Alex Guarnaschelli: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at All-Star Academy
Alex Guarnaschelli is an Iron Chef, Food Network celebrity chef, author of Old-School Comfort Food and the executive chef at New York City’s Butter restaurants. Read her PEOPLE.com 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 Food Network’s All-Star Academy along with me on Sunday nights at 9 p.m. ET, you can imagine my dismay when one of my two mentees, August, was eliminated this week.
He doesn’t listen to me all the time. In fact, most of the time! He wants to do things the way he wants to do things. He’s a talented young chef who just doesn’t have the same amount of experience that I do. For that he resents me slightly. And, in return, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit I envy his ability to shake off people telling him what to do. He is a wonderful cook.
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I forgot he was a home cook, to be honest, when he made the ice cream with liquid nitrogen. It was bold and impressive. That stuff is super cold and pretty scary to work with. To be more precise, liquid nitrogen boils at -197° Celsius. Yes. Negative 197°C. You can actually get a “cold burn” if you mishandle this liquid. I have done so by reaching directly into a bowl of it to retrieve some lemon sections that I immediately “smashed” into little pieces when they emerged frozen from the liquid nitrogen. Cool and amazing? Yes. A force to be reckoned with? Yes.
The person who has always done amazing things on the fly with liquid nitrogen is Elizabeth Falkner. That woman can make an addictively tasty ice cream out of pretty much anything in just a few minutes flat by combining a few ingredients and freezing it in two minutes with liquid nitrogen. The way liquid nitrogen rapid-freezes actually leads to the formation of smaller ice crystals. What does that mean in plain English? The texture of the ice cream is even smoother than if turned in a fancy ice cream machine. The problem is that you have to get it right. I’ve watched Elizabeth do it many times firsthand, so I loved that she ended up being the judge that tasted August’s ice cream.
I could feel that, like me, she sees some of herself in August. His risk-taking. His inability to color inside the lines of the coloring book. And his ice cream was delicious!
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On the other side of “Team Alex,” we have Sherri. She could not be more different from August. Sherri is also a tremendous home cook, but she has a lot of experience. She has won an impressive number of cooking competitions in her own right. Even more important, she cooks for her family all the time. It’s that untimed, no pressure , cooking-out-of-pure-love time that I feel matters the most. 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 to watch her eat a bowl of braised short ribs we have cooked together all afternoon. You know how that feels … When you take all afternoon to make some tomato sauce and meatballs? Or some chicken noodle soup? Or eggplant parmesan? Even some slow-baked eggs. 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! The best.
I know this is a cooking show about mentoring and about these brave home cooks expanding their repertoire even further. I know that Bobby Flay, Michael Symon, Curtis Stone and I are supposed to be the teachers/mentors but I would be remiss if I didn’t share how much I am learning myself as this process unfolds.
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I realize that August represents one half of me and Sherri the other half. I love Sherri’s determination and calm, steady actions. I love her deep marinades and ability to cook meat (in particular) to temperature in high-pressure situations. She made creamed brussels sprouts that were so tasty, I couldn’t stop “sampling” them.
I love that Sherri told Elizabeth Falkner, as she took her first bite, how delicious she felt her own food was. “Let the judge decide,” I whispered to Sherri as a reminder. But we all know how that feels. You make something tasty and you know you nailed it. Sherri couldn’t help herself! I have also stood in front of judges when my food didn’t turn out so well. 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.” Hmmm. Wise words but sometimes easier said than done.
I also love August’s risky ideas and his zest for life. I am learning there are different sides to all of us and they often come out in the kitchen.
Why don’t you cook something up this week and channel your inner Sherri and your inner August. Let me know which dish tastes better in the end.