Chef, author, and Chopped judge Alex Guarnaschelli loves pasta as much as anyone. She features pasta dishes on her menu at Butter, her acclaimed New York restaurant, and growing up in an Italian-American household, regularly ate pasta cooked by her mother and father.
But it wasn’t just Italian noodles in her childhood wheelhouse. Pasta dishes exist across cultures — something Chef Alex was exposed to growing up, citing her father’s love and reverence of Chinese and Thai cuisine, along with her mother’s Italian cooking, as a significant influence in her personal culinary journey.
“When I think of pasta dishes, my father made all kinds of Chinese and Thai noodle dishes growing up,” Guarnaschelli told Uproxx last week. “Because while I’m Italian, my father felt the Chinese taught everyone everything about cooking and certainly pasta. So we had this equal measure of Italian classics and these Chinese and Thai noodle dishes.”
With National Pasta Day today, we spoke with the chef about her love of pasta, the balance between “cheffed up” pasta dishes and “from a jar,” and the pasta dishes home cooks should add to their repertoire to avoid falling in a pasta rut.
What is it about pasta dishes that make them so popular to make for elite-level chefs and home cooks alike?
I think there’s a difference between what high-level chefs are going to do in their kitchens and what home cooks are going to do and translate into their own language at home. I think that’s really where we’re at. At the restaurant here I make sauces from scratch and we go to the Green Market and buy basil and garlic and we just start from scratch with everything.
I think a lot of people have a desire to make something like that at home. But when you think about half of Americans having 30 minutes or less to make dinner at home, you can’t do those things.
That said, people love pasta. It’s hearty. It’s satisfying, and it’s good for a budget. It doesn’t mean we don’t crave freshness in our meals. We love baked ziti night, where you have that shiny casserole from grandma, but then you have other types of pasta. And I think National Pasta Day is a time to honor the classics, but you also kind of want to mix things up. People say to me all the time, two things: How do I make chicken exciting, because I eat it so much? And what do I do with pasta that’s fun?
I feel like pasta dishes are a great way for people who are learning to cook to learn how to build flavors and develop flavors.
Yep. It’s a blank canvas.
What was the first pasta dish you remember learning to make and feeling like I’m really understanding the balance of flavor and those sorts of things that are so necessary to all of cooking?
My love of pasta dishes began with the baked genre. The lasagnas, the zitis, and the casseroles my mother and grandmother would make. My mother would make these tiny little meatballs and layer them into lasagna. I mean, this thing would take two hours to make by hand, and minutes to eat because it’s that good. And those are the types of seminal dishes that kind of led me on the pasta path.
Here’s the thing, when I was growing up, someone else was doing the cooking and I was the kid. Now that I’m grown up and I have a 12-year-old who’s very hangry, I have experienced firsthand what it’s like to get home at night on a weekday and your kid says, “Can we have something homemade?” The question then arises, what kind of healthy and tasty shortcuts can I take. How can I shave off time with my cooking? How can I get something on the table? That’s where my recent partnership with Gourmet Garden herbs really began. I think the idea of cutting a corner by having the garlic, whether it’s chunky or more smooth, of having an Italian herb mix, of having dried herbs that aren’t really dried — they’re lightly dried — and retaining all the freshness of the ingredients without needing all the time to prep it appeals to me. Because I’m not someone that’s going to make a pasta dish with garlic powder, dried parsley, dried rosemary out of the jars in my cupboard. But will I cheat a little bit and use a fresh garlic paste or fresh herb paste? Oh, hell yeah.
That’s the divide that exists in my own life. I can go to the restaurant and spend four hours making a fresh pasta dish for customers, but that gives me even less time to go home and whip one up for my daughter. It’s like the dramatic divide. So when I was a kid and I ate these baked pasta dishes my mom was cooking up the linguine and my father was making these chilled, they’re called orchid’s tangy noodles, like you’d make these chilled, soy noodles. So I had these two very distinctive versions of pasta and I wanted to represent sort of both for October 17.
Like you said, so much of what happens is you open a can of sauce, because you don’t have hours to make one from scratch. But what are things that home cooks can do to elevate the pasta dishes they make to help them not feel so processed?
