You probably know Gail Simmons as the sweet but tough judge on Top Chef. Or maybe you’ve seen her hosting the show’s spinoff, Top Chef: Just Desserts. But as Gail reveals in her recently released memoir, Talking With My Mouth Full, it was a long, difficult culinary journey to get to where she is today—including attending culinary school, working as a line cook at Le Cirque restaurant, assisting Vogue food critic Jeffery Steingarten, and managing high-profile events for chef Daniel Boulud. I recently chatted with Gail about her food background, her secret sauce that “makes everything taste a little better,” and what she really thinks about food blogs.
What do you think people will find most surprising about your life? What do you hope people take away from your book?
Gail Simmons: I think what they’ll find most surprising is how much work was involved in getting here. The job I have specifically right now is a very unique one that didn’t exist a few years ago, so no one usually thinks, “How did she get from here to there?” So I think they’ll be surprised at how much blood, sweat, and tears were involved. But what I want people to take away from [my memoir] would be that if you love what you do, even if it’s hard, it’s a wonderful journey. If you put your heart into something and aren’t afraid to work hard to get it, I think that there are so many opportunities that will open to you. And that doesn’t need to be in the food space; that can be no matter what you do, whether you want to work in law or radio or medicine or be a dental hygienist. And I also hope people take away the idea that it’s important to pay your dues, to find great people to work under and be inspired by, and to understand that sometimes life throws you curveballs. But if you’re willing to be a little bit flexible and adaptable, every step you take along the way will become part of a lesson learned that will add to helping you in some way, even if you don’t see it right now.
What I found most surprising while reading your book was that I didn’t know you were Jeffery Steingarten’s assistant for two years. That sounds like a crazy job.
GS: It was. It was quite extraordinary looking back on it, and the chapter I wrote about Jeffrey doesn’t even scratch the surface of the stories I could have told. But I love him very much, and more than culinary school, more than anything I’ve ever done in my life, I really do credit him for giving me an extraordinary education in food, in writing, in the world of people and chefs. He made so many introductions for me that I’m so grateful for, even when he didn’t know he was doing it. He taught me so many lessons about myself and the food universe and I’m really forever in his debt.
You’ve tackled lots of difficult tasks and challenges during your career…what’s been the hardest?
GS: I would say being a line cook. Being a cook in a restaurant is physically, but also mentally in a lot of ways, the hardest work I’ve ever done in my life. Partially because I was young when I was doing it, so I didn’t have a lot of experience, but at the same time because it is sort of thankless and incredibly physically demanding. And even more than that, it pushes you to the limits of your physical and mental strength in a lot of ways. It is not for the faint of heart. It’s a really difficult job; it takes amazing patience and attention to detail and organization that comes with time. There are so many lessons that I learned from that time, but I also will never forget how difficult it was.
You’ve done a lot of traveling and eating in your lifetime. What’s your all-time favorite food city?
GS: So hard! I would say in the U.S., besides New York—I’m going to exclude New York because that’s just the obvious—probably Chicago or New Orleans. And in the world as a whole, I would say Barcelona and Saigon. In Chicago, there’s something about the chefs there that’s so forward-thinking. The history of Chicago fascinates me and I think the ethnic communities in Chicago are so interesting. The cocktail culture [is also fascinating]. It’s really a creative city, from its architecture to its art, and I think that really trickles down to so many of the chefs and what they’re doing.
New Orleans is culturally so fascinating—again, it’s all about the history of that city. The food is so unique, more unique than anywhere else in the States. I just find it a really different experience, almost like you’ve left the country.
Barcelona is like Chicago on steroids, in a way—so much creativity, so much history, the art, the architecture; everything lends itself to such creative food in Barcelona. Spain is an interesting place because it has Africa to the south and Europe to the east, and there’s just so much about northern Spain, specifically Barcelona, that I think is amazing…the energy. It’s unending.
And Saigon’s sort of similar. It’s such a young city and it’s finally coming into its own. You have this incredible street food culture mixed slowly and surely with some beautiful fine dining. To me, Vietnamese food is so beautiful. It’s so clean and balanced; it’s food I could never tire of eating.
What food trends are you excited about?
