Let Them Eat Cake!
(This post was originally shared in March 2016 on the Freebush)
“Is the bar next door open? I was thinking about going to get a beer.”
Alexandria Ventrella, 23, sits on the couch in her Brooklyn apartment watching the latest episode of New Girl.
“Wow good for you!” I tell her. It’s 4:00 pm.
“I’m just trying to be a normal 23-year-old.”
It was President’s Day, and the bar next door was closed. That was much less of a shock than the fact that Alexandria, the princess of pastries, had the day off from reporting to work.
After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America, Alexandria was given the opportunity to bring her baking skills and knowledge to midtown Manhattan’s restaurant Butter.
Alex Guarnaschelli, the executive chef at Butter, is a judge on Food Network shows Chopped, Iron Chef America, and the host of Alex’s Day Off.
Alexandria is the chosen pâtissier at her acclaimed establishment.
She’s been sworn to secrecy in crooning Happy Birthday to celebrity girlfriends who rent out the 45th Street restaurant on any given night.
She had never been on a plane until her first trip to “work an event” alongside Chef Alex Guarnaschelli. When she met up with Chef Alex, she didn’t know what to expect from her first plane ride. It ended up being a very unique first experience, as it may very well be something a large majority of people won’t ever experience, including those who are used to plane travel.
It was a private jet.
Her second plane trip was to California for “Oldchella,” where alongside Chef Alex she cooked for people who paid for their $225 dinner plate. Afterward, she was granted access to the Rolling Stones concert.
In late February, Chef Alex took Butter’s kitchen to dinner at Michelin-star Eleven Madison Park. The 5-star “tasting” restaurant begs four dollar signs on Yelp but an experience unlike any other – especially for food savvy chefs.
“You had to eat the chocolate and guess which animal it came from,” Alexandria begins to explain.
“You mean, the milk that made it?” I had to clarify.
“Yes, exactly. It came in this little box on the table as an amuse…” (Short for “amuse-bouche,” this is a bite-sized hor-‘d oeuvre, I’ve learned through our conversation.)
To help paint the picture for me a little more clearly, she pulls out a long white envelope containing the menu for the evening. The 10-courses didn’t leave much creativity untapped. Items including caviar benedict with smoked sturgeon, lobster with smoked and steamed fennel, clam, and bouillabaisse, squash, oxtail, baked Alaska, and several other items were imprinted into a pristine sheet of cardstock.
She shows me the other souvenirs she brought home, including a bag of various livestock milk chocolate and an empty bottle of wine that was “branded” open and sealed with wax.
Her roommate is in the room and says she knows someone who works at Eleven Madison Park.
“I texted her and asked if she saw Alex Guarnaschelli,” she says. “I told her you’d be sitting right next to her!”
“The Italian Issue” of the Food Network magazine is on the table. I’ve flipped through it to uncover the ever-handy page of 5-recipe dishes and couldn’t help but notice the cannoli recipe sprawled over the head of Alex Guarnaschelli.
I ask Alexandria if it’s her magazine.
“Yeah, they sent it to me.” Shrugging off my question.
“Who’s they?” I persist. “The Food Network?!”
“Yeah,” casually still, “I worked on the cannoli recipe with Alex.”
Reporting to the love child of New American cuisine and judge of Iron Chef every day is a dream – one that this Brooklyn girl hasn’t woken up from in over 2 years. In the bowels of Butter, Alexandria is Chef Alex’s secret weapon. She arrives in the morning to make the bread that Butter’s guests get before their meal, and she’s there until the last dessert is served.
“I honestly can stay up all night and only sleep a few hours sometimes,” Alexandria says of her hectic life. “It’s strange. Your body certainly changes. You can feel it. Your way of thinking changes.”
Making cakes and ice cream under the tutelage of one of New York’s Iron Chefs is the flame-broiled underbelly of luxury. Those stripes are hard-earned, both literally and figuratively. These chefs brandish burns on their arms from reaching into 500-degree ovens and face the sharp betrayals of their chopping knives. The hours are long and the work is demanding.
“You never get to sit,” Alexandria says. “If you do sit you’re judged for it.”
Even now, as I get the chance to sit with her in her moments of relaxation in front of the TV, she’s thrown back into the heat of the kitchen.
“Oh My God! Gordon Ramsay!” she exclaims, with a laugh, as I turn to see him behind Zooey Deschanel on the Valentine’s Day episode of New Girl.
This MasterChef is not someone she’s worked with yet, but there are some things about him that are all too familiar. Just google “Gordon Ramsay can’t find the lamb sauce” and you’ll get a good idea of just how explosive it can be to work in the kitchen.
“You think you’re going to show up and there’s just going to be pots flying everywhere,” she says, “until you get there and you’re the one throwing it.”
I have her explain the lay of this chaotic culinary land.
There’s “pantry” which consists of chefs making what she calls cold apps: salads and things of that nature.
There is the hot line, which is where the chefs line up to make the main meals on grills and ovens.
Then there is pastry. In the case of Butter Midtown, that’s Alexandria’s territory.
As one of two women in the kitchen, and in charge of all the cakes, cookies, ice cream, Alexandria has a lot of eyes (and a lot of pressure) on her at all times.
Her current injury is a pulled neck muscle, but that’s less than a paper cut for cooks.
“I have to go in early tomorrow and make 200 cookies of three different recipes for Alex.”
There’s no bitchin’ in the kitchen!
From the kitchen at Butter, she whips up what’s on the menu. From her apartment in Bushwick, she whips up what’s in Alex’s cookbook, before it’s in Alex’s cookbook.
Chef Alex will periodically hand over a manilla envelope filled with recipes that she wants to put into her cookbook. First, they need to be perfected.
Recipe testing is work for her but a treat for her friends. The pages include everything from fruit jams to sesame chocolate chip cookies. Things out of your wildest Candy Land dreams come to life and I get to dig my hands into it all.
During the process, she suggests we watch Martha & Snoop’s Potluck Dinner Party.
Naturally, I have to ask what she thinks of Martha Stewart as a chef and the answer surprises me.
“She’s a great businesswoman,” she says. “She became really good at branding and making an empire and spending time in jail, but she doesn’t focus on cooking as much. I don’t think of her as a chef.”
In terms of Snoop’s baking skills, Alexandria would rather take the reigns on that too. If anyone in the world she could bake for, she says Snoop Dogg without hesitation. She hesitates a little, though, when I ask what favorite dish of her own she would serve him.
“I have some much to learn still that I actually don’t like answering that question. I have fun making everything!” She says. “Even when I mess up and have to start over. It’s annoying, but I get to see what I did wrong.”
Not just ANY ol’ recipes are going to get into Alex Guarnaschelli’s cookbooks.
When you’re in a position where you make the ice cream to compliment a specialty cake, you’re sure to garner a few critics, especially in the form of picky customers.
“Once, this woman kept sending back ice cream because she wanted to let it sit so it wasn’t too cold. Then she’d send it back to me saying it was melting and that’s not what ice cream is.” she says of one of the more memorable complaints. “That was a strange day.”
Though she’s served a lot of people, got a lot of complaints, and thrown a lot of pans, she has no plans of slowing down or getting settled. Is it her goal to become a celebrity chef like Guarnaschelli? In time, yes, but has for her plan to get there, it’s still in the works.
“For sure my name will be known.”