Well, I mean, that’s right. That’s the question. But also, I’m not going to open a jar of tomato sauce and heat it up. I’m likely not going to open a jar of tomato sauce and zhuzh it up. I feel like a lot of people do that, and there’s no judgement here, but I have a different path. I always have a can of tomatoes in the cupboard — and by the way, 93 percent of Americans have pasta on hand at all times. So asking them to make a pasta dish, whether it’s National Pasta Day or not, it’s not a stretch. Because people open the cupboard and they’ll be like, I have peanut butter, I have jelly, I have spaghetti, and I have cumin — which is the most popular spice in American kitchens, did you know that?
I did not.
Yeah, don’t ask me why. I have six jars of cinnamon, but apparently everybody in America has cumin, they have pasta, and they have a can of tomatoes. So, what else do I need. Could I actually make a pasta dish that feels really fresh, that I can whip up, and I don’t have to go to the supermarket? I mean, even I would say sign me up.
The question is, am I going to get some stir in garlic paste that I can cook down in some olive oil, take some lightly dried herbs that once they hit liquid even feel reconstituted and fresh and take a can of tomatoes and cook that together for 5-10 minutes? That feels a lot more homemade to me than opening a jar of sauce. So wherever I can save and rescue the idea of a home-cooked meal that feels that way, and conversely wherever I can take shortcuts to get to that feeling, that’s what I want. I want to ride the middle.
You mention most people think Italian when they think pasta. I know personally I can get stuck in a rut where when thinking about pasta dishes during meal prep and end up thinking of and making the same few things like spaghetti and meatballs or fettuccine alfredo.
What are some other pasta dishes that you think could be easily made in that hour time constraint folks have that people would really like and enjoy if they added it to their repertoire?
I break pasta in my head into a few different genres. I think everyone wants to do some type of alfredo sauce. They want a nice tomato dish or a tomato sauce, whether it’s in a bolognese direction with meat or whether it’s just vegetarian. I think those are two genres that need to be hit upon.
I think you need a baked pasta dish. Whether it’s a baked pasta like penne with eggplant and roasted tomatoes and even roasted vegetables and maybe some cheese. I also think a lot of people are thinking they want a dish to either not have meat in it or not have fish or not have dairy. So I think it’s important that people when they think, let me make a hearty dinner that’s satisfying, but my friend doesn’t eat meat or my daughter doesn’t want dairy or my son doesn’t like fish. I know for me I know a lot of people that aren’t eating gluten. Some are allergic, others are just trying to cut down. I even think for National Pasta Day you could make zoodles with a wonderful sauce and get away with it.
So that’s kind of the repertoire, but let me tell you. I deeply love Pad Thai. I mean I deeply love it. I obviously love ramen. I love all interpretations of pasta because there’s a form of pasta in every culture. I deeply love Pad Thai, but people don’t always have rice noodles or egg noodles on the ranch. And I don’t think there’s any shame in saying, get out your linguine and we’re going to go somewhere a little different tonight. Most people have soy or they have worcestershire and peanut butter from sandwich making. I wanted to create a couple of dishes where you might be able to make something people will love without a trip to the store. I know I love that.
When I get an idea in my head and I go to the fridge and all we need is one thing, and we don’t have to do a full shopping trip. Because my daughter will turn to me and say, “What are we doing for dinner, mom?” And I’m like, “Oh boy.” I’m a chef. I have a bigger conscience than most, theoretically. If I can make dinner for so many people, why can’t my daughter have a nice dinner too. It’s a guilt thing.
I know you are also a big sports fan and the NBA season is starting soon and we’re in full swing with football. When you go to a game what’s your favorite stadium or arena concession stand food to get?
Hmm. It’s funny I just went to a couple of events at Madison Square Garden and the concession food was so much better than I remember it being five or 10 years ago, I was almost overwhelmed. I’m a hot dog gal. I gotta be honest. I deeply love hot dogs. I’m going to forego a popcorn and go for the hot dogs or fried chicken, and a soda that I’m never going to finish cause it’s like 80 gallons, then I go home and tell my daughter we’re never having soda again.
You’ve had your sugar quota for the month.
Okay, a few really quick ones, chef: a restaurant you loved that you visited this year?
La Petite Grocery in New Orleans. That’s a keeper. Oh, yeah.
One travel destination that everyone who loves food should visit?
Louisville. Oh yeah, burgeoning food town. Nashville is so 2018. I’m teasing, but Louisville. That’s my answer.
One chain restaurant in America — or chain food dish — that you have a permanent soft spot for?
In-N-Out burger, double-double animal style.
A food trend you want to see go away?
Food trends! No that can’t be the answer. Um, yeah, food trends is my answer.