Dining

The Tastemakers: Gail Simmons

The ‘Top Chef’ judge dishes on her favorite meals, chefs and food cities
Photo: Courtesy of Gail Simmons
Gail Simmons

Welcome to The Tastemakers, a series in which we ask top culinary talents 10 questions about the world of food and drink.

We all know and love Gail Simmons from her role as one of the original judges on Top Chef (now in its 13th season), where she's helped to identify and coach some of the country's greatest culinary talents.

But you may not know that Simmons was practically raised to be a food writer (her mom was a culinary instructor and writer in Toronto) and worked her way up to her role directing special projects at Food & Wine by training with some of New York City's top chefs and food writers.

As 2015 comes to a close, we wanted to get to know the person behind the TV personality a little better. So we asked Simmons about the chefs she admires, the dishes she loves and the cities where she loves to eat, as well as what's to come for her in the New Year.

How did you get started in the industry and what made you realize you wanted to work in food?

"That's a long answer! My mother was a cooking teacher and a food writer in Canada when I was growing up, but I never thought I'd want that as a career until I started writing restaurant reviews for my college paper. When I graduated, I realized that I wanted to write, so I got an internship at a magazine and then at a newspaper. I kept being drawn to the food critics at each place, and I just knew that was what I wanted to write about. I loved cooking, and I loved the culture of restaurants and I wanted to work in food. However, I saw that if I wanted to do it in a serious way and be an authority, I needed to learn how to cook.

So I moved to New York City, went to culinary school and worked as a line cook. From there, when I felt I had enough experience to speak the language of the kitchen and to speak it with authority, I then went back to writing. I worked for Jeffrey Steingarten, the food critic at Vogue, for two years, did some freelance writing and then worked for Daniel Boulud for three years. I went on to Food & Wine from there."

What's the most exciting thing you've worked on in the last year?

"Shooting our 13th season of Top Chef was really amazing. It's the 10th anniversary of the show, so we went back to California where we shot our first two seasons. It was great to be back there, because it was such a fun way to compare, not only where we were 10 years ago with the show but where the state of the food industry was 10 years ago. We could immediately see how far we've all come and how different the food world is now.

Additionally, I was one of four or five chefs invited to cook at the White House's Easter Egg Roll, so that was, of course, really fun and amazing as well."

What's your go-to food city in North America?

"New Orleans and Montreal would be my favorites. The cuisine of both cities is totally unique and unlike anywhere else, because of the contours of cultures and histories and the incredible way they come together. (Besides New York, obviously, because that's where I live.)"

What about in the rest of the world?

"I feel like right now Paris deserves a lot of credit. People forget that Paris is the home of the foundation of Western cuisine—and they still really know how to kick some culinary ass in that town. Otherwise, Tokyo and Singapore are two great food cities that could yield endless food adventures. Every 20 minutes you could discover something completely unique and completely amazing, and you'll never get bored."

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What ingredient are you tired of eating?

"I feel like there are a lot of dishes that I don't necessarily dislike eating, but I find that it's impossible to go to a restaurant in any city in America these days and not see them on the menu. One is, of course, the ubiquitous kale salad, and the other is some sort of burrata. I don't really get tired of eating it—it's always delicious—it's just that it's always there. Burrata used to be unique and hard to find and kind of special, and now it's made to feel ordinary, when it shouldn't, because good burrata is a really delicious thing."

Who is the person you most admire in the food industry?

"I could make a list 20 people long of those who have been my mentors or people I look up to. People like Harold McGee, who was deconstructing the science of food long before modern chefs were doing it. His book on food and cooking is like the bible of how cooking worked, and he wrote it in such simple and straightford terms that any home cook can understand. I really admire him for it.

My old boss, Daniel Boulud, is, to me, one of the most generous, fun-loving chefs in the world who manages to mentor hundreds of talents and at the same time build an empire while never not having a good time. He really gets the most out of life, and I love him for that.

And Dana Cowin, my editor at Food & Wine, who is about to leave her post after 21 years, is, I think, one of those people who has really led the charge in our industry of setting high standards and teaching people about this way of life that we all love so much."

What were your three best meals this year?

"I was in New Orleans, and I ate at Clancy's for the first time, which is an iconic New Orleans restaurant. That was an amazing meal, because it was so classic and so specific to that city.

I had a great meal at Speedy Romeo two weeks ago and an amazing experience at Take Root in Brooklyn as well, which may be the most unrealistic restaurant to ever exist, but this couple is actually doing it. It's two women, and that's it—no dishwashers, no sous chefs. The chef is an incredible talent: She cooks for 12 people a night, three nights a week in a tiny room with a tasting menu of whatever she wants, and that's it. It's almost impossible to get a reservation, and I waited almost a year for it. And it was just beautiful and interesting, because it felt like you were in her living room. It was very memorable, because it was so intimate."

What's your guilty pleasure snack while watching your guilty pleasure TV show?

"Honestly, I don't feel like you should associate guilt with food. I don't feel guilty about eating anything—I just eat everything in moderation. But I love salt-and-vinegar chips. And, generally, I don't watch a lot of shows that are really guilty pleasures either. Most of the shows that I watch are really worth watching. But I would say one that I loved this year, that I felt was really indulgent and hilarious and weirdly hit close to home for me was Unreal. It's a scripted show that's a behind-the-scenes look at being on a reality show similar to The Bachelor. It's cast brilliantly. The culture of reality television is very familiar for me, and it was so much fun to watch, because I spend so much of my life in similar situations."

What's your favorite part about being on Top Chef?

"Interestingly, the most difficult part about being on the show (that's also my favorite part) is that the whole season is done in the same city, so there's a lot of travel. I love traveling for an amount of time in which you actually get to know a place and get to spend a significant amount of time there. We get to spend a lot of time with the chefs of that city. I've gone to so many cities that I would never spend as much time in: Hawaii, Singapore, Puerto Rico and Mexico. But, of course, the downside is the more time we're traveling, the more time we're away from home, and it's really challenging to be away from my life and my family. But I've been really lucky that I've gotten to bring my daughter with me for a lot of it.

The other thing would have to be discovering all of this great talent. Over the years, we've amassed a pretty significant roster of chefs who have gone on from our show to open some of the best restaurants around the country. Hundreds of restaurants have opened because of the show, and I don't think any reality show can really say that it's produced that much success. Not just from the winners, but across the board."

What are you most excited about in the coming year?

"I'm really looking forward to 2016. I have a book in the works and a production company that I founded with my business partner just over a year ago. Our first show that we produced aired on Cooking Channel a few weeks ago. It's called Star Plates, and, hopefully, we'll be able to do a lot more of it. And more Top Chef. We have a lot more food to eat and people to discover."

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