Why Purpose Matters To Alex Guarnaschelli, Celebrity Chef

Alex Guarnaschelli

Alex Guarnaschelli is an Iron Chef, Food Network celebrity chef and the world-renowned executive chef at Butter and The Darby restaurants. This is a transcribed interview exploring how she’s reached the pinnacle of her profession.

I graduated from Barnard College with a BA in Art History. After driving all around America with my three close friends- note to self: when you drive around America with your three best friends, maybe they’re not your closest friends when you’re done- I worked for free in a restaurant called an American Place. For a very American ingredient driven chef. At the time, in 1991, that restaurant was in its heyday.

I was cutting and burning myself all day long. At that time I had nail polish, eye shadow, lipstick…I came to work thinking something different about my job. I walked in that first day and the chef took one look at my little outfit and said, “this is not a glamour show, just so you know.”

Fast forward, six months later, it was a very different story. Hair in a bun. Carmex once a week, if I was lucky. But more than that, I worked in the pastry, I worked in the pantry, I made salads. I did that for about a year. The minimum wage was really rough. I made like, $200 a week for the most absurd set of hours. But they were lovely. They were good to me, they were patient when I screwed up a lot of stuff. And they didn’t care. They just gave my screwups to the staff for dinner.

I’m just on the cusp of 23 after doing that for a year. I decide that maybe it would be a good idea if I went to culinary school. So I bought a book guide to culinary schools for $9.95. I thought, “How could the answer, to my universe, be $9.95?” In it I found a work study program in Burgundy for a school called La Verne, which still exists. I wrote to them and said that I wanted to be a work study student.

I was thinking the less I invest in myself monetarily without knowing if I wanted to do this, the better. They accepted me, and I went. For nine months I lived in the middle of nowhere in Burgundy and did a lot of dishes. I drank a lot of Pinot Noir. I met some interesting chefs who would come and guest teach and leave. That led to a little stint at a restaurant in the Alps for a couple months. I ate more cheese. I drank more wine. And cut my fingers.

Then I was really ready to come home. I was broke. I was hungry. I was grouchy and overworked. I really just wanted to eat a bagel. And chill out and watch fourteen episodes of the Brady Bunch.

So I called my mother weeping from a parking lot in the middle of nowhere in the French Alps. “I want to go home…(imitating a crying 23 year old Alex) I’m sick of this shit.” My mother, who is a cookbook editor said, “Well, okay. But first, before you come home, go to my author’s friend’s restaurant in Paris for three days and do a little stint there. Just to get a feel for a Parisian restaurant before you come home.”

So I was engaged to be married. To an American. Long story, not for now. That does not have to do with my passion for my career, but other passions. I was all set. I had my whole little American life sort of mapped out to myself in my head. In my head. I stress that part of the sentence.

I went up to this restaurant in Paris and it was very nerve racking. It turned out to be a two star restaurant in the middle of Paris called Guy Savoy. It was not what I had been accustomed to. There was a person for each job. One person seasoned the fish. One person cut it. One person cooked it, another person cooked the vegetables. It took like five people to put a piece of fish with some vegetables on a plate. It was not at all what I was used to. So I was horrified.

The chef asked me if I knew how to shuck oysters. I said, “Of course.” No idea how to shuck an oyster. But figured like I better act like I did. Big mistake. I screwed up all the oysters. They wound up having to puree it and turn it into a vinaigrette. Because they were so badly mangled because of my job that they were unusable.

But they somehow thought it was kind of humorous that in the midst of all these hot to trot little French chefs there was this American female just sort of oddly plopped there. You know, dropped off from the latest spaceship. They found me amusing. I was a subject of amusement more than an actual cohesive member of a functioning team. But, who cares if you’re the clown, as long as you can dance at the circus.

