The daughter of a cookbook editor, Alex Guarnaschelli was surrounded by good food from birth. It wasn’t until after she graduated college, however, that she realized she wanted to become a cook herself. She spent the first seven years of her culinary career in France. Once she returned stateside, she made her mark on the New York City scene, eventually becoming executive chef at the restaurant Butter.
She has been seen on a number of Food Network shows: you may recognize her from her many successful battles in Kitchen Stadium as a featured chef on Iron Chef America, and also from her position as judge on Chopped. Expanding her brand even more, Alex wanted to tell Hotspots readers that she’s opening a restaurant in South Florida this fall!
I had the chance to speak with Alex Guarnaschelli about her love of cooking, her television fame, and her new South Florida restaurant in this exclusive Hotspots interview.
What are some of the things you like most about the Sunshine State?
I love the markets, the sky and the ocean. There’s something about the salt air, the beautiful weather… It makes it impossible not to be happy. I love that the ingredients readily available in Florida are not ones I frequently see where I live. So many great flavors. For a chef, it’s like an abundant food playground.
I hear you will be opening a restaurant in South Florida in the fall. Can you give us some details about it? Where will it be?
I am opening a restaurant in the Nautilus in Miami Beach. The rest is going to have to fall under the “to be continued” column for now to add mystery…
In your opinion, how does the food scene in Florida measure up against New York City?
I think the food scene in Florida is great! From Panther Coffee to El Palacio de los Jugos to Michael’s Genuine, I see such a great culture of tasty foods. And so different from NYC!
When did you first realize that you wanted to cook for a living? Was it something your mother passed down to you as a result of her job?
I think I realized I loved cooking at the age of about 18-19, but I didn’t consider it professionally until I graduated from college. I would be lying if I said otherwise… My parents were always cooking and my mom would spend the rent money on the “right” mushrooms if need be. Taste and good food have always been paramount in my family value system and I think the natural extension of that is reflected in my choice of profession.
What are a couple of your favorite dishes to make, and would you be so kind as to provide the recipes for those dishes so our readers can make them at home?
I love to make eggplant Parmesan. It’s one of my ultimate comfort foods. I love a simple yellow cake with chocolate frosting. I love grilled Radicchio. Some of my favorites… [Editor’s Note: Alex’s yellow cake with chocolate frosting recipe is included in this issue.]
What’s more difficult, being the executive chef of a restaurant or owning a restaurant, and why?
I think both are hard for different reasons. Chefs, whether they own or not, are very proprietary. From the fuse box, plumbing, kitchen staff and busboys, to the flowers, the wine list and menu, chefs are often the heart of many different parts of a restaurant experience. The financial responsibility changes from chef to owner, for sure, and so does liability…and so does the amount of sleep (sometimes very little) that chefs get. Chefs need love, support and good coffee, in my humble opinion…
People know you very well for your appearances on Iron Chef America and also Chopped. What do you like the most about cooking in such high-stakes situations? Also, what do you like the most about eating the food that cooks in high-stakes situations are preparing for you?
I love watching chefs cook under pressure and I love cooking dishes out of sheer impulses on the spot. For me, there is nothing that beats that. It’s like a sporting event. I love to cook under those situations because it’s like a test of my ability, my thinking skills, my ability to execute (not always successfully!) in that type of situation. Cooking is invigorating and fun. It’s still fun to me. I only wish we could have a televised cooking competition where cooks would have 6-8 hours to cook. We could have lots more options from multi-tiered cakes to slow braises… Slow cooking is wonderful and could be made more mainstream this way.
As you know, last month was LGBT Pride Month. What does “equality” mean to you?
Equality to me means that everyone, no matter how different from one another, is the same. #LoveWins
How have LGBT people in your life (friends, family, fans, etc.) shaped who you are as a person today?
I have LGBT friends whom I don’t look at as that. They are the same as my other friends and no different to me. I see their struggles. I see their triumphs. Some of them are in the most loving and honest relationships I have yet to witness. People are like ingredients: there are so many ingredients to make wonderful dishes. There’s never one way to cook something.
Finally, what advice would you give to budding chefs and restaurateurs who are just starting out?
Work in a few restaurants and get some practice and experience before starting out on your own. And if you are becoming a chef, practice your skills over and over. Be patient with yourself. Enjoy the process of discovering yourself through food!
Yellow Cake with Chocolate Frosting and Caramel Top (Dobos Torte)
Alex Guarnaschelli, Old-School Comfort Food: The Way I Learned to Cook (Clarkson Potter, 2013)
2 cups all-purpose flour
2¼ teaspoons baking powder
¾ teaspoon kosher salt
16 tablespoons (2 sticks) lightly salted butter, at room temperature, plus more for greasing the pans
2 cups sugar
6 large eggs
Grated zest and juice of 1 lemon
14 ounces bittersweet chocolate, roughly chopped (about 2¾ cups)
1¼ cups sugar
½ teaspoon kosher salt
2 cups heavy cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
12 tablespoons (1½ sticks) lightly salted butter, cut into thin slices
1 cup sugar
2 teaspoons light corn syrup
Flaky sea salt such as Maldon (for garnish)
- Preheat the oven to 350F. Grease two 8-inch round cake pans with butter
- Prepare the cake batter: In a bowl, stir together the flour, baking powder, and salt. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter until smooth, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the sugar and continue beating until the mixture becomes fluffy, 5 to 8 minutes. Add the eggs, one by one, taking care that each one is thoroughly integrated before adding the next. Add the lemon zest and lemon juice and then the flour mixture and mix until fully blended. Do not overmix.
- Bake the cake: Divide the batter between the prepared cake pans. Bake until the center are firm and the tip of a small knife emerges clean when it pierces the center of each cake, 30 to 40 minutes. Remove from the oven, unmold the cakes, and allow to cool thoroughly on a rack.
- Make the frosting: In a medium bowl, combine the chocolate, sugar, and salt. In a medium saucepan, bring the cream and vanilla to a simmer, about 5 minutes. Pour over the chocolate and stir until all of the chocolate has melted. Gently whisk in the butter slices. Set aside to cool.
- Frost the cake: When the frosting is cool, whip the frosting in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a whisk attachment to lighten it, 1 to 2 minutes. Split each cake in half horizontally so you have 4 equal layers. Put the first cake layer on a rack set over a baking sheet, cut side up. Frost the layer and the remaining ones, stacking them neatly and uniformly on top of each other. Frost the entire outside of the cake as well. Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes so it gets cold.
- Make the caramel: In a large skillet, heat the sugar and corn syrup over low heat until the sugar melts and turns a caramel color. Swirl the sugar gently in the pan as it cooks so it browns evenly. Take the skillet and pour the caramel over the top of the cake, allowing it to drip down the side and onto the pan below. It is normal that the hot caramel will melt the frosting slightly. Try to pour it in as even and as thin a layer as you can over the cake. Have fun with it! If the caramel cools before pouring, warm it gently over low heat to loosen it again. Allow the caramel topping to cool and harden on top of the cake, at least 5 to 10 minutes before serving, or up to 1 hour. Do not refrigerate. Sprinkle with a pinch of Maldon salt.
Cut the cake: I will not lie. This is not a “neat” cake. When ready to slice, use the heel of a knife to crack the caramel top before cutting slices. The caramel can be a little uneven but I have always found people like it so much, it doesn’t matter. This cake is best served at room temperature.