F&W's #FOODWINEWOMEN series spotlights top women in food and drink in collaboration with Toklas Society. Follow the hashtag on Twitter (@foodandwine). Here, superstar chef Alex Guarnaschelli lists five lessons she would teach her younger self. Bonus: Check out her blog on our sister site, People.com, for professional cooking tips, family-favorite recipes and personal stories.
Who: Alex Guarnaschelli
What: Chef/owner, Food Network star and cookbook author
Where: Butter in New York City; @guarnaschelli
When given the task of picking five lessons I would teach my younger self, I made a list of about 15 and narrowed it down to the ones that crop up again and again. I won’t promise anyone that I am not still learning some of these lessons, so in no particular order, here they are:
1. You are young. You are passionate about cooking. You want so much to do everything well but haven't mastered the skills yet. Instead of trying to muddle through more than you can handle in an effort to impress the chef, admit defeat and ask for help. Don't succumb to inner pressure to get it done quickly. Better to move slowly and do it well. That's how you build the trust of the chef and eventually become one yourself. When I was working at Guy Savoy in Paris, I wanted so much to be the fish butcher that I pretended I knew how to filet fish. Let's just say that somewhere between bribing a 15-year-old apprentice to help filet the fish and mangling a few monkfish and bass filets, I admitted defeat. I asked for support and came in early each day to practice and take my time. Worth it.
2. Tons of fancy ingredients stand a surprisingly small chance to impress when heaped on the same plate. I used to make holiday prix fixe menus with caviar and truffle sandwiches with gold leaf and king crab saffron croquettes. Well. That's an exaggeration, but you get the point. Approaching ingredients simply, relying more on technique to create flavor and less on "pimp" factor ingredients yields better results. It took me years to learn this lesson, and I feel like I am still learning. The first time I cooked myself something with truffle, I made a garlic-ginger cream sauce with cheese and shaved the truffle on top. The result? A ginger-garlic pasta. Le sigh. I failed the truffle. Next time, I made a celery root salad with sherry, olive oil and the truffle. Sublime.
3. Being a chef is a job that requires social skills in addition to cooking skills. That old adage, honey works better than vinegar, is really true. I was often—well…er…somewhat curt with people in explaining things that seemed perfectly obvious to me. Then I started saying things like, "I like you, I just don't like the salad you plated. Let's do it again together and review." Patience is something that I'm filing under a lifelong mission to achieve. It works! (Except maybe during an intense pre-theater dinner rush. All goes out the window for that!)
4. Go out of your way for great ingredients. There never seems to be enough time to get everything done at the restaurant. When I return from the greenmarket with great produce, it's slice and go. Alex Paffenroth’s beets and onions? Ron Binaghi’s/Stokes Farms's tomatoes? Locust Grove apples? Keith’s Farm’s squash? Knowing the farmers and the wonderful ingredients they grow makes work a pleasure. The flavors are there. Makes cooking more of a privilege!
5. This next one may be a bit controversial to some who think differently: All I remember saying and thinking when I started working in a professional kitchen was that I wanted my work ethic to reflect the passion I have for cooking. I might think now that passion only comes to town when you practice something, get good at it and feel able to fall in love with it. When I worked for Daniel Boulud, I cried every day. One random Tuesday, over a year in, I was working quietly (and calmly) in the pantry, and he suddenly appeared next to me. He looked at me and said with a wink: "I think we need to change the menu if you're not crying.” Hmm… Maybe I was finding and making peace with my passion? Talk about food for thought.