That’s pretty much the attitude I’ve had about my line of work my whole life. I have a BA in Art History from a good college. I went to Horace Mann. I could have gotten a job in an office. I could have gotten a normal job. For some reason I decided to jump in and take a chance at something that I wasn’t good at. Which is also very painful. It’s painful to be 22 years old, because at that age, you think you can take over the world. And you realize very quickly that the world is the boss of you. Because you don’t know how to cut a pepper. It’s kind of hard to grapple with.

Guy Savoy came into the kitchen my third and final day at the restaurant. He wasn’t there the first two days at all. They had a whole team of people, but he wasn’t around. I thought that was kind of better, because the way they talked about him, they were like (whispering) “He’s not here today.” Like Darth Vader. So he came the third day and said, “You’re welcome in my kitchen. Whatever you want to do, you’re welcome here. I love having you.” I was like, that’s because you don’t know what I’ve been trying to make and screwing up. But thanks buddy.

I had such a great day that third day. They were like, “Okay, tomorrow, we’re going to show you how to pick arugula and clean a rack of veal. We’re going to do all that tomorrow.” I couldn’t bear to say, “Well actually this is my last day if you remember I was only supposed to be here three days, and I have a flight home tomorrow.” I couldn’t bear to say it. It just wouldn’t come out of my mouth. I was just like, “Okay, cool. A rack of veal tomorrow? Great!” I left the restaurant and I was like, “I have to learn how to cut that veal. I can’t go home. I’ve got a veal to cut.”

So I went back the next day. I missed my plane. Then I went back again, and again, and again, and again and I just couldn’t…

I walked through an open air market to get to my work, and the ingredients…I never smelled strawberries from eighty feet away. Strawberry, to me, is a food you look at and you’re like, “Oooo, I want to eat that.” But imagine catching a whiff of strawberries in the distance. These kind of sensory experiences with ingredients in Paris really bowled me over. This is not like the supermarket that sprays everything periodically to make it look good.

So I called my boyfriend at the time and said “I love you. But I just can’t come home right now. I just can’t do it. I’m sorry.” I wound up staying at that restaurant for four and a half years. It took me that long in my own eyes to really learn how to cook. It’s what I call an apprenticeship in the classical sense of the term.

I worked for free for like six or seven months. At that point, I was staying with my friend still. For like six months. I would cook for her and stuff, but I had no money. I love when people say (hands in quotations) “I have no money.” I mean, I’m saying, I had no money.

So I woke up one particular day and I overslept. You know when you have sheet marks on your face and you’re late for work? I ran downstairs and the mail was sitting on the counter in the lobby of the building and there was a letter from a friend of mine. In it was fifty bucks. I think I wrote her a letter, kind of catatonic, and told her I had no money. I think I wrote such a bad letter that she sent me fifty bucks. And I was like, “I have fifty dollars!” I walked out like, “I have fifty dollars!”

But it was in American money. I didn’t have francs, and I didn’t have any money on me. Euros and email, did not yet exist. Just to give you an idea of how old I am. I went into the Subway and didn’t have money for the Subway. Six francs, at that time. So I jumped the turnstile. And I got caught. Now keep in mind also, that I don’t have papers. I am living illegally in France working illegally and I don’t have papers. And those cops, in those very serious outfits now have me. And I’ve jumped the turnstile. And I’m late for work and I have sheet marks. Should I speak English and act stupid? Should I speak French and act stupid? Should I speak either, or both, and act smart? What do I do?

Luckily I was overtired and didn’t have my wits about me. I think that’s when you make some of your best decisions. So I was like, “I’m sorry, I’m American, I didn’t have the money. I only have American.” And I pulled out the American money to act dopey. So they wrote me a fine. They took my name and everything. They wrote me a fine, and the fine was exactly fifty dollars.

