Plus, she explains her secret to cooking the perfect braised short ribs.
Alex Guarnaschelli might be known for her tough attitude on Chopped—she often dishes out the harshest, but most honest, criticism to the competing chefs—but you’ll find a different version of the chef off-camera. During a recent cooking demonstration at the Mohegan Sun casino and resort, the executive chef at Butter in New York City unmasked a side of herself that is full of laughter, wit and a willingness to admit she enjoys “room temperature vanilla cake with goopy chocolate frosting" when she’s having a bad day.
Guarnaschelli braised short ribs while taking audience questions with the ease of practiced television personality; she seemed to glide between pans with her tongs, occasionally looking up from the stove to confirm that no one beats Bobby Flay on Beat Bobby Flay because he’s “just perfect,” or to reveal Geoffrey Zakarian’s feet never touch the floor because he takes his slippers off right before getting into bed and puts them back on immediately after waking up. The audience nearly erupted in a unified gasp; how could she possibly know that?
“Because he told me, okay? I’ve never been in his bedroom,” she said with a grin.
Putting her personal life aside, Guarnaschelli happily recalled her time at Chopped. Most people, she said, want to know her least favorite dish that she ate on the show. Why do they never ask her what her favorite was? Someone in the audience obliged.
“The best thing I ate on Chopped [was] duck fat cake with pickled ginger. It was super salty and so good. I ate the whole thing,” she answered.
Guarnaschelli did indulge our appetite for something a little more juicy: The worst dish she ever ate on the show, it turns out, was the blueberry scone mashed potatoes with venison.
“I was in therapy for a week after that one,” she added. Ouch.
Guarnaschelli still sympathizes with everyone who's competing; being on a cooking competition is a lot of pressure. She’s been a guest on both Beat Bobby Flay and Iron Chef and hasn’t always come out victorious. She admited that she uses “a lot of wine” to help her get over a loss, but you’d never guess she's struggled to cook anything in her entire life as the room filled up with the scent of the delicious, juicy pork cooking in red wine.
On Iron Chef, Guarnaschelli said that the hardest thing she had to cook was turkey, while her favorite ingredient was mortadella. In fact, she’s partial to cooking meat. If she ever had to cook on Chopped, her ideal ingredients basket would be regular flour (because she loves to bake), duck or ostrich eggs, a nine-pound gummy skull and chicken feet. If left to her own devices, she would pick duck or ribs to cook with, but if forced to cook with a vegetable, she’d pick either mushrooms or eggplant, both of which are “meaty.”
Guarnaschelli offered plenty of secrets from her own kitchen during the demonstration, in fact. She said that if she had just a jar of mustard and lemon in her kitchen she could make anything taste good, including a cake, and when it comes to those short ribs, the key is to “start cooking them, then add the red wine” once the vegetables are tender. Once the red wine is in the pan, “cook them forever,” taking the meat out the pan to reduce the wine, making sure the alcohol is cooked out completely before adding the stock, and then replacing the meat back in the pan until it’s tender.
Guarnaschelli quickly made it clear that she’s an expert in all things meat related: One of her favorite foods is a “good American hot dog.” When she’s in New York City, she likes to stop by Gray’s Papaya for just that, and that cannoli from Ferrara bakery is one of her favorite desserts. She does enjoy going out to eat—she calls out Joe’s Pizza and Via Carota as two of her favorite restaurants—but it’s activity that proves challenging these days. Since she’s been on television for so long, that she jokes she now has to wear a wig if she wants to go to a restaurant.
“As soon as I take a sip of water, everyone leans in to ask how it is,” she said. “It’s water; you’re crushing it.”
As soon she finished cooking her dish, the conversation inevitably turned to the recent revelations that kitchens can be toxic working environments for women. When one audience member asked how she’s dealt with what some in the restaurant industry have called a “boy’s club,” Guarnaschelli was predictably cool-headed.
“Pretend that you’re exactly like everyone else because you are,” she said. “Do the work, and you’ll be fine. It’s garlic, no matter who is chopping it.”