How a Palo Alto restaurateur cooked his way to $10K on the Food Network Peninsula Foodist The Peninsula Foodist

By Julia Brown

Guillaume Bienaimé’s winning dish in “Alex vs. America,” braised escargot vol-au-vent with brown butter béarnaise sauce, is available at Zola and BarZola through August 25. (Photo courtesy of Zola and Barzola)

An email to Zola & 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.”

After a month of 12-hour filming in Los Angeles, the episode aired on Sunday, August 21, and Bienaimé could finally share the big news with the patrons of his restaurant: he had beaten Guarnaschelly and the other contestants to win $10,000, which he won from chef José Andrés. -Donated to the 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 “perfect 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 sous chef there after graduating from college. Bienaimé moved up the ranks to executive chef before leaving to open Portola Kitchen. He found what would become Zola shortly after leaving Portola Kitchen, and he opened a downtown Palo Alto French restaurant 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.

“After I watched all of season one I knew I was going to be in it and I studied it – I took notes,” he says. “I had to figure out what the judges were looking for and what people were doing wrong. I think because it was the second season you have 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 specialize in a particular cuisine. Contestants begin in a “survival round” choosing between various factors, such as how much time they are given to cook and what type of meat they can use. Their food and Guarnaschelli’s 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 gets to choose the cooking factors again in the “Money Round”, where the remaining two contestants can win up to $10,000 by 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 centered. He knew French cuisine was his specialty but says he 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.

Bienaimé’s first dish lost to Guarnaschelli, but in the second round he won the braised escargot vol-au-vent with brown butter béarnaise sauce (a vol-au-vent is a small, hollow case of puff pastry filled with a savory mixture. .) Zola and BarZola Bienaimé’s winning dish is now being served until Thursday, August 25.

When Bienaimé found out that he had won, he was a little surprised but especially exhausted.

“You’re using every ounce of your mind and body and intuition; you’re putting everything out there in the time you have,” he says. “You do your exit interview and you leave and you’re alone. It’s bittersweet in a way.”

Bienaimé celebrated the victory that night by dining with his brother, an LA native, at Cyclate.

“I had to go to a French restaurant,” he says.

Reflecting on the experience, Bienaimé compared it to a roller coaster—a long day of filming started late, “and suddenly the clock starts.”

“It’s not that I was worried about the cooking part—for me, I knew what I was going to do,” he says. “You have to be quick, keep your eye on the clock, be smart.”

Bienaimé says he’ll compete again if another good fit comes along, but in the meantime he’s back at work sharing victories with his clients.

“I love building community and creating a neighborhood restaurant—it’s more than just cooking for me,” he says.

Zola and BarZola, 565 Bryant St., Palo Alto; 650-521-0651. Instagram: @zola.barzola.

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