You probably know her from being one of Chopped’s toughest critics (although she’s shed an empathetic tear or two in her time) or taking down the competition on Iron Chef America. And most recently she’s signed on to join Food Network in Concert in Chicago this September. But Alex Guarnaschelli wasn’t always the famed, Food Network chef we all know and love. Believe it or not, she started just like you, as a college kid with a passion for food. Whaaat? Yes, read on.

Spoon: You went to Barnard, did you study anything related to food or was food a passion of yours on the side?

Alex: I studied art history with a minor in English. I cooked in my dorm a lot but  fun “college” stuff.  I genuinely didn’t pursue culinary arts until after I graduated.

S: Any tips for college students trying to eat well?

A: I used to take my exact food budget in cash to the store and left my credit card in my room. I’d shop in the produce department first so that fruits and vegetables were bought first before the budget ran low. I thinking making a lot of grains is a healthy way to fill up too. Then: chocolate.

S: Oh yeah, you always have to have chocolate. Besides that, was your favorite food in college?

A: I made more eggplant parmesan and lasagna than some people eat in their lifetime!  I really liked making a big batch of something and eating it over the course of a few days.

S: Looking back, what would you recommend as a go-to dinner idea for college kids?

A: Time and money are tight. I think marinated pasta salads and roasted vegetables made ahead of time are affordable healthy things to have around.

S: When did you know you wanted to become a chef? Tell us your story, from college and then rising to chef stardom.

A: I knew I wanted to become a chef after working in a kitchen for about six months after college. I worked for a number of years in Paris and then in New York and California. I have now been working at Butter for 13 years and share a great camaraderie with my kitchen staff.  We are like a family. I’m proud of that.

S: Any advice for college students trying to break into the food industry?

A: I think it depends on your goals. I would say taking time to really learn how to cook and traveling to learn about various foods and cultures (whenever possible) are great ways to join the food industry.

S: Tell us what it’s like to be on Food Network. What’s the most fun thing? The hardest thing?

A: I consider it a great privilege! It’s so fun to cook and interact with other great colleagues. The hardest things? Competing and realizing what I probably should have made after the challenge is over…

S: What’s your guilty pleasure food?

A: I love grilled American cheese on wheat toast. I have also been known to eat BBQ Kettle chips…

A huge thanks to Alex for her interview! Next stop: Food Network in Concert, in Chicago, September 20. Get your tickets here with the code FNICCOLLEGE10.