Alex vs. America premiered earlier this year as a competition I immediately fell in love with. Alex Guarnaschelli, a talented and fervent competitor, is challenged by three people who share culinary expertise that Alex doesn’t have.
The challengers pick the challenge, and everyone’s dishes are judged blind. That means Alex can be eliminated from her own competition.
Season two of Alex vs. America (Food Network, Sundays at 9) premiered recently, and I checked in with Alex about what’s changed and what her strategy is, and asked her all of my burning questions about the show. “Thanks for caring so much about my little pressure cooker in the universe,” she said.
I was curious if she noticed a change in the competitors who came into that pressure cooker: Did they adapt or change their approach?
“It definitely felt like there was a difference in how people came into the arena and played the game,” she said. “I didn’t anticipate that. I suppose someone who had really had a 360 comprehensive thought would have, but I’m so immersed in the experience that I didn’t think that piece through. And yes, that was quite a little wake-up call.”
Alex said that, for her, cooking in competition contexts is “almost like an out-of-body experience. You look down and there’s this plate of food, and the clock ran out,” she said. “It’s surreal. I liken it to an athletic experience; it’s mental athletics with onions.”
Alex’s competitiveness—and self-criticism
“If I wrote a business card right now, what would I put as my actual profession?” Alex asked me. “Do you have any suggestions? Like: Accidental Professional Competition Show Chef, Consultant for Fusing Gummy Worms and Durian. I’m just not sure what to write anymore.”
Perhaps Professional Competitor, I suggested, because Alex’s competitiveness is one of the cornerstones of the show. In a season-two episode, she told one contestant, “I want you to win—but my heart, I can’t have you win. … It’s just not in my DNA.”
That’s a central theme of Alex vs. America, so I asked if Alex is—or always has been—competitive in all aspects of her life, or if it’s just connected to her skills as a chef.
“I think it was in the DNA, and then it spilled over accidentally into the cooking,” Alex said. “Sometimes you have an experience and you actually recruit another aspect of your life, you bring something over. That’s kind of what happened. I think the competitiveness crossed over into my profession.”
That also means she’s tough on herself and her own biggest critic—even in the middle of a timed challenge.
“For many years, people have watched me be a judge on Food Network with a lot of shows. They’re seeing the other side of that coin: I don’t just apply it to the people around me, but probably apply it most impactfully on myself,” Alex told me.
“When you have an idea in your head, and then you look at the plate and it doesn’t match, that’s not easy to handle, because I take this stuff super-seriously,” she added.
“Everybody’s like: Let’s have a fun, friendly competition. And I’m like, You know what, don’t call me. I get immersed in the room; I get obsessed with the results. I have a high expectation for myself. I just do. It doesn’t mean anybody else has to be that way. It’s my process. And I think it’s my best and absolute worst quality at the same time.”
Alex told me she’s “surprised” when people connect with that. “I think they relate it to something in their own lives, whether it’s at work or at home or with family. Sometimes I think we put a lot of pressure on ourselves,” she said.
Because the show is judged blind without the contestants in the room, neither Alex nor any of the contestants know what the judges say, other than what host Eric Adjepong summarizes for them.
I asked if Alex goes back and watches footage or episodes of Alex vs. America to see the judges’ more detailed critiques. “I think true blind judging and tasting has to be truly blind in every way,” she said. “I don’t want what I learned to influence how I cook for any future episodes for different judges, right?”
Some judges have expressed surprise when they learn who cooked what dish, and I was curious if Alex thought she had a distinctive style that was noticeable—in the way that, say, Bobby Flay’s cooking might be recognized for using chilis and being grilled.
Alex said that she doesn’t think about that, because it’s a futile exercise. “Should I lean into my distinctive style, or should I try to hide behind something else? What if the judges don’t want to pick my dish? Or what if they do, and they’re looking for it? That’s a guess I can’t afford to make.”
