A little over a decade ago, at the height of the Sex and the City-fueled aughts, Alex Guarnaschelli became the executive chef of a clubby restaurant in New York’s Noho neighborhood called Butter. Although her greenmarket-driven cooking—then a rare predilection for local chefs—attracted scores of loyal diners, the celebrities filling the booths often overshadowed the food.
“One of the most impressive things I remember was when Puff Daddy came an hour before Mary J. Blige’s birthday dinner to drop off her gift,” recalls the Iron Chef champ and Chopped judge. “We were looking inside for where he had left the present, but parked out front was a brand new purple Bentley.”
Guarnaschelli’s mother is longtime W.W. Norton & Company cookbook editor Maria Guarnaschelli, but despite a childhood peppered with dinners from acclaimed chefs and fancy restaurants, she didn’t harbor dreams of manning the stoves until she was in college. “I did a lot of cooking in my dorm but never thought of it as a future profession. It was just a hobby I always loved,” she says.
Puff Daddy came to Butter an hour before Mary J. Blige’s birthday dinner to drop off her gift: a purple Bentley.
Once she did set her sights on the kitchen she quickly built an impressive resume, working with Larry Forgione at An American Place and Daniel Boulud at Daniel in New York. She also built up her culinary chops outside of New York, working with Guy Savoy at La Butte Chaillot in Paris and Joachim Splichal at Patina in Los Angeles, before returning to take the reins at Butter.
For her latest venture, Guarnaschelli has brought the Butter brand uptown to the Cassa Hotel, where her food headlines in a massive, sexy dining room. Here, amid the sky-high ceiling and black leather ropes, Midtown money men eat crispy Taleggio and Magic Molly potato flatbread, bird’s eye chile-accented Hawaiian yellowtail, and charred dry-aged steak. It’s Butter, all grown up. But one thing that hasn’t wavered is Guarnaschelli’s love for fresh produce.
“I am excited about spring not too far off in the distance,” she says. “Nothing is more inspiring than those vegetables and greens that crop up at the market.”
Here, Guarnaschelli roots through her brilliant culinary memories to share 10 of the dishes that shaped her evolving career—from meals prepared by legendary cookbook authors, to the simple pleasures of a Manhattan diner.
Marcella Hazan’s sardines on buttered bread
I was living in France when I went to Italy to join my mother, who was talking to Marcella Hazan about a cookbook. I had this idea of what Italian food was, and then my mother said we were going to Marcella and Victor’s house. Marcella smeared sourdough flatbread with butter, layered it with lightly cooked sardines, and said, “Buon appetito.” Butter in Italy? I thought I was living in the land of butter and Italy was the land of pasta, but here I was having it in a different form, with the metallic taste of sardines, made by one of the most iconic humans on the planet. (Courtesy Butter)
Chocolate macarons at Ladurée (Paris, France)
In Paris, broke as a mofo, I saved up money and took myself to Ladurée at teatime with all those dainty ladies. I ordered a chocolate macaron; it tasted like coconut, it tasted like cocoa, it tasted like vanilla, and it tasted like egg. I never realized chocolate could have so many other dimensions. It stunned me. Your whole childhood it’s like, do you want the chocolate or vanilla flavor of ice cream? But this was chocolate, meet vanilla; vanilla, meet chocolate. (Photo: parispatisseries.com)
Pasta at La Merenda (Nice, France)
Patricia Wells was writing her book and she took me to the South of France, where we went to a restaurant in Nice called La Merenda. There were stools, communal tables, and the wife was in front while the husband cooked in the back. You could shoot a spitball through the whole dining room; it was that small. He was making embarrassingly simple spaghetti with basil and oil, and as the steam wafted off the bowl and into my nostrils, I cried. He served us a plate and it was a complete Like Water for Chocolate moment. Witnessing the act of cooking and then eating the food was visceral. (Courtesy Butter)
One night my dad said, “We’re having dumplings.” I expected take-out cartons and he rolls up with a steamer. I’m like, “Great, dad. Where are the dumplings?” It turns out he was cooking from Barbara Tropp’s The Modern Art of Chinese Cooking. I’d never had a dumpling that wasn’t greasy, but this was texturally stunning, stuffed in rice with bits of water chestnut. We also had tea eggs that night and my dad put them on the windowsill for two days. I learned then that it’s important to understand what you think you know can take any form. (Photo: Liz Barclay)
Julie Sahni’s tandoori chicken
Julie Sahni was publishing Classic Indian Cooking and my mother and I went over to her house. She served tandoori chicken and its red color was a visually shocking thing for me. I remember looking at it and thinking there was no way this could taste good, and boy was I wrong. It was succulent and juicy from marinating in yogurt. I never knew chicken could be so luscious. (Photo: mothersbistro.com)
Diner burgers in NYC
I grew up in an apartment building in Midtown Manhattan, so we couldn’t barbecue. I don’t have any classic American memories of corn on the grill. My father used to hand-sear all our burgers and steaks. Periodically, my parents and I would go to this homey coffee shop, the Red Flame, and I thought the food was on fire. When they put the burger in front of me, it smelled faintly ashy and burnt. It was the first time I ate anything charred. (Photo: Liz Barclay)
Nectarines in California
I thought I had seen it all going to the markets in France, but then I moved to California and went to the Santa Monica Farmers Market and looked at all the artichokes and asparagus and it felt like they were alive. There were six different kinds of nectarines a farmer was slicing up and I couldn’t believe there were that many. They handed me one and it was a pinball of flavor; it tasted like dried apricots and sugar, tart and tangy. I must have had three or four. You just have this moment where an ingredient says, “You think you know me, but you don’t.” (Photo: The Fruit Company)
Acme Bread at Chez Panisse (Berkeley, CA)
Eating at Chez Panisse was a religious experience, but what changed everything was the Acme bread they served. I think I ate two baskets of it before dinner just to know that bread could taste, smell, and feel like that. When the food came I almost wasn’t hungry because I was so full. Of all the things to stun me, a loaf of bread? But this loaf of bread did. (photo: Acme Bread)
Dione Lucas’ cheese Soufflé
My mother made the cheese soufflé from Dione Lucas’ The Gourmet Cooking School Cookbook when I was about eight. It involved a whole round of Camembert that had to be peeled and put through a sieve, and I remember thinking, “Who in their right mind would do that to cheese?” It was the first time I tasted the flavor of dry sherry. The experience of baking it and bringing it to the table might be my most powerful food memory.
Tomato and crab mille-feuille at Jamin (Paris, France)
I was a grumpy, unruly 14-year-old when I ate at Joël Robuchon’s Jamin in Paris. I remember saying to my parents that I wanted to see a movie and why did I have to sit here. Then I ate his crab and tomato mille-feuille and there were these unbelievable layers of tomato and unbelievable layers of crab, and I’d just never eaten anything so luxurious and clean before. My father said it was outstanding and that in 10 years Robuchon would be known as a great chef. (Photo: Pinterest)