Eat. Write. Travel. Cook.
In her new book, Gail Simmons charts her rise from a girl who loved food to someone with a stellar career doing what she loved most.
By Sue Tomchin
A memoir at age 35? Some may think it’s a bit premature, but anyone who picks up Gail Simmons’ new book, Talking with my Mouth Full—My Life as a Professional Eater (Hyperion), will find much to savor. Of course, Gail is known to audiences all over the world as the compassionate, discerning judge from the Emmy Award-winning show, Top Chef, host of Top Chef: Just Desserts, and Special Projects Director at Food & Wine magazine. But just how did she get to where she is? That’s the question she answers in this engaging memoir that charts her rise from a girl who loved food to someone with a stellar career doing what she loved most. That she also gives us an insider’s look at what it feels like to sit at that famous judge’s table is, as they say, icing on the cake.
Being able to taste the exotic—and sometimes unpalatable—dishes on Top Chef requires an adventurous spirit. Simmons parents nurtured that spirit in both she and her siblings. There was family travel, not to Florida, where fellow Canadians tended to migrate for the winter holidays, but to such places as South Africa, her father’s birthplace, where she fell in love with biltong, air-dried salted meat, and Costa Rica, where they stayed in a condo in the rain forest and bought plantains by the side of the road.
Her mother, who had several successful careers, was a passionate and daring cook. She hosted many dinner parties, ran cooking classes out of her kitchen and wrote about food for the local newspaper. Her mother taught her, says Simmons, that a woman in the kitchen “isn’t a sign of domesticity but of empowerment.”
“Instead of peanut butter and jelly, we ate coquille St. Jacques..and tandoori chicken,” Simmons recalls. When Gail’s and her brothers’ friends came to dinner, her mom served zucchini instead of the more conventional mashed potatoes and carrots. “That was so telling of who my mother was: a little more interesting, a little more colorful.”
Simmons also writes with affection about her Jewish background. The Toronto neighborhood where she grew up had a large Jewish population and three synagogues within walking distance. Her family wasn’t religious, but her parents “cultivated a traditional Jewish home,” celebrating holidays and rites of passage, “with way too much food and a little prayer.” The family generally sat down together every night, but Shabbat dinner was still special, she writes, an opportunity for “family, food, and relaying the oral history of our people.”
Simmons’ says her mom made “a mean chopped liver” and on Chanukah was known for her dill latkes. Her father’s specialties were homemade applesauce (she published his recipe in Food and Wine a few years ago) and “Full Sour” pickles for which she includes the recipe at the end of her book (along with a recipe for Kasha and Bowties with Mushroom Gravy, a favorite “old Jewish” food that her husband, Jeremy, loves).
By the time she was in her last year at McGill University in Montreal, Simmons’ interest in food writing began to emerge. Noticing that there was no food coverage in the college newspaper, she volunteered. She also began to read food magazines, “for the first time feeling like they weren’t just for my mother.” Yet post-graduation, she was living in her parents’ basement and feeling directionless and sorry for herself. Her mother, however, intervened. She urged her daughter to speak with a family friend who handed Simmons a scrap of paper and told her to make a list of what she liked to do. She wrote: “Eat. Write. Travel. Cook.” And that list, she said, “became the trajectory of my life.”
After working for magazines in the Toronto area, a food editor advised her to advance her knowledge about cooking and eating by attending culinary school. She graduated from Peter Kump’s New York Cooking School in New York City and soon had a job as a line cook at the legendary Le Cirque in Manhattan. Women were then a rarity in four-star kitchens, yet Simmons hung in for six weeks, developing an appreciation for the process involved in creating fine food. While serving as a line chef at a second restaurant, Vong, where she made hundreds of tiny lobster rolls each day, she learned that Jeffrey Steingarten, Vogue’s famed food critic, was looking for an assistant. Gail applied for and got the job, and spent two years gaining intimate knowledge about specific foods, sometimes spending many days or even months sampling pizza dough, roasting goose, or testing espresso machines. That experience set the stage for her next job working as events manager for iconic French chef Daniel Boulud. That job, in turn, led to a job at Food and Wine.
Not long into her stint at the magazine, she interviewed to be a judge on a new reality show, Top Chef, learning in September 2005 that she had not only gotten that job but also the job of managing the Aspen Classic, Food and Wine’s revered food festival. For three years she went back and forth between shooting the show and supervising the team working on the Classic. Finally, in 2009, she handed the reins of the Classic to a colleague and took a different role with the magazine—special projects director, which enabled her to branch out more in the media.
Filming a season of Top Chef takes six weeks of almost daily shooting and a cast and crew of more than a hundred. To keep the playing field even, there are no weekend breaks for the contestants. The process of deciding the winners of each challenge is, she writes, “a long, drawn-out, deeply serious process, condensed into just a few minutes for the benefit of television.”
Being recognized and scrutinized by both the press and viewers is now a part of her life and with that comes the inevitable questions about weight and how she keeps in shape. Her strategies are the ones you might expect: she ramps up her workouts, runs consistently, goes to the gym regularly, and takes long walks whenever she gets the chance. One technique she has learned is “to taste, which is different from eating. When we’re served eighteen dishes in one sitting, we only need a bite or two from each to determine success or failure.”
It’s exasperating, she writes, to be constantly reminded of the issue of weight. Google her name, she says, and “you’ll find that one of the top auto-fills after 'Gail Simmons' is 'weight.'" She protests that Tom Colicchio, a male colleague on the show, obviously doesn’t face the same scrutiny.
Yet, she writes, “I refuse to let these concerns consume me.”
“I know so many women who let their weight define them, until it becomes all they talk about….It breaks my heart when people can’t appreciate good food because eating triggers issues of control or fear…I want people to know that food is not the enemy. Moderation is vital, but so is pleasure.”
Dad’s Full Sour Pickles
“These are the pickles of my dreams,” Gail Simmons writes. “Make sure to store them in a cool, dark place or they will not pickle properly.”
8 garlic cloves, peeled and lightly crushed
2 bunches fresh dill
16 Kirby cucumbers, scrubbed with a brush to remove any dirt
4 tablespoons kosher salt
4 teaspoons pickling spice
Sterilize four 1-quart jars by running them through the dishwasher or boil them in water. Place lids in a large mixing bowl. When jars are sterilized, pour boiling water over lids. The bands do not need to be sterilized.
Place a garlic clove and a a quarter of one bunch of dill in each jar. Tightly pack 4 cucumbers in each jar. Add another garlic clove and another quarter of one bunch of dill, 1 tablespoon salt, and 1 teaspoon pickling spice to each jar.
Fill the jars with cold water. Using tongs, remove the lids from the hot water, then put on the bands, turning so they are as tight as possible. Turn the jars upside down and leave for 24 hours. The next day, turn the jars upright and store in a cool, dark place. For half sour pickles, let them pickle for one week. For full sour pickles, let them pickle for one month. Once opened, keep the pickles in the refrigerator. Yield: Four 1-quart jars.
Read our interview with Gail Simmons.