As a regular on Food Network fixture Chopped, Alex Guarnaschelli is generally sitting pretty behind the judge's table. But the venerable chef certainly knows what it's like to, uh, feel the heat.
Starting her training in her native New York City under restauranteur Larry Forgione, she then decamped to France, studying at the prestigious La Varenne Culinary School in Burgundy before spending seven years crafting impeccable dishes at vaunted chef Guy Savoy's eponymous three Michelin-starred spot in Paris and the nearby La Butte Chaillot. Terrifying? A bit, she allowed: "Imagine being an American woman in charge of a French kitchen with 10 cooks under you."
And yet when asked to name one of life's more high-pressure moments, it'd likely involve neither knives nor a blazing hot stove.
While raising 13-year-old daughter Ava largely as a single mother, having separated from first husband Brandon Clark, she faced more than a few impossible-seeming moments, including one that arose in the dead of a frigid New York City winter night.
"Ava was running a really high fever and she was little," Guarnaschelli reflected to E! News in a recent phone interview. "I was just standing in my apartment and I'm like, 'Okay, so do I put her in the crib and leave her alone and go get the medicine to help her fever? And risk leaving her alone? Or do I bundle her up and bring her out in the cold and risk making her even sicker to get the medicine for the fever?' You know, like, 'How do I win here? How can I be a better parent?'"
The solution was surprise option C: "The answer was there is no answer," she explained of the no-win situation, "because I was limited by the resources I had at that moment."
So when a representative from global nonprofit Vitamin Angels reached out and detailed their mission to provide vital nutrition and prenatal vitamins to expectant and new moms and their babies in vulnerable communities worldwide, the 51-year-old related hard.
"It's the kind of call you love to get," said Guarnaschelli, who's hosting a cooking demonstration of nutrient-packed fare on Instagram to help raise awareness (and, ideally, donations) for the charity's Be An Angel Day Aug. 22. "Because I know when I was pregnant, I was like, 'I'm a chef, shouldn't I know what I should have?' But how do you know? How do you feel good? I feel like when you're pregnant or you're the parent to a small child, you have so many questions. Now imagine if you were in a remote community with limited resources. I can't imagine."
Except she can, at least a little. Her stressors were nowhere near as amplified, Guarnaschelli already having established herself as an in-demand chef ahead of Ava's 2007 arrival, working at Michelin-starred French eatery Daniel in New York and L.A.'s upscale Patina before landing her executive chef spot at NYC's Butter in 2003.
But she can certainly understand the feeling of insecurity. "I think you don't need any more reasons to feel anxious if you are a future mother or if you are a single mother," she noted. "And I've been both."
Precisely a month after Ava's July 2007 arrival, Guarnaschelli made her Food Network debut, taking on future network cohort Cat Cora on a season five episode of Iron Chef America. Guarnaschelli lost, but she'd already notched a more important victory at home.
She can still recall precisely how she felt mere days after leaving the hospital with Ava: exhausted, anxious and entirely confident that she had no idea what she was doing. Having spent several nights curled up on the nursery rug—"Like I go to bed with the baby monitor in the other room, and then I would start Zombie walking and sleeping with a pillow on the floor by her crib because I was convinced if I didn't, she'd stop breathing"—she phoned her father John Guarnaschelli, her voice laced with desperation.
"I can almost start crying remembering how this feels," she shared. "I said, 'She's going to be fine, but I'm not.'" Her dad's response—reminding Guarnaschelli that her daughter also had a will to live, but would need help from a mom not suffering from extreme sleep deprivation—was precisely what she needed.
"He's like, 'Just go to your room and go to bed,'" she recalled. "And it was sort of like that nudge I needed in the right direction. It was help from an outside source and not a voice from inside my own head. And I just laid down on the couch and I passed out."
The kind words (and a few hours sleep) shifted Guaranschelli from freaked to fully, completely, unabashedly in love. "I went into the crib to look at her," she shared. "And I heard this kind of gurgling and I was like, 'Oh god, what happened?' And I looked over and she was moving her arms and legs and kicking all her body parts around because she was so vibrant. And she looked at me and smiled. And all this drool fell out of her mouth because she had no teeth and I looked down at this little creature and it was game over for me. Look at this little thing."
