By Julia Brown
Guillaume Bienaime’s winning dish in “Alex vs. America”, a braised snail vol-au-vent with a brown butter Béarnaise sauce, is served at Zola and BarZola until August 25. (Photo courtesy of Zola and BarZola)
An email to chef and owner of Zola and BarZola, Guillaume Bienaime, contained an offer he couldn’t refuse – a chance to compete with chef and Food Network personality Alex Guarnaschelli and two other contestants on the show. Guarnaschelli “Alex vs. America”.
Months after a 12-hour filming day in Los Angeles, the episode aired on Sunday, August 21, and Bienaime was finally able to share the big news with his restaurant patrons: he had beaten Guarnaschelli and the other contestants to win. $10,000, which he donated to Chef José Andrés’ association World Central Cuisine.
“People are really happy,” says Bienaime. “They’ve been coming to the restaurant for eight years and they feel like they’re part of it.”
Bienaime was born in France and raised there and in the United States, learning French cooking techniques from his “quintessential French grandmother” who cooked every day, he said on Food Network. He began his career as an intern at the now-closed Menlo Park Market and was hired there as a sous chef after graduating from college. Bienaime worked her way up to executive chef before leaving to open Portola Kitchen. He found the space that would become Zola shortly after leaving Portola Kitchen, and he opened the French restaurant in downtown Palo Alto in the fall of 2014. BarZola followed last year.
Prior to participating in “Alex Against America,” Bienaime hadn’t entered a cooking contest since college. He relied on his experience and a little homework to prepare.
“I watched all of Season 1 after I found out I was going to be in it and studied it — I took notes,” he says. “I had to understand what the judges were looking for and what mistakes people were making. I think because it was the second season, you had an advantage if you were smart enough to watch the first season.
“Alex vs. America” pits Guarnaschelli against three contestants from across the country who are experts in a particular cuisine. Competitors begin with the “survival round” choosing between different factors that they must take into account, such as the time they are given to cook and the type of meat they can use. Their food and that of Guarnaschelli are then judged blindly by two anonymous judges, who select the best dish of the round. If Guarnaschelli loses the round, the contestant with the best dish can again choose the cooking factors in the “money round”, where the two remaining contestants can win up to $10,000 for beating Guarnaschelli. If she wins the first round, she controls the cooking factors for the second and final round.
Bienaime’s episode focused on French cuisine, where Guarnaschelli’s training focuses. He knew French cuisine was his specialty but said he had prepared to win.
“I know Alex is an ‘Iron Chef’, but I was born in France. … I can beat Alex because I’ve spent my whole life studying this,” he said on the show.
Bienaime’s first course lost to Guarnaschelli, but in the second round he won with a vol-au-vent of braised snails with a brown butter Béarnaise sauce (a vol-au-vent is a small hollow puff pastry filled of a salty mixture.) Zola and BarZola serve Bienaime’s winning dish until Thursday 25 August.
When Bienaime learned that he had won, he was a little surprised but above all tired.
“You use every ounce of your brain, your body and your intuition; you put everything out there in the time you have,” he says. “You do your exit interview and you leave and you are alone. It’s kind of bittersweet.
Bienaime celebrated the win by having dinner with her brother, a Los Angeles resident, at Bicyclette that evening.
“I had to go to a French restaurant,” he says.
Reflecting on the experience, Bienaime compared it to a roller coaster – the long day of filming started slowly, “and all of a sudden the clock starts ticking”.
“It’s not like I was anxious about the cooking part – for me, I was doing what I knew how to do,” he says. “You gotta be quick, keep an eye on the clock, be smart.”
Bienaime says he would participate again if another good candidate came along, but in the meantime he is back at work to share the victory with his clients.
“I love building community and having a neighborhood restaurant – for me, it’s not just about cooking,” he says.
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