The judges truly don’t know who’s made which dish. “People think, Oh, it’s always so obvious; [judges] are going to know who cooked what. As someone who has blind judged and tasted on a lot of shows, you second-guess yourself and you’re often wrong,” Alex said. “I know it may seem obvious, but it truly isn’t.”
Breaking the fourth wall on Alex vs. America
Like Tournament of Champions did, Alex vs. America frequently breaks the fourth wall, showing behind the scenes: the camera operators, the producers asking questions, people delivering plates to the judges and wiping off their table.
In one season-two episode, Alex cut her finger on a mandoline, and as she went to the sink to rinse it off, she told the camera operator, “Please do not film me bleeding. I do not want to be filmed bleeding.”
I asked her about that moment, and how we see what is usually concealed behind the scenes of other TV shows and cooking competitions.
“They put what happened in the show, and that’s a choice,” Alex said. “I like the idea. I think people want to know, and that’s my hope that they want to know and that they’ll watch, and that they’ll feel the trueness of it. I like the truth. I’m a fan.”
She compared the construction of the show to creating art: “You can take a canvas and sketch with a pencil and outline with a Sharpie and plan all the colors and computerize it, and that can be beautiful, but that’s not what this is. This is deliberately peeling back every layer of the onion. It can hurt your eyes and make you cry after a while.”
Alex is an executive producer of Alex vs. America, and is involved with some aspects of the production, but not things like casting or challenge design.
“By nature of the format, I can’t be,” she said. “I certainly participate creatively in other ways. Like: What’s in the pantry? What are the plate selections? How is information distributed? Making chefs feel welcome.”
“Being the target? That’s enough, thank you, for a day’s work,” she told me.
The work of being a competitor is, as Alex frequently points out on camera, her edge in the competition. I asked her how much of an advantage that gives her, if it’s even possible to quantify it.
“Your questions are great. Here’s the problem with your question: It doesn’t matter, because that’s only one of 10 factors that go into what happens. I can’t assign a percentage to it,” Alex said.
“But your question actually opens the door to a larger thought. They’re experts in what they do, right? We get someone from Maine who does nothing but cook lobster all day long, every day, 365 days a year. We get someone from the state of Washington who does nothing but filet and roast salmon on cedar planks. We get someone from California who’s in a goat cheese farm, making grilled cheese all day.”
“Never am I that immersed in any one specific thing, and so that becomes a huge factor that, sure. But it also depends on what they do to distill their expertise into an effective dish,” she said. “So it’s not the sliding scale of what my experience does for me, it’s also a game of Blackjack or roulette or poker with what these contestants bring to the table—with what they do, and how they look at me. Okay, she has a lot of experience but she doesn’t work on an oyster farm, so I’m going to out-shuck her.”
“We may be at my house, but we’re picking from what they’re best at,” Alex said. “What they do with that really is the bigger tipping point. I can only stand there and say—with a lot of bravado—that I have a lot of experience, which is true, but it’s multiple factors, and they often have a domino effect.”
Another competitor as host of Alex vs America
Top Chef and Tournament of Champions alum Eric Adjepong hosts Alex vs. America, and Alex said that his resume is incredibly beneficial.
“The great thing about Eric is that he comes with his own competition show experience. We met on the set of Chopped. We hit it off, and that was it,” she said. “He’s dapper and he’s humble, which in my mind is all I ever want from a host.
“He hosts in a way that it’s clear if you’re watching that he would like to compete himself. I think that connects him to what’s going on around him on a deeper level. The host is the one bringing the audience closer to what’s going on,” Alex added.
After time is called, Eric and Alex tour the other stations, and I asked Alex why they do that and what she’s thinking about.
“I don’t want anybody just to be better than mine. Ever,” she said. “And yet, I want these chefs to showcase their skills and enjoy the experience and everything else. But I’m super competitive. And I’m not gonna lie about it. When I see a dish that I think looks better than mine, I get nervous. The smoke is cleared, the knives are down, what’s done is done, so you just wait.”
“I really like competing; I like the feeling of it, the challenge,” Alex said. “To get up and do stuff you love, it’s a real privilege.”