By Julia Brown
Guillaume Bienaimé’s winning dish on “Alex vs. America,” escargot vol-au-vent with brown butter béarnaise sauce, will be served at Zola and BarZola through August 25. (Photo courtesy of Zola and BarZola)
An email to Zola and BarZola chef and owner Guillaume Bienaimé contained an offer he couldn’t refuse — a chance to compete against chef and Food Network personality Alex Guarnaschelli and two other contestants on Guarnaschelli’s show “Alex vs . America”.
Months after a 12-hour day of filming in Los Angeles, the episode aired on Sunday, August 21, and Bienaimé was finally able to share the big news with his restaurant patrons: he had beaten Guarnaschelli and the other contestants for won $10,000, which he. donated to chef José Andrés’ non-profit World Central Kitchen.
“People are definitely happy,” says Bienaimé. “They’ve been coming to the restaurant for eight years and they feel like they’re a part of it.”
Bienaimé was born in France and grew up there and in the U.S., learning French cooking techniques from his “quintessential French grandmother” who cooked every day, he told the Food Network. He began his career as an intern at the now-closed Marche in Menlo Park and was hired as a chef there after graduating from college. Bienaimé rose to the rank of executive chef before leaving to open Portola Kitchen. He found the space that would become Zola shortly after leaving Portola Kitchen and opened downtown French restaurant Palo Alto in the fall of 2014. BarZola followed last year.
Before competing on “Alex vs. America,” Bienaimé hadn’t been on a cooking competition since college. He relied on his experience and a little homework to prepare.
“I watched the whole first season after I found out I was going to be in it and studied it – 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 around the country who are experts in a particular cuisine. Contestants start in the “survival round” by choosing between various factors they must consider, such as how much time they have to cook and what kind of meat they can use. Their food and Guarnaschelli’s are then blindly judged by two anonymous judges, who choose the best dish of the round. If Guarnaschelli loses the round, the contestant with the best dish can choose to cook again in the “money round,” where the remaining two contestants can win up to $10,000 for defeating Guarnaschelli. If she wins the first round, she has control over the cooking factors for the second and final round.
Bienaimé’s episode focused on French cuisine, which is where Guarnaschelli’s training is focused. He knew French food is her specialty, but says he was prepared to win.
“I know Alex is an ‘iron chef’, but I was born in France. … I can beat Alex because I spent my whole life studying this,” he said on the show.
Bienaimé’s first dish lost to Guarnaschelli, but in the second round he won with a vol-au-vent poached scargot with a brown butter béarnaise sauce (a vol-au-vent is a small, hollow pastry case topped with a delicious mix .) Zola and BarZola are serving Bienaimé’s winning dish now through Thursday, August 25.
When Bienaimé learned he had won, he was a little surprised, but especially tired.
“You are using every ounce of your brain, body and intuition; you’re putting everything out there in whatever time you have,” he says. “You do the exit interview and you leave and you’re alone. It’s bittersweet in a way.”
Bienaimé celebrated the win by dining with his brother, an LA resident, at Bicyclette that night.
“I had to go to a French restaurant,” he says.
Reflecting on the experience, Bienaimé compared it to a rollercoaster – the long day of filming started slowly, “and all of a sudden the clock starts”.
“It’s not that I was anxious about the cooking part – for me I was just doing what I know how to do,” he says. “You have to be quick, keep your eyes on the clock, be smart.”
Bienaimé says he would compete again if another good match came along, but in the meantime he’s back to work sharing the win with his clients.
“I love building community and having a neighborhood restaurant — it’s not just about cooking for me,” he says.
Zola and BarZola, 565 Bryant St., Palo Alto; 650-521-0651. Instagram: @zola.barzola.
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