GS: I love that pastry chefs are finally getting their due, obviously through [Top Chef: Just Desserts], but Food & Wine magazine (where I work) for the first time gave away awards for the best new pastry chefs in America. People are trying to get the James Beard Foundation to give away more awards to pastry chefs as well. I love that pastry chefs are finally in the spotlight because I think they’re just wizards. They work so hard and often their work is not acknowledged. I’ve been obsessed with desserts for a long time. Specifically, I love that there seems to be this crazy artisanal ice cream and popsicle phase that everyone’s in, which I can’t say enough about. There are a lot of really great ice cream makers in this country and I’m proud of them all.
How do you feel about food blogs?
GS: Food blogs, I go back and forth on. It depends. Some things that are called blogs, to me are really websites. Big blogs like Grub Street or Serious Eats. And I love them, I read them all. What I don’t believe in is the sort of snarky nastiness of food blogs. Anyone and their mother could start a food blog if they wanted to, and I think that’s great. I say this a lot in the book: Food blogs are the democratization of the food world. Because it used to be that the only people whose voices were heard were restaurant reviewers. But now anyone can go on Yelp and post their review or start a food blog or tweet about it or take pictures in a restaurant. As much as I think sometimes that’s a big pain in the ass for restaurateurs, because there’s very little control and sometimes not a lot of professionalism, at the same time, it forces restaurateurs and restaurants and chefs to pay a lot more attention to every single person that comes into the restaurant, because everyone is a critic.
Sometimes I think blogs don’t realize the power that they wield. A lot of people don’t have a lot of knowledge about food. It’s trendy to be a food critic so they’re writing a blog, because everyone has a food blog. But that doesn’t mean that they really know what they’re talking about, and sometimes they can be very damaging. The point of my book is how much experience I actually had before I became a food critic. It wasn’t just that I snapped my fingers and started writing a food blog, I actually had 15 years of cooking and writing experience in the genre, because I want to talk with authority and be fair and I want to know what I talk about. A lot of people write blogs but they’re never worked a day in their life in restaurants and they have no idea what went into the making of their food.
But that said, I think it’s great. I think [food blogs] make everyone change their game and evolve. Who knows how it’ll evolve in the future, but I think it’s really worthwhile and important for every chef and restaurant to keep up with that stuff and pay attention. Sometimes it’s painful, but look, you put yourself out there in the service industry—you’re bound to get reviewed.
What’s your favorite quick and easy thing to cook when you’re tired and hungry?
GS: Besides a grilled cheese sandwich? I make soup a lot. You can make soup out of anything that you have in the fridge; vegetables, broth, a little leftover meat, sausages, onions. You don’t need a lot to make soup; some herbs, throw it all in, puree it up—or not. I also make hummus a lot, because then I can keep it in the fridge and dip anything into it.
What’s your favorite way to make grilled cheese?
GS: I like grilled cheese with tomato and bacon and avocado. Sometimes I’ll even put a fried egg in it so it really becomes like an egg sandwich.
And what kind of cheese do you use?
GS: Cheddar, sharp Cheddar. Grated. The key is to grate the cheese, not slice it. It melts way better.
What’s always in your refrigerator or pantry?
GS: There’s always a bottle of Champagne, there’s always a giant hunk of Parmesan cheese. These days there’s always Red Boat Fish Sauce, which is this awesome Vietnamese fish sauce that I recently discovered. I love adding just a little bit of it to salad dressings or to sauces or meat; it makes everything taste a little better. There’s always harissa or a hot sauce of some kind, lots of lemons and citrus in general—grapefruit, oranges, limes, lemons, because I find they are useful in so many things. You can make a quick salad, a quick dessert, add them to salad dressing, brighten up vegetables, put them in your tea. There’s always honey, there’s always oatmeal, oats, because I cook with them and I eat them for breakfast. There’s always a couple kinds of nuts in my pantry.
Do you have any advice for our readers on how to simplify things in the kitchen?
GS: First of all, you don’t need a lot of kitchen gadgets to cook well. You need a cutting board, two knives, a lot of mixing bowls, a couple sheet trays, and a really good heavy-bottomed pot, and you can pretty much make everything. And some kitchen towels. You don’t really need lots of fussy gadgets to make good, simple food. And my other piece of advice would be to think through and be organized with everything that you make, whether you’re following a recipe or cooking off the cuff. If you think through or read through really carefully everything you need at the beginning, think about the whole picture, it’ll always help you be more organized while you’re cooking. With ingredients and with tools in the kitchen, everything can be used for many purposes—that’s why I like things like lemons or honey because there are so many applications for them. You don’t need to throw around a lot of ingredients or a lot of gadgets to make good food if you are methodical about it and stay organized.