In 1991, on the day she received her art history degree from Barnard College, "I was talking to my mom on the phone, saying I wasn't sure what I wanted to do next," Alex recalls. "She told me, 'Do something you like.' I thought about it, and then I called her to say 'I want to be a chef.'" Maria went into her operatic mode. "She said, 'Your father and I lived on Alpo to get you through Barnard. If you want to go to cooking school, you can pay for it yourself.'" Then, Alex says, "she hung up."
Alex waited a beat; sure enough, Mom called back to suggest that Alex consider apprenticing with Larry Forgione, the chef and owner of An American Place, in Manhattan, who was working on a cookbook with her. "If you like it," said Maria, "we'll go from there."
Ten years later, Alex now serves as executive chef of Nick & Stef's Steakhouse in Manhattan. A graduate of France's La Varenne (which she attended on a work-study program), Alex honed her skills working 18-hour days in Paris restaurants, including the Michelin two-star Guy Savoy. And her mother--who made the occasional phone call on her behalf along the way--couldn't be prouder. Not only can Alex conjure up a rabbit-and-foie-gras bisteeya, says Maria, "but she could cut up a cow with a chain saw."