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Mother of Invention

Cookbook editor Maria Guarnaschelli has mothered many great authors but only one chef: her daughter, Alexandra.
True, Maria Guarnaschelli has helped to create some of America's most influential cookbooks. And yes, she's a passionate food lover known for her ability to transform gifted cooks like Rose Levy Beranbaum (The Cake Bible) into stars. But as her daughter, Alexandra, tells it, Maria was horrified when she found out that her only child wanted to make her living behind a stove.

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." 

Bound by shared memories, a sense of the absurd and a fierce intelligence, these are two remarkable women. Maria earned a Ph.D. in Russian studies from Yale before plunging into publishing, where she has presided over high-profile projects--the most controversial being the 1997 revise of Joy of Cooking that involved a huge ensemble of chefs, cooking teachers, writers and recipe testers. ("I'm amazed that she can still walk and talk," says Lynne Rosetto Kasper, a Joy contributor, laughing. "Jesus Christ himself could not have come out of that experience without offending someone.") Alexandra, a fearless, wisecracking sort, savors the adrenaline rush of Aerosmith concerts and of days and nights on the restaurant high wire. Happily, each has staked out her own terrain and finds inspiration in the other. 

Maria, for example, marvels over the skills Alex acquired by "training with the greats." "When I was editing Joy of Cooking," she says, "I brought her in to show the person who was writing the sections on directions how to shuck oysters in the true French fashion." And the memory of a roast chicken that Alex recently prepared is still fresh in her mother's mind. "It was heavenly...she put the jus in the vinaigrette for the salad and did everything in the most natural way. I said, 'My God, the child has become a chef.'" 

In turn, Alex admires her mother's insistence on excellence (an obsession that led Maria to scrap the work--and incur the lasting wrath--of numerous Joy contributors and to miss the original deadline by a full year). Now vice president and senior editor at W. W. Norton, Guarnaschelli edits all types of fiction and nonfiction, extracting the best from authors, including Deborah Tannen (You Just Don't Understand) and Steven Pinker (The Language Instinct). "Of course, I've heard stories about her being demanding....But guess what--" says Alex, "you have to break some heads to get great work. My mother is cantankerous, difficult and fabulous." 

As an only child, Alex lived in a world defined by her parents' eclectic enthusiasms--food chief among them. Her father, John, a retired professor of European history, plunged into Chinese cooking in 1983. When he made Peking duck, he marinated the bird and hung it from a lintel in their dining room to dry. Maria herself was often road testing recipes from her writers. When she worked with Julie Sahni on Classic Indian Cooking, the kitchen was perpetually scented with cloves, cardamom and cumin toasting for garam masala. When Lynne Rosetto Kasper's The Splendid Table was in the works, the Guarnaschellis dined on Italian dishes to the point where "Dad and I said, 'No more balsamic vinegar--ever,'" Alex deadpans. 

While Maria was working in her own kitchen, she kept her authors busy in theirs. "She had a lot of interest in details," says Alice Medrich, who worked for two years on Joy dessert chapters. "She wanted to know how long you actually beat the butter and sugar to make it fluffy. So I beat butter and sugar six ways to midnight for every recipe in the chapter, and I made a chart." In the end, she says, "the chart was omitted, but I didn't care. Working with Maria was an immense learning experience." 

Even as a child, Alex realized that cooking with her mother was special. The kitchen, she remembers, was an island of tranquillity in a household where, as Alex puts it, "staging the last act of Aida was a daily event. My parents are very passionate people. But things would calm down between the charlotte aux fraises and the bavarois au chocolat." While Maria fashioned a cranberry necklace for a suckling pig and John washed and dried greens by hand for Salade Guarnaschelli, "I would always be right in the middle, chopping something or peeling onions," says Alex. 

Not that it's been all haute cuisine and high culture. Though she was an intrepid eater who discovered frog's legs at age four, Alex gleefully explored mainstream food like strawberry milk and Shake 'n Bake chicken when visiting friends. She once offered to trade brown-bag lunches with a classmate, but the deal collapsed when her chum saw Alex's broccoli vinaigrette. Maria says, "I was bad for social development. I should have packed tuna fish." 

Alex did stage the occasional boycott: "When she was 14, we went to Paris and made reservations at all the three-star restaurants. The night we were scheduled to go to Jamin, she announced, 'I cannot take this anymore.' So we let her go to the Place de l'Odéon, where she had pizza and went to see a James Bond movie." 

These days, mother and daughter are more in sync. Along with bistro favorites like steak au poivre, Alexandra has put Maria's macaroni and cheese, which is laced with cream and roasted garlic, on the menu at Nick & Stef's. On her rare days off, the chef often goes to mom's to relax. Maria gets behind the stove and serves sophisticated soul food such as Smothered Chicken (a family comfort dish intensely flavored with caramelized onions) and rich Chantilly potatoes with a crispy Parmesan topping. The only hard part? "Waiting by the oven for the potatoes to come out, then letting them sit for 10 minutes while you're drooling and biting your nails and crying in anticipation," Alex says. Spoken like the daughter of a diva.

Michelle Green has written about food for the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal and is the author of The Dream at the End of the World: Paul Bowles and the Literary Renegades in Tangier.

Published February 2002
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