Ask a sampling of chefs where they first found culinary inspiration, and a majority will peg their origin story to the family table or stove. For Alex Guarnaschelli, that stove belonged to her mother, Maria, a lauded cookbook editor whose professional work seeped into their kitchen in midtown Manhattan.
On top of being the executive chef at Butter (70 West 45th Street; 212-253-2828), Guarnaschelli is an Iron Chef, a busy mom, a regular Food Network personality, a fierce advocate for organizations like Wellness in the Schools and City Harvest, and a member of Les Dames d’Escoffier. But while she trained with icons like Larry Forgione, Guy Savoy, and Daniel Boulud, it’s often the hours she spent peeling potatoes or eating her way through an Indian cookbook her mother was editing that come to mind when she talks about her culinary past.
“We ate at the same table every night,” Guarnaschelli says. “So I feel like my childhood was frozen in amber, where certain things were constants.” For instance, she remembers a pepper grinder so big that a single turn fully saturated a dish sat on that table; it felt dramatic in her small hands. Though food came expertly seasoned, meaning the mill was rather underutilized, she connects the way she douses her professional cuisine with pepper to it, and it now sits on her own stove at home. “I don’t use it because it’s too sacred and too holy for me,” she says. “It’s grubby-looking, it’s scrappy, and it’s been in the game a long time. Grubby-but-precious is underrated.”
She finds herself gravitating toward rituals she didn’t fully understand as a child but absorbed nonetheless, like fanning food out on plates similarly to how her mother spread a single layer of olives on the “olive plate.” The “mashed potato bowl” and “leek soup terrine” her mother would bring formally to the table evolved into the used American china at Butter. “You know how people want a new house because they can’t deal with the quirks of something old? I take domestic pride in stuff,” she says. Bought at various yard and factory sales, similar in design but each slightly different, the plates in her restaurant are so sturdy that she “drops them on the floor and they bounce,” yet still fit stylistically with her refined but comforting American menu.
As she got older, Guarnaschelli gained a newfound respect for the work her mother did as an editor — “a curator of words and ideas, of people’s points of view and philosophies.” The Zuni Café Cookbook struck a particular chord, not only because she connected with chef Judy Rodgers’s French and Italian dishes, but also because “my mom and her work made the clarity of Judy’s vision resonate with me,” she says. “It’s a hard thing to find in an editor, and having my mom in the mix makes it even cooler.”
James Oseland’s Cradle of Flavor became a source of inspiration, too, pushing Guarnaschelli beyond her culinary limits. “I thought the book was full of flavors that I love to eat but are not really in my cooking, so I wouldn’t really look much at it. But then I realized that I should look at it for that reason, to get outside of my Frenchie comfort zone.” She embraced non-French cuisines, exploring chile peppers and seasoning with kombu, doing the same thing “over and over again, fiddling” until she could understand how something new worked.
“I have a favorite knife, and I have an old, tattered cookbook,” she says. “But the things that are part of my endgame and my thinking as a chef are the things that we don’t highlight as frequently. The china I put the food on and how I read and feed my brain are just as important.”
When it comes to what makes her kitchen at Butter hers, though, it’s not a piece of dishware or a book that comes to mind. “It’s so hokey, but you can take away all the pots and pans, the bump in the stove and the depression in the floor, and it doesn’t matter,” she says. It’s the core group of people she’s worked with for so many years, the cooks she’s mentored into being chefs, and those who have chopped and sautéed alongside her for fifteen years whom she credits for her personal growth. “I used to be much more shouty and excitable,” she admits. “After a couple of weeks my staff told me that I didn’t have to do that, but I kept doing it anyway. Then I found that being around them naturally makes me simmer down. And you know what? Simmering down is underrated, too. Shut up, simmer down, settle down, and cook.”