Book Review: Old-School Comfort Food, by Alex Guarnaschelli

Old School Comfort FoodFood, Family, and Heart

And now for something completely different.

I have never reviewed a cookbook before. Sure, I’ve reviewed books about cooking, but never, ever an actual honest-to-God cookbook. Mostly, this is because I’m traditionally not a chef. Just so we understand each other, I’ll give you some background, then we’ll talk about my experiences with Chef Alex. My mother (a full-blooded Italian woman) is an incredible cook, but I was an extremely picky eater as a child. Like, ridiculously picky. Won’t eat anything green picky.* Will pick apart an entire pizza to remove any trace of onion picky. Given the ultimatum of finishing my dinner or spending the rest of the evening in my room I
would nod, admit “that’s fair,” and head off to my bedroom. Whenever my mother or my grandmother got exasperated by my refusal to eat their ridiculously delicious Italian meals they would promise me that someday, some glorious day, I would not only love their food but I would ask for it by name. I rolled my eyes, but it turned out they were right. My palate expanded as my teen years ended. It was a complete shock to me, but it was also gratifying. The world is an awfully limited place when all you will eat is hamburgers or pasta with butter (no sauce, thanks).

Then, three and a half years ago, I met my soon-to-be husband, Joel. Right now he works for a company that does medical software development, but his passion has always been cooking. He worked as a pastry chef when we met. From him, I have learned some important lessons about food. Mainly, that cooking is an act of love. It comes from the heart. People who work in the food industry don’t do it because of the money, they do it because it’s their passion. They are (literally) nourishing you, but also offering you a piece of themselves with every meal. My respect for people in the culinary field has grown immeasurably.

Why am I telling you all this? Because it gets to the heart of Chef Alex Guarnaschelli and her new cookbook, Old-School Comfort Food. It’s a cookbook, yes, but it’s also the heartfelt story of how she grew up with a love of food and inevitably came to work in the restaurant world. The personal stories are both amusing and endearing. Her mother, a cookbook editor, frequently tried out recipes from her books at home to make sure they worked. Once, a young Alex was mortified to open her lunch bag at school to discover the ingredients for an elaborate meatball sandwich instead of the peanut butter sandwiches that surrounded her. When questioned about this, her mother pointed out that if she had put the sandwich together it would have gotten soggy and wouldn’t have tasted right.

I made this. For real.
Then there’s the food itself. Joel and I already loved Chef Alex’s food, having scoped out her restaurant, Butter, to see if she could live up to the criticism she doles out on Chopped. We loved it. We’ve been back twice (once for my birthday dinner), and it is consistently fantastic. Could she be as successful in cookbook format?

Some readers may be put off by the title–I suspect most people associate comfort food with mac and cheese–but there are delights to be found. I set a rule for myself that I can’t review a cookbook unless I tried out one of the recipes, so one Friday I set about making Chef Alex’s cornbread for Joel. To be honest, I was terrified, but this seemed like a safe place to start. It was surprisingly easy! The cornbread came out perfectly, not to mention that is was scrumptious. I had no problem following the instructions, either. Consider that I am a complete amateur when it comes to following recipes; clearly, this book passes the ease-of-use recipe test with flying colors.

Next, Joel and I made an entire dinner based around two of her recipes: pea salad with tarragon and the roasted “bistro” leg of lamb with crispy rosemary. They were both delicious. The salad was refreshing and light. The lamb was tasty as hell. Clearly, this is a cookbook you can work your way through (eating well the entire way). We can’t wait to try her crispy squid with chili flakes and the Quickie strawberry tartlets.

The book itself is nicely laid out. I guess that’s no surprise coming from a chef whose mother was a cookbook editor. The photographs are appetizing and the inclusion of hand-written notes and restaurant comment cards (one from Gloria Steinem!) is a nice personal touch. There are also personal photographs that deepen the “The Way I Learned to Cook” aspect of the story.

Lastly, there’s the chef herself. Her reputation alone is impressive (she’s an Iron Chef, for crying out loud), but we had the privilege of meeting Chef Alex during a book signing at Fish’s Eddy last month. She was so sweet! We gushed about Butter and how we’ve been there three times. She humbly told us about the excellent staff she has there. “I don’t even worry about the place,” she said. Most people would have gobbled up the credit for the excellent dining experience we had. When we were leaving she stopped us to say “Listen, I want to thank you because when you come to Butter you’re supporting an amazing family of people.” What’s incredible here is that she wasn’t talking about herself, as she explained. She was talking about the cooks, the busboys, the waiters–everyone who works at the restaurant. This perfectly mimics what Joel has told me about working in a restaurant: your coworkers are your family. You work long, unforgiving hours, so you develop close relationships with the team around you. You rely on each other to work as a cohesive unit. Everyone even eats together (and they call it a “family meal”). It’s so nice to see a celebrity chef respect and celebrate that dynamic.

Humble. Talented. Good food. You can quibble all you want about the definition of comfort food, but to me this more than fits the bill.

Grade: B+

* Granny Smith apples were the only exception to the nothing green rule. Seriously, even putting parsley on pasta could ruin my night when I was a child.


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