought you weren’t going to make it that far. You know, you do the first challenge or two, you’re fresh, and then you kind of start to feel the fatigue. I feel like we talk so much about making good choices or performing well under pressure or being mindful of the clock or cooking something the judges love, but we don’t talk enough about just basic fatigue. We’re horses running these races, and then after the third or fourth one you start to lose steam, or you have a bad day at the “office.” … And then you say, “How am I going to bounce back?” That was the first time I thought, “I’m not going to win this.” I thought I was, I believed it, I drank my own Kool-Aid and I was wrong. When you get so close you can see it, you know, like, you’re driving to Manhattan and you come down the 495 and you get that burst of the cityscape … the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building. It just all of a sudden is on you, and you sort of felt like, I got this far [and] I just have to get over there — if I can just finish what I started. And I really didn’t know if I could. I really didn’t know, and Richard is fierce. He talks a lot to himself. He’s a mumbler. So he’s over there having a whole conversation with himself, and I’m over here having a whole conversation with myself. And by the way, like, Marc Murphy, really tremendous work. I thought, really, Marc, huh?
Did you ever think you’d make it to the end and share that space with Richard?
AG: No. I really, I think as I said to you, like, I started out seeing it and then Richard is such a tenacious competitor. Guy says “go,” and Richard is halfway down the supermarket with his cart and you’re just gearing up to move. You just feel like — Richard makes you feel like he’s six steps ahead of you the whole time, and so the last round, he’s got 400 pieces of equipment — I don’t even know what he’s using, he’s, like, building a high-rise, and I’m over here … making my little broth and cooking my little piece of fish thinking, you know, “Just stay true to who you are, stay true to who you are.” I had to chat it out with myself a lot. Me and my many voices, we had a lot of talking.
When Guy announced that you had won, you had this stunned look on your face; you were so shocked and so surprised. What were you feeling in that moment?
AG: I may believe I’m going to win most of the time during a competition, but if and when I do win, I’m always really surprised, and people write me a lot about that, like, “Hey, you looked really surprised.” I was so shocked, and I was so excited about it. I mean, it was like, “I can do this, I can get up this hill.” And I guess I could, but I really — I doubted myself so much. Is that OK to admit? Is that OK to be human? Yeah, I think so. I think people end up getting on your wagon with you, your bandwagon, because they feel your humanity. Is that hokey?
Personally, what does it mean for you to win — to add that feather to your cap — and to win the money for charity?
AG: You know what, I immediately imagined that $40,000 check going to Alex’s Lemonade Stand and what that’s going to do to help end childhood cancer. I think winning a competition has a definitive moment where it ends and you’ve won and you’re the victor, and I think I kind of see childhood cancer that way. We’re going to turn around one day and we’re going to have won and it’s going to be the end. So, I guess, I like the endgame, but I really didn’t think I won. I’m not kidding you. I was like, this is anyone’s game, and the judges, I mean, I’m supposed to be the pokerfaced judge, so when I’m cooking and competing and I’m staring at three judges who are poker-facing me, I’m like: “Wait a minute. What, did someone switch my part in the play and give me a different script?” But I wouldn’t change that for anything. I think it’s so important for me as a judge to always compete and always remember how hard it is to cook under pressure like that. It keeps my judging fresh, and it keeps me fresh — keeps me on my toes. But I really didn’t think I won, all jokes aside. I didn’t.
All the work you put into this competition — you were there for five episodes worth — and all that you put in the cooking, would you do it all over again if you had to?
AG: Tomorrow morning, when do we leave? I’m sharpening my knives. I’m going to bring three knives, a lot of gumption, a smidge of attitude problem. And, yeah, I love Grocery Games. I just do. It’s so fun. I take cooking super seriously and even I have to laugh. And Guy is tremendous. Guy really has a very — you know, he runs Flavortown with a fatherly hand, and I have to say he made me feel like he was proud of me, and that means a lot. You know, like, “You like me, you really like me, Daddy.” You know, there’s a little bit of that to it, and it’s like, “Wait a minute I need a break.” Like, it’s time to go have a glass of champagne and just … clear the head, go whitewater rafting, do some needlepointing and boating. … Maybe a campfire bowl of mac ‘n’ cheese and some needlepointing is in my immediate future.
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