By Joel Lang
Published 12:00 am, Saturday, September 2, 2017
Can a Food Network star, elite New York chef, cookbook author and mother of a 9-year-old still have time for stand-up comedy?
If she’s Alex Guarnaschelli, the answer is an emphatic and surprising yes.
“It’s something I dabble in, but it’s not the kind of thing you can dabble in. You either immerse yourself or you don’t — much like cooking. But I do really enjoy it,” Guarnaschelli says.
One of the celebrity attractions at this year’s Greenwich Wine + Food Festival, set for Friday and Saturday, Sept. 22 and 23, Guarnaschelli was confirming a Hampton Magazine report last summer that she was to share a stage with more practiced comics. The chef liked it so much, she says she expects to return this season. She is more willing to share recipes, though, as she does in her newest cookbook, “The Home Cook: Recipes to Know by Heart,” than she is to share a opening joke.
“In print, it just falls flat,” she says wisely.
But Guarnaschelli is not really contradicting herself when she says comedy ought not to be dabbled in; she’s paying respect to the discipline it requires.
Glazed Five-Spice Ribs
Serves 6 to 8
2 tablespoons canola oil
3 pounds pork spare ribs (see note)
2 medium shallots, cut into thin rounds
4 large garlic cloves, grated
1 tablespoon plus 1 ½ teaspoons five-spice powder
1 cup dark soy sauce
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons dark brown sugar
1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
Sear and marinate the ribs: Heat a medium saucepan over medium heat, and add the oil. When the oil begins to smoke lightly, add the ribs in a single layer and sear on each side, 3 to 5 minutes. Transfer the ribs to a large bowl. Add the shallots and garlic to the same pan and cook until they become translucent, 3 to 5 minutes. Stir in the five-spice powder, soy sauce, 1 cup water, the Dijon mustard, brown sugar, and ginger, and bring to a simmer. Once the sugar has dissolved, remove the pan from the heat and pour the marinade over the ribs. Toss to coat. Cover and refrigerate for at least 8 hours or, ideally, overnight.
Cook the ribs: Transfer the ribs and marinade to a large sauté pan. Simmer them over low heat, stirring from time to time, until the ribs are tender and the meat starts to come away from the bones, about 1 hour. If you are not serving the ribs right away, remove the pan from the heat and let the ribs sit for up to 30 minutes. If longer, refrigerate at this point and reheat when ready to serve.
Serve the ribs: When you are ready to serve the ribs, strain the marinade into a saucepan, add the vinegar, and boil over high heat until thickened, 10 to 12 minutes. (Reducing the liquid separately will prevent the ribs from overcooking.) When the sauce is thick, pour it back over the ribs to glaze them. Serve hot or at room temperature.
NOTE: Buy spare ribs on the bone and have your butcher cut them into 1 ½ × 1 ½ × 2-inch pieces.
“I think cooking and comedy are similar in that you have to try many, many times before you’re good at it. I think that’s why I’m drawn to it,” she says, adding the stage and the kitchen even produce similar sensations.
“Rejection. Euphoria. And very little in between,” she says.
Guarnaschelli’s fans probably know Butter is the New York restaurant where she made her name and she often gives first credit for her success to her parents, Maria and John Guarnaschelli, both of whom liked to cook. But they may not know both had serious intellectual chops.
John was a professor of European history, while Maria, best known as a cookbook editor, including the 1997 revised edition of “Joy of Cooking, has a Ph.D from Yale in Russian studies. At the time of a 2002 profile in Food and Wine magazine, Maria was a vice president and senior editor at W.W. Norton, editing fiction and philosophical nonfiction. The article, however, marked a generational watershed, opening with an anecdote about Maria’s horrified reaction to her daughter’s announcement, the day she graduated from Barnard College with a degree in art history, that she wanted to be a chef.
Maria went into her operatic mode, the article said, and quoted Alex (whose given name is Alexandra) as saying her mother told her, “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.”
Mother then hung up on daughter, but soon called back to suggest she might apprentice with chef Larry Forgione, owner of An American Place restaurant with whom Maria was working on a cookbook. That was in 1991 and Alex soon departed for years of rigorous training in France. In 2002, she was back in New York as executive chef at Nick & Stef’s Steakhouse. A year later she would move to Butter.
In the article, Maria says she’s proud her daughter acquired classic skills that allow her to create a delicate rabbit-and-foie gras bisteeya and also “cut up a cow with a chain saw.”
The Food Network was less than a decade old in 2002 and since then, the constellation of cooking shows and stars has expanded greatly. Alex is a recurring judge on the popular Food Network series “Chopped,” is featured as a guest co-host on “Beat Bobby Flay” and in 2012, she appeared on “The Next Iron Chef: Redemption,” earning the coveted title of Iron Chef. Asked her mother’s opinion of celebrity chefdom, Guarnaschelli says, “I think my mother always looks at something in so far as it can sell books. And I think she thinks the celebrity (chefs) attain for book publishing and philanthropy is great. I think she’s always surprised at it.
“But my mother always says, ‘No matter what happens to you, never forget your roots and never forget who you are. You’re a chef.’ And that’s been very useful advice to me.”
Guarnaschelli remains true to her roots in “The Home Cook.” In the introduction, she writes the germ of the idea for the book probably was planted during her first restaurant job with Forgione, with the sensory memory of the hot Parker House rolls served to the staff.
“My Parker House roll moment was the first of hundreds of such instances where I began compiling my own go-to recipes for a cookbook to fit on that special shelf (like her mother had for her favorite cookbooks) … a book with reliable recipes for every need and craving.”
The resulting book is heavily illustrated with only short introductions to its hundreds of recipes that begin with appetizers and end with cocktails. Asked whether there were particular recipes readers might find surprising, Guarnaschelli answered more generally.
“I think it would surprise anybody that a professional chef does a lot of home cooking and that my professional cooking is grounded in my mother’s home cooking. I think people think professional chefs don’t really fry an egg at home. So these recipes range from quite simple to more difficult, depending on what kind of mood you’re in.”
A good example, she says, is the chapter on grains that includes several quinoa recipes, as well as recipes using a variety of rices. Guarnaschelli says she finds herself cooking more with grains like quinoa and barley. She guesses her personal kitchen time is divided about evenly between home and Butter.
At the Greenwich festival, Guarnaschelli is slated to participate in a panel discussion with chefs Scott Conant and Adam Richman, and also judge the sixth annual Burger Battle.
In an email, she said she foresees no let up in her busy schedule that combines television, restaurant and motherhood. Or one that allows much time for vacation, and perhaps some comedy.
“I’m not good at the classic vacation. I’m better at partially working and partially relaxing. That’s better for my personality type,” she says.
“I usually go out east on Long Island with my daughter (Ava). I cook a little bit and write a little bit and hang out with her. That’s ideal for me. I’m not so unplugged that I’m nervous and not so plugged in I’m exhausted.”
Joel Lang is an award-winning Connecticut journalist and frequent contributor to Sunday Arts & Style.