The Real Life Story Behind Meeting Celebrity Chef, Alex Guarnaschelli.
“Jama, we’re going to have you fly to New York on a private plane to pick up Alex Guarnaschelli.”
I stood stunned at the board meeting when the founder of Blessings in a Backpack Fort Wayne, Mike Gouloff, announced this to me. Not only had I never been on a private plane (which was very generously donated for this task to spare the organization the expense), I had been given the assignment to pick up an icon of the food industry for our upcoming Celebrity Chef Dinner fundraiser.
I should have predicted, based upon my past experiences with my awkward self, that this would be a disaster. I should have been honest with my board and candidly replied, “I am not only clumsy of feet, but also stumbling of mind in front of people I admire, and will undoubtedly humiliate myself and all those who accompany me if I am given this feat. I am also terrified of flying, so please choose literally anyone but me.”
Instead, I did the worst thing I could have possibly done: I enthusiastically accepted.
I sat myself down in preparation for the trip. I’m not joking; I literally prepared a time to give myself a good talking-to, rationalizing that if I pre-scolded the toddler who seemingly operated my mind and body 75% of the time, they would allow the adult who allowed me to function that other 25% to take over this very important mission within our mission.
“You will not be yourself,” I told my inner toddler, firmly. “You will be a grown-up, better version than what you normally present. You will not gush, or fumble and tell weird stories when you get nervous around Alex. You will not under any circumstances mention what havoc your nerves are playing on your stomach. You will not ask which fellow celebrities she hates most so that you can start disliking them in solidarity. You will walk like a regular human and control your bladder. I mean it, Jama. You are going to try to be cool, and if you can’t be cool, at least you will be normal.”
My inner toddler nodded obediently, and I was satisfied I could pull this off.
My inner toddler is a sneaky, scheming creature.
Events leading up to the fundraiser were a flurry of activities, which kept me distracted until the morning of pickup when I suddenly realized … it was the morning of pickup. I didn’t know what to wear, how to accessorize, how my grown-up self should physically be presented.
“I’m going to put my hair in Dutch braids,” I blurted out to my husband as my fingers frantically shook with bobby pins. “It’s my least intimidating hairstyle.”
I wanted to appear … understated? Meek? Humble?
My husband laughed. “You think Alex Guarnaschelli is going to be intimidated by you?” I threw him an angry look and ignored him, throwing on a cardigan.
“Cardigans are responsible, right?”
My husband yawned. “Why does she need to think you’re responsible? You’re not the one flying the plane.”
No help here from my mate, none at all.
Jump to: Boarding the plane. I should preface this with the fact that my only knowledge of private planes comes from what I’ve seen on various episodes of “The Real Housewives,” and they have deceived me entirely. Apparently, they are not all the same, and the one I was boarding was about the size of a Tylenol capsule.
The organization had wisely sent the board president, Noel, along with me on the trip to New York. Noel is, thank God, one of the kindest people on the planet, and suddenly was playing mommy to a terrified child 30,000 feet in the air about to vomit from the turbulence. “Drink some water,” she soothed, handing me a bottle. I downed it quickly. She handed me another. “Small sips, there you go.”
Noel Winters is a saint.
Jump to: Alex at the airport. She smiled warmly and extended her hand. “I’m Alex Guarnaschelli.”
Thankfully she had addressed the pilot first because she completely missed the fact that I, in my moment of starstruck awe, had begun to curtsy. As in, arms extended, palms out, full “addressing her majesty the queen” curtsy.
I’m still not sure why that’s where my body led me, but clearly my inner adult had passed out on the flight and all bets were off. I straightened up a split second before she turned to me and I shot my hand out, muttering what I’m hoping was my first and last name.
I might have told her I was a fan or happy to meet her. I don’t remember.
We boarded the plane and I suddenly realized what had somehow evaded me until this moment; I not only had to fly back in the Lego-plane, but I had to do it with Alex Guarnaschelli as a witness to my persona, under pressure and fright. And…oh God. I had just downed three bottles of water in my attempts to self soothe that hadn’t hit me until I was buckled in. I peered to the back and saw that the bathroom was the size of the mini-fridge in my college dorm. I’m 5-foot-9, and my brain bled as I tried to mathematically make sense of how this would work.
“Are you all right?” Alex asked, her forehead wrinkled in concern. “You look like you’re about to develop a nervous tic.” She could not have been more spot-on.
Alex and Noel exchanged pleasantries while I tried to revel in what was a situation I should have been over the moon about. I began to text my husband for encouragement. “Alex Guarnaschelli is literally one foot away from me!” I sent as we ascended into the air. “I could KICK her if I wanted!”
“JAMA…” he texted back. “PLEASE DON’T.”
Jump to: Event that evening. The venue is gorgeous, thanks to our board members who have decorated and our supporters who have graciously donated the centerpieces and favor bags. The staff at Sycamore Hills is incredible, anticipating our every need and ready to serve our every guest’s whim.
Alex is, as expected, sensational. The guests are responding to her wit at the microphone; she’s incredible at what she does in front of the house as much as in the kitchen. I’m drooling over every course that has been soaked in herbed butter, crispy pancetta, wine reductions and chocolate ganache.
Our donors are beyond generous, giving more than $170,000 toward our mission to feed children in our community. I mention that while this amount will fund our current program, we’ll need far more to add our summer program and to implement in additional schools, and I’m assured this community will rise to our challenge.
It’s a blend of white linen and sparkling wine and laughter and deliciousness and generosity, and before I know it, it’s all over. I’m left, as I am every event, wondering what I could have done differently, done better. Few things, to be honest, as I’ve learned (yet again) that I shouldn’t fight so hard against who and what I am, as I’ll always win (and lose). However, I would like to share what I would have said faced with this incredible icon had I not been so very nervous, and nauseated, and terrified all at once:
“I am so honored to be in the place I am right now, not only because this mission is so important, but because of everything that you as a chef represent. There was a time when I sat on the couch, a single mom, with so little to eat in my home. I would cuddle up with my kids and wonder how I was going to stretch what seemed like crumbs in our pantry to an entire meal to fill their bellies. They would giggle as we would watch you compete, and I would make mental notes that I could take leftover shredded pork, add sage leaves and create an entirely different flavor from it. I learned that I could freeze bananas for bread and pears for jams, which filled our home with a warm, comforting smell that saved me from wasting what precious resources we had. I learned about mixed pasta sauces and pot pies and Thanksgiving leftovers that have become staples in our home years later when my cupboards were full every week. You gave me hope, and made me feel that someone was out there helping me figure this out, this messiness of motherhood with food for the soul, and I’m so very grateful for all you’ve not only done for our organization, but for who you were for our family.”
And then … I would curtsy.