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Alex Guarnaschelli: The taste of redemption

The winner of the Next Iron Chef talks about life after her big win


What does redemption taste like, Alex Guarnaschelli? “It starts out with hints of bitter almond, and it finishes like a chocolate souffle,” she said. One clue that Guarnaschelli was destined to win Season 5 of “The Next Iron Chef”? When her competitors were asked to cook a passionate, “last supper” meal for the judges. The first two mystery ingredients were doled out — the easy peasy proteins of chicken and haddock. Third in line, Alex ended up with sea urchin.

While fellow finalists Nate Appleman appeared to smirk at the ingredient, and Amanda Freitag appeared to recoil, wide-eyed and wide-mouthed, Guarnaschelli appraised the ingredient confidently with a nod and you could already see the gears turning in her head. “I’m really excited about it,” she said. “Briny, sweet, light, cold, refreshing. Love it.”

Her sea urchin flan helped her sail into a finale that pitted her against Amanda in the hallowed Kitchen Stadium. The chairman’s secret ingredient? It wasn’t just one. It was a series of ingredients that honoured the cooking styles of some of the current Iron Chefs, Bobby Flay, Michael Symon and the most legendary Iron Chef of them all, Masaharu Morimoto.

Symon, for one, said he was glad two women were duking it out, guaranteeing a woman a spot in the currently all-male roster. “It’s a great thing for Iron Chefs, I’m very excited it ended this way.”

The first two rounds of the competition seemed somewhat even, even as Amanda dazzled with a feta burrata, among other creations. But it was Alex’s dessert — a Pasilla chile cherry tart — that “crushed” the dessert round, handing her victory. Perhaps that’s why Guarnaschelli says that as a new Iron Chef — her first battle comes on Sunday — she will focus on French-American cuisine and killer desserts.

“I feel like you can really clean up in the dessert round,” she told the Times, no doubt bolstered by her cherry-tart victory. “I learned so much from ‘Iron Chef,’ about ingredients, about the courage to put yourself out there,” she said. “I don’t mean to sound like a cliche, but it’s like a dream come true.”

Guarnaschelli said she debated long and hard before returning to “The Next Iron Chef.”

She, like most of the other nine competitors this season, had been eliminated in an earlier season and were given a shot to come back and seek redemption.

“I went into this with a 10 per cent chance of winning,” she said. “There were times I was thinking, am I crazy?”

She said it was both an advantage and disadvantage that she ended up in the final three with Appleman and Freitag. “They go way back together, they are good friends,” and they seemingly had an alliance.

But Guarnaschelli said that being a “rogue, lone wolf” helped her stay focused. “At the end of the day you have to go rogue and do it by yourself.”

She said her confidence grew with each twist and turn of the game.

“The worse it got, the calmer I got. There was just nothing else to do.” She said watching the show has been like an “out-of-body” experience, because the competition was so intense and gruelling she can barely remember parts of it. “I’m watching it and I’m thinking, ‘I did that? I made that? I said that’?” Guarnaschelli added: “I feel like princess with a knife. I’ve wanted to be an Iron Chef forever.”