Alex Guarnaschelli Blogs All-Star Academy: Why 'Team Alex' Will Win

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Alex Guarnaschelli is an Iron Chef, Food Network celebrity chef, author of Old-auchool Comfort Food and the executive chef at New York City’s Butter restaurants. Read her blog every Tuesday to get her professional cooking tips, family-favorite recipes and personal stories of working in front of the camera and behind the kitchen doors. Follow her on Twitter at @guarnaschelli.

For those of you watching All-Star Academy along with me on Sunday nights on Food Network, you can imagine my initial anxiety when none of the mentees seemed to want to pick me!

It is definitely interesting when Andrew Zimmern, Robert Irvine, Curtis Stone and I stand before the students and essentially ask to be picked as their teacher. But it reminds us chefs that teaching someone how to cook is a huge responsibility. I feel that way when I am home with my daughter and she asks if we can cook something together. Make cookie batter for the first time? Cook a piece of fish? Make a tasty rice pilaf? Wow.

After some interesting dialogue with Lee, he signed on and so did Lisa. They could not be more different home cooks and they could also not be more alike!

Lee is a talented chef who just doesn’t have the same amount of experience I do. I forgot he was a home cook, to be honest, when he made homemade tortillas from scratch or “just a little something I like to make from my kids.” He shook off the compliments modestly. And the tortillas were tasty. That distinctive taste of the Masa, the earthy and fresh quality of the dough made them delicious. I got lost in the flavor and knew I wanted him to join my team.

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Lee loves to take a risk and he brings some of that Santa Barbara flair into his cooking every time. As a native New Yorker, I always find that perspective and connection to fresh ingredients and great produce like a breath of fresh air. Like me, Lee is an emotional cook who makes food from the heart; that can be the best and worst quality in a person. Likely, it will work to his advantage.

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On the other side of “Team Alex,” we have Lisa. She is a tremendous home cook but she also has a lot of experience, in and out of the kitchen. She whips up a “massaged” kale salad with the richness of olive oil and lemon. I was surprised at how much flavor her first salad packed and that something arguably simple could also have so much finesse. She has that professional cook drive and energy. She cooks healthy and limits her ingredients here and there. I respect that enormously. I also worry that it could become a disadvantage.

What is great is her steadfast determination to win All-Star Academy—I love that! She wants to win for herself and for her husband. She clearly relaxes when she cooks. She falls in love with the flavors as they swirl together when she is standing at the stove. I can see it happening as I watch her and I relate. I often cook at home for my daughter and I find it so rewarding. My daughter loves to slice up vegetables and roast them until tender and devour them. Now, don’t get me wrong: she won’t touch a piece of broccoli and isn’t in love with Brussels sprouts but eggplant and peppers are a winner and we make it work! It doesn’t matter how fancy or complicated the recipe. In fact, the simpler the better. It’s about enjoying watching food take shape and then eating it!

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This a cooking show about mentoring and about these skilled home cooks expanding their repertoire even further. I know that Andrew, Robert, Curtis and I are teachers/mentors but I am learning a lot myself! I love Lisa’s determination and calm, steady actions.

The toughest part is living this experience with the cooks and feeling responsible for their fate. I have stood in front of judges when my food didn’t turn out so well in these competitions. That’s the worst feeling, like trying to avoid the obvious with a smile. Someone once told me, “No matter how good or bad, stand behind your food with great conviction” or as the great Rachael Ray told me the first time I met her on a TV set, ”Smile for no reason at all!” There’s nothing like a smile and great homemade tortillas and other goodies to get the win on All-Star Academy.

We will see how my team fares in the coming weeks, because there can only be one home cook that wins.

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