So I get to work and I’m right back where I started, but alive. As the day progresses, it was a particularly unnerving day. As the day progressed, I just got more and more rattled. I am broke. And I’m tired and grouchy. I started to get that desire to eat the bagel and watch the Brady Bunch again. The su chef came in and he’s like, “We haven’t been paying you, have we?” And I’m like, “Nooooo, you have not.” He said, “Okay, I’ll see what I can do.” So I was like, wow, maybe karma is going to come around and instead of kicking me, its going to pat me on the back.

Guy Savoy called me down to his office. At the time I was making a big bowl of potatoes with butter and was mixing it. So I had butter to my elbows. Just a sheet of butter on my hands and elbows. On the way to his office I was thinking that I would either get paid or asked to leave. I wasn’t sure.

So I went down the stairs like Frankenstein. Just dripping butter walking down the stairs. I’m in his office and the butter is like, drip. Drip. Drip. He’s like, here’s some money, which I took with my buttery hands. I got butter all over the money. It’s kind of ironic I work at Butter now.

He was like, “you’re doing a great job. Keep up the good work.”

So that was like one of, and is still, other than the birth of my daughter, definitely one of the most gratifying moments of my life. It was like, “I can slog through all this and I can make money.” I can’t be rich. But I can make money and I can sustain myself. And do what I really love. It kind of made everything worth it.

So I stayed there over four years. Then I worked in another one of his restaurants as a su chef for a year. Which was…I mean, to try to get ten French whippersnappers to listen to an American female authority figure…I don’t recommend it. Unless you have WELLBUTRIN, I don’t recommend it.

I came back to America. I worked at a restaurant for a couple years and moved out to Los Angeles to get out of New York. I worked at a restaurant there called Patina.

Again, one thread through my entire career so far has been green markets. In Paris, in the Alps, in the south of France, in California, and in New York. I’m a big green market kind of gal. I know it sounds cheesy, like “I love fresh ingredients.” But they really are now at the point where they constantly inspire me. I get up out of bed in the mornings, Wednesdays and Saturdays, when I go to the market here, and I’m like, “I’m going to convene with the crops today.”

After all those big restaurant stints, I’m like, I’m never going to get married. I’m never going to have kids. I’m never going to have my own life. Because it eats you alive. A lot of careers do. But when you wake up and you’re like, 37, you’re not 22 or 28 or even 34 anymore. You’re like, “Oh, I’m going to be 40 soon.” I should maybe have something for myself.

So I gave up. I walked away from it all. I got a job as a private chef making quesadillas on Park Avenue for a family and a lot of money. And that’s what having the good pedigree gave me. If you have a good pedigree and you’ve worked in good restaurants, you have endless options. People always want high quality people. I don’t know if we’re high quality, but we’ve always worked in high quality places (Laughs).

So I got a job as a private chef and I started teaching at the Culinary Institute of Education. Now I’m the position of teacher and private chef. It was very different. I was like, “I’m going to do some dating!”

Somebody called me and said that Butter really needs an executive chef. They just lost their chef, blah, blah, blah. I was like, “I’m not doing it. Nope. No!” I hung up the phone. Here I am. Four years later. I’ve been here four years.

Are you happy?

I really love it. Especially because I’ve been here so long that its kind of my own. What I do here is I do the wine list, the food. I have a good time. Eventually you swap everything for a little freedom.

I think there has to be, for young career minded people that want to just go for something off the beaten path, or there’s no clear way to do it. A lot of careers, there’s no clear way. You can do a million things. It’s very confusing. I think a lot of people, when they get out of college, they’re like, “Well, I’ll just work here. Until I figure out how I’m going to be a needle pointer. Or buy a loom and play the harp.” You have to go to the harp players house and ask how to play a harp. You have to, like, bleed until you figure it out. That’s what you have to do.

There’s been a certain way that I’ve been totally manically focused on my career and yet, let the tide take me, sometimes. But there was a lot of work and a lot of moments where I was like, “Am I crazy?” And there’s no one to ask. If you’re crazy. Other than your parents, who are crazy anyway.

