After competing in not one but two seasons of The Next Iron Chef, Alex Guarnaschelli ultimately earned the coveted title in December of 2012, which means she’s all too familiar with the nerves and hopes the remaining Iron Chef Gauntlet contestants are feeling right now. On Sunday, she and Ching-He Huang will come together to judge the final Secret Ingredient Showdown, an all-important battle, as it’s the last before one challenger advances to the gauntlet.
We chatted with Alex to find out what it’s like for her to reenter the world of Iron Chef, not as a competitor this time but as a judge. It turns out, though, that being on the other side of the table doesn’t eliminate her anxieties. “I still get up in the middle of the night and have night sweats from this competition,” she told us. Taking on this role, however, means that she will expect exemplary work, especially when so much is on the line. Read on below to get her take in this exclusive one-on-one interview.
You know better than most what it’s like to both compete on and judge Iron Chef. What’s it like to be back in this world?
Alex Guarnaschelli: I still get up in the middle of the night and have night sweats from this competition, like, “The eggplant is overcooked!” The tagline was, and is, “The only title that matters.” And I think that really is still true. I think people still feel that way. It’s very iconic, and I don’t think that ever dissipates with time. And I think it’s been napping gently under a tree, and now it’s time to wake up.
Iron Chef America and Iron Chef Gauntlet is a beast of a competition unlike any other. What should the competitors know remember to do and to avoid in order to succeed here?
AG: I think the prize for other competitions generally is money and bragging rights. In this, there is no money. There is no $10,000 prize for cooking gummy worms properly. And to that end, there’s also no blueprint. There are no directives. A couple do’s: Definitely keep it simple but very heavy on technique, which I think is hard to do. How did you keep it simple and load it with technique? That’s like have a stack of cards but hold up only one card. How do you hone in on an ingredient and its various features? If you get an ingredient that only has one side to it, figure out what other ingredients illuminate that one ingredient. It’s really a very ingredient-driven competition. And it’s driven by imagination, resourcefulness and technique, and there’s just no way around that. … Don’ts: Don’t overthink. Go with your first thought, make the first dish that pops into your head. Is that easy to do? No. That’s why it’s a don’t. Don’t cook for the judges. As much as you want to, don’t stare at the judges. Don’t pay any attention to Alton. Don’t pay any attention to Alton. Don’t pay any attention to Alton. It’s all an optical illusion. You have to just get zen with it. You’ve have to go to the back of the pantry and find a cabbage and the onions, and skip the truffles and the foie gras and the lobster, and make humble, down-home dishes jam-packed with technique, creativity and modernist thinking. And you should be fine.
You’ll be judging the last Secret Ingredient Showdown ahead of the finale. What technical elements do you need to see from the competitors at this stage of the game?
AG: You can have technique all over the place, but some techniques illuminate an ingredient and some techniques actually get in the way of it. You can guild the lily really easily. So, if you are in a situation where there’s a lot of focusing on one ingredient — for Iron Chef, that’s a big part of being an Iron Chef. Taking one ingredient off the alter and making it the star of maybe multiple dishes that build. So it’s like thinking about a whole meal comprehensively with only one ingredient. That’s a very specific demand that Iron Chef makes. So, how do you answer that specific demand? I think you pick the right techniques, you pick the right ingredients. Just cause you sous vide your steak that you’ve power brined and then put on the anti-griddle and then blast-chilled and flash seared doesn’t mean it’s going to taste good.
What kind of things will you simply not forgive if you see it on the plate?
AG: This is a place where I can’t say, “OK, you used the ingredient really brilliantly, and I loved the choices you made, but your steak was overcooked.” I think the basics of the fundamentals of cooking must be impeccable. I think that I would pick a less technically driven dish that was perfectly cooked over a riskier, imperfectly cooked dish. If you can’t season and you can’t hit your temperatures, and you can’t serve me a dish that you’re proud of in your restaurant, you can’t be an Iron Chef.
What does the title Iron Chef mean to you?
AG: It’s lifelong. It’s something no one can take away from me. I go to eat dinner at a restaurant, I go to see an art gallery opening, I feel like introducing myself as Iron Chef Alex Guarnaschelli. It’s not only the only title that matters. It’s the only title that never gets old. So you can be standing in front of your mirror preening in a pair of sweatpants with flip flops and mismatched socks. I get up and I’m like, “You know, my day is total crap, but I am an Iron Chef, and I’m good with that.”
Thinking back on all the Iron Chef battles that you’ve competed in, judged and watched as a fan, what has been the most-memorable moment for you?
AG: Before I ever did compete in an Iron Chef battle, I judged a few, including one where Bobby was competing. I didn’t know him yet, and I was like, “This guy sucks. He’s the pits. He’s got an attitude problem. Who does he think he is with all this slang?” And he made risotto, which is like a holy, sacred dish to most chefs. And he folded jalapenos into the risotto, and I watched him do it, cause when you’re judging Iron Chef, you can see on the monitors. And I looked down and I see him folding slices of jalapeno, and I’m like, “Who does he think he is?” … I’m judging, and I said: “Why? How did you put jalapeno in here?” And he went, “I just couldn’t help myself.” It’s one of the greatest moments. And I said, “It’s delicious.” And it’s true. That really was a memorable moment where I thought, you know what, that’s what an Iron Chef does. An Iron Chef takes the rules, takes the Van Gough Starry Night, turns it to the side and says, “This is how you should look at the painting.”
There will be one person standing after Sunday’s battle, and he or she will go on to run the gauntlet against Iron Chefs Flay, Morimoto and Symon. You know how they work. What’s the secret for battling them — if there is one?
AG: I think the big deal with that boy band, that little trio of Backstreet Boys, is don’t psych yourself out cause you’ve watched them on TV forever and they have a library’s worth of experience that you don’t have. Cause if you do, you’ll lose for sure. The only way you really stand a chance is to pay no attention to what they’re doing. Don’t look at them. You know, if you look at Morimoto, you turn to stone. If you look at Bobby, you turn into flames and chiles, and if you look at Michael Symon, you turn into a hunk of smoked meat. So, don’t look at any of them. Don’t second guess. Don’t wonder if you’re going to match up to them. Worry about whether you’re going to make the best dish you can possibly make. Cause that’s enough. Instead of having a plate with 18 things on it and trying to address them all, just make one thing and really make it great.