Even now, she smiles when recalling the memory: "I remember the moment. It was like a switch went on inside me. Maybe I had to get through that initial fatigue to connect with the feeling."
And boy, did she connect. The star of a slew of Food Network series, including her most recent vehicle, Supermarket Stakeout, Guarnaschelli is the type of parent that finds a teaching moment in anything, though her favorite parables come from beloved childhood movies.
"One thing I found very helpful was The Wizard of Oz," she noted. "Watching The Wizard of Oz together and using it as a larger metaphor for good people and bad people and what kind of person you're going to be, because every character represents a quality in one person."
Disney provided a vault of lessons as well. "I found Beauty & the Beast very helpful, like, what is beauty on the inside? On the outside? What does that look like?" said Guarnaschelli. "For cooking and food, Ratatouille and the idea that if you work hard at something and you practice, even if you are a rat or you don't look the part, you can do anything. I kind of liked the message of that. I latched on to certain stories as ways to explain stuff to Ava. Because you need that place to make your kid understand."
As for what she's gleaned over the past decade-plus, "I find the good in every day with her," she explained. "I look for it."
Though Guaranschelli, the daughter of legendary cookbook author Maria Guarnaschelli, doesn't imagine Ava will enter into the family business—"She changes professions once a month these days"—she's already impressed Mom, which hundreds of cleaved Chopped contestants will tell you is no easy task. "She's a really, really, fundamentally good cook. And she got there really on her own," Guarnaschelli says of her teen. "Like, people will say to me, 'How do I get my kids to cook?' And I'm just like, 'If you're just in there doing it and they watch you, they're going to engage in it.'"
With her midtown Manhattan restaurant temporarily shuttered, the slowdown necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic has allowed Guarnaschelli more time with her favorite sous-chef. "I'm honestly happy to be home with her," she said. It's also given her a chance to appreciate another life milestone, now-fiancé Michael Castellon marking her June birthday with a proposal so perfectly them.
Four years after she met the chef at his New York restaurant (the waiter, a friend of hers, heard her raving about the steak and insisted on arranging an introduction), they were running a last minute errand for her small, social distance-friendly birthday gathering when he abruptly pulled off the road.
"My fiancé is quite a little jokester," she explained of his plan. "He'll say, 'Oh my god, the roof of the house just fell down.' And I'm like, 'Really?' And I'll go running and he gets such a kick out of that, that he can tell me anything and I'll believe him because I'm sort of a sucker." So, naturally, she wasn't the least bit suspicious when he dragged her out of the car, insisting he'd spied a baby deer wandering in the park.
Already frantically working out how they'd involve animal control to help the abandoned fawn, she was floored when Castellon instructed her to turn around. He'd dropped to one knee, an emerald ring—a family heirloom—in his hand. "He's like, 'That's why you have to marry me. You're such a sucker,'" she shared. "And I'm like, 'Okay, I do. But where's the baby deer? You promised me a baby deer!'"
Wedding plans aren't even a consideration at the moment. Nor is much beyond her upcoming third cookbook, October release Cook With Me, and whatever else truly moves the needle for her. "People are like, 'What's next for you?'" said Guarnaschelli. "And I'm like, um, 'If it's not meaningful to me, I'm not doing it.'"
The short list obviously includes her work as a Vitamin Angels spokesperson. "The first thing they kind of said to me was, 'You know, we look at you, we see you're the mother to a 13-year-old, we understand that for all intents and purposes, you were a single parent, raising a child. We know that you understand firsthand how that can feel,'" she recalled. And as they detailed their mission to provide nutrition to moms and children, Guarnaschelli—long drawn to charities that help kids in need—was hooked. "I'm looking at the mission of this charity and thinking, 'Wow, imagine globally providing this fundamental support,'" she explained. "It really speaks to me."
Which is the goal for everything she does these days, Guarnaschelli finding the current stay-at-home situation to be the perfect time to hone in on what's truly important. "I think streamlining and making the best use that we can of the time that we have," she said, "that is the mission."