You have to be able to say “so what?” You know, so what. And then go home and cry. Drink a half a bottle of scotch and eat a pint of ice cream and go back. Really, I had those days. I would go to Hgaden Daz on the Shon Lizce and buy a quart of ice cream and go home and cry. But then I’d go back to work. The stuff that I did, I mean, we got some snapper in one day and I didn’t know how to filet the snapper. No idea how to filet the snapper! No one could help me because it was really busy. So I screwed it up, completely. I made this mangled snapper hamburger patty things. It was awful. I knew that the minute it hit the pan that it was going to be nothing short of the crucifixion.

So I went to the (Mate tra die) and asked him to not sell any snapper that day, if he could help it. He’s like, “Honey, whatever I tell them to buy is what they buy. I got you.” Now that’s where the power of relationships is really important. He was on my side, so to speak. We didn’t sell any snapper. I went down to the open market in between lunch and dinner and bought some snapper. I had the guy behind the counter show me how to clean it. I brought it back and swapped it out. I fed the mangled snapper to my cat that night and for weeks thereafter.

I said to the chef when we were cooking the snapper I had bought to replace down at the local market, “The local market down the street has really great fish, have you ever looked?” He’s like, “uggh, that fish is crap. Look at this fish, this is beautiful. Nothing like the fish down the block at the market.” If he only knew.

I did some really wacky things. Those were moments I can giggle about now, they make a great story, but when they were happening they were horrible. It was like the universe was bombed, I don’t care. I just screwed up this snapper. Doesn’t everybody get it? It just couldn’t get any worse than that.

So that kind of crazy passion…if you have that, I don’t know, the rest kind of falls into place.

There’s really not a reason for the universe not to support you.

Yes. I’ve almost the exact same staff since the four years I’ve been here, which is one of my biggest achievements, in my own book. But when I came here, there were two little firecrackers working at the pantry and the salad station. I just took one look at them and I was like, wow. And one guy who worked with them was slow and dropped stuff. The two whippersnappers were like, “uggh (rolling her eyes).” It was like two backup singers angry that the front signer doesn’t sign as well as they do. They were whispering to me like, “you should get rid of him. He sucks. He can’t do anything. He’s always dropping stuff and burning stuff.” And they would whisper all this stuff to me during service. And I would say, (nodding) “Yeah. I see that. Uh huh.”

That guy, that dropped everything everywhere, is the su chef now. And the two whippersnappers answer to him as an authority figure now when I’m not around.

Someone did it for me, when I was burning stuff. So when you take someone like that, and you believe in them, and you invest in them, they’re indebted to you. They’re indebted to the love they have for what they do. It’s like a cheesy pay it forward thing.

There is a certain amount of teaching craft, like cooking, that’s physical. Where you have to say to the person, “could you just do that. Don’t look at me and worry about it. Just do it. And when you burn it and its screwed up and on the floor, we’ll talk about it.” That’s my attitude.

But there are moments where you have to remove emotion and other things and just let the tide take you. Those are very difficult moments after you’ve gotten an education and sat in seminars and listened to Plato. It’s hard to put all that beautiful romance and philosophy aside and realize that it’s just about this hot oil and this piece of snapper right now. It’s hard to come away from all that.

My father said to me once, after I said something like, “I’m worried about this this and this.” My dad goes, “Uggh. You’ve been to too many seminars.” And I thought, “there’s something really to that.”

Cooking was something totally different. And I have to stress how bad at it I was. I was really bad. Bad. For like, a long time. I still consider myself learning how to cook. I know that sound trite. But it’s true.

Whenever I teach a cooking class or talk to people about cooking, I say, “Hey, I burn a lot of stuff still. I put bread crumbs in the oven.”

