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Alexandra Guarnaschelli Talks About Dorito and Heirloom Tomato Sandwiches and the Power of the Pocketbook

Who grew your food is a very important question to ask and very, very nice to know.
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Alexandra Guarnaschelli was destined to a life in the kitchen. The daughter of cookbook editor, Maria Guarnashelli, Alexandra has worked under Guy Savoy and Daniel Boulud. Last year, she was married in the subterranean tavern of her East Village restaurant, Butter, to a former student who she met teaching at the Institute of Culinary Education. This week I had the chance to catch up with this chef and host of the Food Network's The Cooking Loft.

LM: We're in a recession. Frank Bruni suggested some restaurants are replacing menu items or adding more towards comfort foods. Have you considered any changes?

No, I always have a lot of items on my menu. Some are more affordable, some are more expensive. I think a menu should always have a fairly large sliding scale so you don't make people feel uncomfortable and trapped into ordering a really expensive dish. You can have a $30 meal or a $70 meal, but you're responsible for your financial experience. That way people feel like they can treat themselves at the end of the day. Sometimes when you're at your most depressed or your most broke, that's when you need a good steak. I like to leave it up to the consumer. Let the restaurants serve the consumers, first and foremost.

LM: Along those same lines, New York now requires chain restaurants to post the caloric information of menu items. What do you think about that?

I think it's great. It falls into the same category as knowing who grew your food. Anything you do to promote awareness of what we're eating, and what it does to us, I'm for that. Food is supposed to nourish us, but that doesn't mean I don't eat Doritos. I don't sit at home eating spinach leaves all the time. I'm human like everyone else, but I think awareness is the new trend. Plus, don't we know anyway? We don't know to the calorie, but I mean, how was that bagel with cream cheese and three scrambled eggs with melted American? Was it good? There's no such thing as a free lunch.

LM: There haven't been that many female chefs. Was it hard initially starting out in a male-dominated industry?

This industry sucks. People always want to attribute everything to gender as a way to divide hardships and difficulties. It should be more about the nature of the business. One could argue that it's definitely physically demanding in a way that may be somewhat easier for a man to contend with than a woman, but it's also emotionally demanding. Maybe a man can lift the stockpot better and a woman can get two guys to get along better. By the time you divide the genders and you divide the talents of the genders, I think it kind of ends up being a wash.

I just hope that if there's any young woman out there who reads this and is wondering whether she should become a chef, I wish she would just go and work in a restaurant for a while and give herself permission to do that with her life if she wants to. I think the first step is giving yourself permission to do what scares you a little bit. It's scary, but it's invigorating.

LM: If you were going to serve dinner for the presidential nominees, what would you serve them?

I would use the opportunity to educate politicians about the beauty of local foods and the importance of making local foods available to everybody. We talk a lot about education and healthcare for everybody, but what about access to good food for everyone? What about neighborhoods in New York, and any other city, any other state in the United States, where you can't get good ingredients or good food? You can't get an heirloom tomato at a bodega that's selling soap and frozen shrimp and quarts of milk. I think I would serve a meal that would hopefully, through its flavors, send a message of how important that is. We don't talk about it as an issue enough, and it's a serious issue. How come we don't test well in schools? If you eat crappy food, you're not getting the same brain development, the same opportunity, and that's not your doing.

LM: If you were going to be known for any one thing how would you want people to remember you?

That I make great soup always. I make a split pea soup with fried bacon and fresh peas in it that I really love. I also make a great clam chowder. It takes five days to make, but it's worth it. I think soup is a good barometer of chefs. It's beyond upsetting when you have a crappy soup. You can have the best steak in the world and the best cherry jubilee afterwards, but the feeling of being let down by a watery, crappy soup never leaves you.

LM: Any new projects?

No, right now I am working here. I met a food activist who is working on changing state policy to bring better foods to less privileged neighborhoods and I want to get involved with that because I'm starting to realize that the simple fundamental right to eat good things should be available to everybody.

If you want a Dorito, great. But, if you want an heirloom tomato, you should be able to have that too. If you want a Dorito and heirloom tomato sandwich, you should be able to have that. I think I consider that, as a chef, as a right as basic as health care and I guess that's what I'm going to work for, finding a way to contribute to, not just buying from, local farmers.

We have a big Christmas party and all I'm thinking about is how much can I buy from the farmer? It's almost like subsidizing through your buying power. I'm starting to realize it isn't just about my purchasing power as a chef, it's also about my voice contributing to something like that would matter.

I used to go to a market with a list. Make the menu, make the list, go to the market. Now, I go to the market, walk around, make the list, make the menu. The exact opposite. You start to think about what everyone else is eating and you just assume everyone has the same options you do, and some people just don't choose to eat it. That's just not an accurate picture of what's going on.

LM: Is it more difficult for you to go to the market first?

Yeah, absolutely. Every year I try to get more food from the market. It's hard. There are four, five months out of the year, where a rutabaga is the best thing you're going to see. I make a lot of jams. I pickle a lot of vegetables. I shell beans and freeze them. I had to buy a freezer that only holds beans, all my fresh beans. I stock up like a squirrel, stocking up the tree for winter. In the winter, I eat everything, and in the spring, my fridges are empty. It's more fun. It's more rewarding. The cooks are more excited. The customers like the food better.

I'm not at the point where I want to preach and have everyone follow my point of view. I'd rather ask the question through food. Did you like this? Yeah, great. This is how easy this is. If it tastes good, people will say, 'I want my food at home to taste like that. How do you do that?' Instead of trying to stand on a soapbox and preach, hit 'em where it hurts in the stomach, where they really enjoy it. I spent many years serving things that weren't local and not giving any thought to that. It's been not only an evolutionary process that I hope will grow, but one for myself coming from a very different place initially.

Food, to me, should mean a lot to people. I wish for that. I bring home food from the market for my family. I have a young daughter who's fourteen months old, and she's a blueberry snob already. She had some venison from a farm upstate in New York last week. Who knows what's going through her head?

I hope people realize that who grew, so to speak, your food is a very important question to ask and very, very nice to know. It isn't just a matter of good ingredients and cooking great tasting food, but imagine sharing a relationship with somebody who can tell you everything you need to know about what you're eating. That was much more the way it used to be.

Lord knows what's going to happen, but I'm excited to see. I think organic farming is amazing right now but I'm not do or die by the organic, and I'm not do or die by the language. You have to be careful with the language, especially now since local is such a cool word, and it's becoming chic. That's when you really have to make sure, by having those relationships and knowing your farmers.

I think it takes a lot of experience and a lot of years for people to consider it part of their responsibility as a chef to serve good food. I think it's becoming part of the new responsibilities of the chef as an educator because you can educate with taste. I just hope that the areas where markets already exist and they flourish, the more that will give impetus for markets to spread. We can speak with our pocketbooks, all of us.