Chef Chat

Food Network Chef Alex Guarnaschelli Talks "America's Best Cook" & Houston Restaurants

Lately, Food Network seems to be adding a multitude of new shows, pitting professional chefs against each other and against Food Network stars. But now, the culinary channel has added a series that showcases amateur home cooks. "America's Best Cook" is a cross between Master Chef and The Voice. Home cooks auditioned to join one of four teams led by four Food Network chefs representing a specific region of the United States: North, South, East and West. Chef Michael Symon represents the North; chef Cat Cora represents the South; chef Alex Guarnaschelli represents the East; and chef Tyler Florence represents the West.

After the auditions, each team now consists of two home cooks, who will go head-to-head in various challenges with the other regional teams. The last cook standing will receive $50,000.

We spoke with the chef mentor for Team East, Alex Guarnaschelli, about her role on the new show; she even told us what she likes about Houston's restaurant scene.

Guarnaschelli is the executive chef of Butter in New York City and is most often seen as a judge (and sometimes a competitor) on the popular cooking competition, "Chopped." Her ever-increasing knowledge of the culinary arts makes her not only a fierce competitor in the kitchen, but also an intimidating judge. However, in "America's Best Cook," Guarnaschelli will have to take on another role -- being a mentor.

"I think [with] judging and [being a chef], mentoring is part of both of those things, naturally, because it just actually feels like me getting to show a side of myself that has always been there but hasn't always been in a format where it can prevail," Guarnaschelli says.

She also notes that the focus of this new show is not so much on the competition battle, but also with developing a bond with her two home cooks.

"This is a totally different show because, of course there's a clock, and of course there's pressure and the clock is going to run out, but it's really more about what happens, what transformations occur in my relationship with these two people that I have chosen in that time frame," Guarnaschelli says. "It's not so much, oh my God finish the macaroni gratin; oh my God get the chicken on the plate. It isn't about that. It's more about my relationship to them and what goes on in that time frame, you know? And so it has become kind of bigger than a finished plate of food in a certain time frame, and it's become about sort of mining inside those people to bring out their diamonds and leave behind the coal."

During the series premiere, the mentors chose specific ingredients for four hopeful home cooks to create. After the dishes were cooked, the mentors chose two individuals to compete on their team in the actual competition. Chef Symon chose steak and potatoes; chef Cora chose Gulf shrimp; chef Florence chose Pacific salmon; and chef Guarnaschelli chose duck.

"You can do a lot with it and there are also a lot of mistakes you can make, and I guess I kind of wanted to see which would prevail -- the mistakes or the good choices. It's a good way to test people," she says. "The fat is pretty heavy on a duck; you have to cook it off and that's one thing I wanted to see if they knew, that's something I wanted to see if they were capable of doing, and I think that that weeded out two people from the get-go. It's also one of my favorite foods. That doesn't hurt. Duck is beautiful."

Hannah Gruber and Christina Verrelli cooked the two best duck dishes and were selected to join Team East. Gruber is from Brooklyn and Verrelli is from Devon, Pa. Guarnaschelli will mentor these two home cooks as they prepare their best Eastern cuisine throughout the competition.

In describing cuisine from the East, Guarnaschelli says, "I think it's more of an attitude that purveys a sensibility in terms of an attitude problem. The east coast competitors were very competitive; they came to win, they didn't come to fool around and I think that that shows in their attitudes. I think it's about ingredients; I think it's about anything from oysters to whatever vegetable is in season, being treated with that straight up sensibility."

Similarly, Guarnaschelli says one of her favorite aspects to the Houston culinary scene is the fact that many restaurants are ingredient-driven, something that appeals to her when choosing where to eat.

"I liked Underbelly a lot because I don't think they are afraid of food in it's natural form. I think they let the ingredients speak a little bit, but they still control it," Guarnaschelli says. "It's one thing to just say OK, broccoli is good so let's do that and then just put a slab of broccoli on the plate and say that's what the ingredient told us to do. It's another thing when you get ingredients, you respect them, but you also sort of sculpt them somewhat into your own idea of things and I think that's what they do successfully at Underbelly."

During her visits to Houston she says she enjoys how food is taken seriously regardless of the restaurant's formality.

"I can only say that as an outsider who has visited, I really liked it and that I felt a real sense of place," she says. "I liked what I saw; I really felt, like I said, a distinct sense of place, like I could walk away and say I had a sense of place here. I don't say that about every where that I go."

We asked Guarnaschelli how her life has changed since she became an Iron Chef in 2012. She compares her experience of receiving this prestigious title to the experience of these home cooks on "America's Best Cook."

"It's funny that you should say that because I think it's the same thing that changes these people as they embark on this journey to become America's best cook. I just think you're in a different place with yourself," she says. "You have that kind of validation when you win something like that; you have someone other than you who says your cooking is good and that just makes you feel more confident. I would say it hasn't really otherwise changed me. If anything it has encouraged me to stay the same and to just try and get better and better at what I do. I think that's a lifelong endeavor. You know, people say, 'when did you learn how to cook?' and I say, 'I still am.' Iron Chef has helped me keep that in perspective. It's also super cool to win; kind of amazing."

Whenever these Food Network chefs compete against each other, it's a direct cooking battle, but this time, the chefs will have to indirectly fight each other through their regional teams. When asked who her biggest competition is on the show, she didn't have to think twice about her answer.

"Oh my God, Michael Symon! Michael Symon! He's gracious; he smiles his way through any situation; he's kind; he's a great chef' he's smart; he's a quintuple threat," Guarnaschelli says.

Even though she says she has an extra eye on Symon, she believes that all of the mentors are threats. In her words, "there's not a weak link in the chain."

"America's Best Cook" airs each Sunday night at 8 p.m. CST on Food Network.

"This next episode this coming Sunday is very emotional, very dramatic and a lot is revealed," she says. "The first episode is about weeding the flowers out, and now we're just going to sit and stare at the bouquet, and pluck it away flower by flower."

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Molly Dunn
Contact: Molly Dunn