Alex Guarnaschelli, BC ’91, ended her wedding engagement from a pay phone while in France in order to pursue her career in the culinary arts. Years later, she was prepared to jump into the “Iron Chef” competition two days after giving birth, but producers wouldn’t let her. She eventually competed on the show and won the title of Iron Chef.
The Food Network celebrity chef shared her story with a full audience of mostly women in the Diana Center Event Oval on Tuesday, Feb. 5. During the event, organized as part of Barnard Student Life’s Arts Week initiative, Guarnaschelli discussed her time spent at Barnard and her serendipitous acquaintance with the culinary arts with humor and candor. She gave students life advice through personal and intimate anecdotes as well as witty commentary.
Guarnaschelli was raised in midtown New York as the only child of two Italian academics, both of whom had earned doctorates from Yale. Her mother was a cookbook editor, so Guarnaschelli grew up reading manuscripts on Egyptian food “while on the bowl,” which is to say she read many cookbooks in the bathroom during her upbringing. Her parents also covertly exposed her to the practice of judging another’s cooking, as she often played mediator between her mother and father’s home-cooked meals.
In describing her relationship to academics at Barnard, she said, “I never left my room except to drink.” She often wore all black, regularly slept through her art history and English classes, and ate a lot of everything bagels with cream cheese from the now-closed “Columbia Bagels.”
Following her mother’s advice to “pick something and be it,” Guarnaschelli decided she would choose what to do with her life on the day of her college graduation.The only problem was she didn’t really want to do anything. Guarnaschelli believes that most of us, especially students in college, resist any type of responsibility and commitment. She, however, advised the audience to lean into this urge by trying out a profession that seems easiest and that tracked closest to their interests. This is exactly what Guarnaschelli did when she, knowing she wasn’t suited for the typical office environment, decided to work in a restaurant because she liked cooking and eating.
After Guarnaschelli made the decision to involve herself in the culinary arts, she committed herself entirely to the craft. “The minute I picked up a red bell pepper I knew it was right,” she said.
She worked under the tutelage of Larry Forgione, “the Godfather of American Cuisine,” for two years before traveling to France to attend the culinary school La Varenne on work-study. She then continued to work at several prestigious dining establishments, but, lacking requisite paperwork, she eventually returned to the United States.
Upon her return, Guarnaschelli worked at a variety of acclaimed eateries across the country, but no matter how far she roamed, she always felt drawn back to the East Coast. “I need that darkness that only New York gives,” she explained.
In the New York restaurant Butter, she encountered a young chef who seemed to radiate happiness while preparing a simple order of scallops. She was so moved that she accepted a position at the eatery, where she now serves as the executive chef. Guarnaschelli wanted to be around that happiness that stems from cooking.
“It comes down to the people. Find the people; get up and move; go to the people,” she said. For Guarnaschelli, her career and experience with the culinary arts have been shaped by the people who have helped her along her journey and those she has helped herself.
Later in her career, once she was exposed to the dramatics of food television. Guarnaschelli found she couldn’t turn away from such “an electrifying experience.” Her career in food television led to a friendship and mentorship with fellow celebrity chef Bobby Flay. She is now a regular judge on the television show “Chopped” and became an Iron Chef in 2012.
Guarnaschelli claims that her competitive nature and ability to win “Iron Chef” stem from her “psycho-serious energy.” Even though she regards herself as a fierce competitor, Guarnaschelli said that competing against another woman in the Iron Chef final was uniquely difficult. “I don’t like woman-on-woman crime. The rate is high. I like to stay out of that arena,” she said. She now regularly appears on television while maintaining her position at Butter and spending a great deal of time with her 11-year-old daughter, whom she adores.
Guarnaschelli’s seemingly flawless culinary career wasn’t without consequence. She often left work with various cuts and burns from the high-pressure kitchen environment and at times questioned the value in pursuing a culinary arts career, as she seemingly turned her back on her liberal arts education. In the end, Guarnaschelli claims she traded some things to avoid conformity.
“Every day I doubt something,” she said, “I think that’s the human condition.”