When you’re human, that helps. I think a mix of humanity and humility is a really good idea. It takes your patience factor much higher. I mean, learning how to cook takes a long time. Learning how to do anything takes a really long time. It’s really annoying. Really upsetting thinking about how long it took me to cut a pepper and not myself and have it look okay. It was really, really angering. It was like, “Uggh. I’m too good for this.” On some deep level. You know? I wrote a ten page paper on Moby Dick in a half an hour. I can do this. And then the pepper is looking up at you like, (makes a smart alleck face). You wish you had that copy of Moby Dick back. It’s weird what’s simpler is harder.

If you were able to give yourself a piece of advice at 22, 21, 23, 24, what would it be?

I have one that’s a joke, sort of, and one that’s serious. The piece of advice that I would give that’s sort of a joke but not really is if you haven’t really partied, and really gotten a lot of that out of your system, do it rapidly. So when you hunker down and you pick something, and you’re really passionate about it, there’s no static on your mental radio. Because you’ve lived a little bit to your own liking.

Number two, I would say that it’s a really bad idea, even at that age to sit around and say, “Yeah, I haven’t really figured out what I want to do.” My advice is to put on a costume of some kind and pick something, and be it. And if it doesn’t work out, take the costume off, pick something else that seems closer to what you love, and be that. Just practice actually being one thing instead of…contemplating. And not doing.

Along the same vein, don’t work in an office doing computer programming if you want to learn how to play the loot. Go learn how to play the loot. Don’t pretend to yourself that you’re going to do it on the side. It never works. Be super broke and ridiculously broke for awhile and go right out at what you love. Even if it’s acting.

Acting, coal mining, fishing, farming, and chefing, probably the hardest professions. All in different ways. You can’t not practice your art. Even if it leaves you drinking dehydrated coffee and eating toast for a really long time. I ate a lot of toast.

Don’t kid around with yourself. Because when you’re that young, you can suck it up and live at home. Or live on your friend’s couch and not care. If your clothes aren’t entirely clean, you don’t care.

When you get 30, and 35, and 40, you start to care. You need your eight hour sleep and clean laundry. You start to care about the necessities. At 22, no matter how much you think you need them, you can do without them. It’s kind of fun to be grimy and in the thick of it.

I have a lot of friends at my twenty year high school reunion coming up, where there will be a routine line of people waiting to talk to me about whether they should quit their $450,000 job at AT&T to be a chef. I say the same thing every time now. “You know that barbeque you had a month or two ago for eight of your friends? And how fun it was? It’s not fun when it’s 800 people waiting who don’t care about you. And they don’t know you. It becomes a different thing.”

Professional cooking and home cooking are not the same. Wives come up to me and say “Oh, my husband. He loves cooking at home! He really wants be a chef…” It’s not the same kind of cooking. It’s like you strap on your tool belt and say let’s do this.

It takes a lot of time. I had a woman in here the other week who was 24. She said, (arrogant tone) “By the time I’m 30 I want to have my own restaurant. I want to be married. I want to have two kids. By the time I’m 30. I have 6 years. No problem.” I’m just looking at her like, I know I talked like you when I was your age. I know that I talked like she did. And I turned around and I’m 38, and I have half of that, I’m like, super happy. I opened up my mouth and I started to say something, and then I just went (shoulder shrug with lips spitting).

Everybody has their own journey and their own timeline. I really don’t have any advice for anyone, other than to say, don’t sit at a desk and dream about something else. Or, don’t do something else and dream about sitting at a desk. What’s wrong with a desk job by the way? Nothing wrong with that.

As long as you’re doing what you love, it doesn’t really matter what form it takes. There’s a little bit of the grass is always greener no matter what. People always say to me, “I’ve always wanted to be a chef.” And I say, “Did you enjoy the holidays with your family like the last ten years, because I spent the last eight Thanksgivings cooking dinner for people in a restaurant.” So they got something I didn’t and I have something they didn’t.

Dreams involve a lot of gambling. Sometimes you win and sometimes you have a stack of chips and you turn around and then you have one little chip looking at you.

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