At the time of our interview, "Chopped" judge Alex Guarnaschelli and her co-star Geoffrey Zakarian were both still in the running on Food Network's uber-chef cook-off, "The Next Iron Chef: Super Chefs." Despite my earnest predictions that one or the other would indeed be the next Iron Chef (and my promise I'd tell no one if she said so before the finale aired), Guarnaschelli stayed cheerfully mum on the subject, other than to label the competition a "life-changing experience."
No matter what happens in Kitchen Stadium, Guarnaschelli can't lose. A Food Network favorite since 2008, the Barnard-schooled Guy Savoy protegee came to most folks' attention as the no-nonsense middle judge on "Chopped," which launched its 10th season Tuesday, Dec. 20.
The show pits four chefs of varying pedigrees against one another to make masterful dishes from baskets filled with oft-puzzling ingredients (a recent basket contained mangosteens, dried shrimp and yak steaks), rewarding the winner of each episode with $10,000. For modestly paid chefs, that frequently represents the chance to keep a family, a dream and a career afloat -- and it's that opportunity, as much as the chance to discover great new talent, that appeals most to Guarnaschelli.
"To me, 'Chopped' is a great platform for championing great causes," she says. "Especially ones like (a recent episode featuring lunch ladies who healthfully revamped their schools' meal programs) that pertain directly to food choices, cooking and eating in America. I almost feel 'Chopped' has a responsibility to do that!"
Guarnaschelli isn't afraid to walk that talk herself. On Jan. 8, she'll team up with former "Super Chefs" rival Anne Burrell to take on Michael Symon and Bobby Flay in "The Big Waste," a Food Network special that challenges the duos to create a three-course meal for 100 out of perfectly good food destined for the trash bin. "The show was awesome and eye-opening," Guarnaschelli says. "Americans will not buy irregular-looking or oddly shaped vegetables! We have to get out there and explain that imperfect tastes just as good. I think Americans will find this show surprising to watch!"
Despite her near omnipresence on the Food schedule, Guarnaschelli remains unsure as to the wisdom of turning super chefs into TV superstars. "Take a tiger out of his or her habitat?" she says. "I'm still not convinced it's a safe idea."
What are you currently reading?
" 'Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk' by David Sedaris and 'Life on the Line' by Grant Achatz."
What did you have for dinner last night?
"Pizza with fresh chilies."
What is your next project?
"To take some cooking classes. And put up my Christmas tree."
When was the last vacation you took -- where and why?
"Los Angeles, because I love the weather and produce there."