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Top Chef’s Gail Simmons Talks Obnoxious Food Trends And Nit-Picky Judging

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One thing you should know about Top Chef co-host Gail Simmons: she’s a delight. I know, I hope I don’t get thrown out of journalism saying so, but it’s true. I spoke to her over the phone from Sundance, where the 10 degree weather and crushing hangover made me want nothing more than to make a couch fort and not talk to anyone ever. But I had an interview scheduled, dammit, so I steeled myself and dialed the number, in that laborious manner hungover people have when attempting anything. She picked up, bright and chipper (and two hours ahead), and the sound of her voice instantly made me less cranky and nauseous. I don’t quite know how to explain it, I think Gail Simmons is like auditory comfort food.

She was charming, articulate, spunky — exuding all the qualities that made her my favorite Top Chef judge. Where other judges are offering Gruden-esque platitudes like “this dish really punches you in the mouth!” Gail’s critiques are generally concrete — Top Chef harsh as much as anyone else, sure, but also specific, with an air of welcoming Canadianness.

Of course, there’s a lot more to Simmons than just “nice.” Special projects director at Food & Wine Magazine, permanent Top Chef judge since episode one, and author of a 2012 memoir, Talking With My Mouth Full, Simmons has more than her share of bona fides. Born into Jewish family in Toronto (where she once wrote about the food scene for Uproxx), with a South African father, her mother ran a cooking school out of Simmons’ childhood home.

“She built our kitchen in our home to be a teaching kitchen so that she could stand at the counter, with an open living room, family room, and dining room, and people could sit around and watch her cook,” Gail says.

The elder Simmons even had her own food column in Canada’s biggest newspaper. Of course, just because Gail was Canadian food royalty (along with Dave Poutine and Maple Mel, the Syrup magnate) didn’t mean a career in food was a foregone conclusion.

“All my girlfriends at the time were going back to school to become doctors and lawyers and art historians,” Simmons say. “Again this is 20 years ago, no one thought that aspiring to be a food writer was, like, a real thing. Even my mom wanted me to be a lawyer.”

Luckily, she didn’t take the advice. Or get discouraged by the fact that there were “maybe five people in Canada who were full time food writers” at the time. Which meant she had to more or less create her own profession. Which she didn’t accomplish just by writing and cooking and eating and writing humorous recaps of cooking shows (uh, not that there’s anything wrong with that…). Unique among food writers, Simmons actually left her early newspaper job to attend culinary school. After she graduated from the Institute of Culinary Education (called Peter Kump’s New York Cooking School until 2001), she worked as a line cook for a few years before eventually joining Food & Wine magazine in 2004. Top Chef brought her on as a judge when it debuted in 2006.

And so it was she went from food writer to chef and back again, adding TV star to her resume along the way. That along with “delightful interview subject.” I spoke to her on the phone from her home in New York.

Tell me about going to culinary school.

My editor at the time [at Canada’s National Post] said, well you’re 23 years old and you actually don’t know anything about food, so why don’t you go learn about food? And then you’ll be able to write about it, because anyone can write, that’s what editors are for. But if you want to differentiate yourself and have authority you need to get on the front lines.

Didn’t you say like, ‘hey, I had a culinary school in my kitchen growing up, doesn’t that count?’

I did, but that was the cooking school — it wasn’t a professional chef school. My mom taught the local moms how to cook for their families, which was absolutely valuable and I became a solid teen cook because of it. I knew my way around a kitchen far more than any of my friends, but, it didn’t teach me how restaurants work and it didn’t teach me to have proper knife skills. It wasn’t professional training.

I spent so much of my time as the lowest rung on the ladder in a restaurant, I missed using my brain. So when the other cooks would go out at night and drink when they got off work, I came home and read a lot of books. One of the books I came upon was a book called “The Man Who Ate Everything,” by Jeffrey Steingarten. In that book he talked about his assistant and how some days she’s helping him write and edit and research, and going to the New York public library, or scouring the farmers market for rare ingredients, and other days she’s in his kitchen testing recipes and it just seemed like my exact dream job.

So I went back to my culinary school and I asked the career person there if they’d heard of Jeffrey Steingarten, and he said, yes, I saw Jeffrey yesterday and he’s looking for a new assistant. That was like, the most serendipitous moment of my life and it sort of changed everything.

Did you have to take on debt when you went to culinary school? I know chefs, a lot of times, they graduate with a lot of debt.

They certainly do. Lucky for me, I came from Canada so I had no debt from college, because my college education at arguably the best school in Canada [McGill University] cost ten thousand dollars for four years, I think? Something like that? It doesn’t cost that anymore*, but I had no debt coming out of college and I borrowed money from my family to pay for culinary school, which also was much cheaper 20 years ago, or 18, 19 years ago. I was fortunate enough that my grandparents helped me and then I worked to pay it back, so I actually did not leave culinary school with any debt.

Nice.

Good question, no one’s ever asked me that before.

Oh, I always wonder that, especially from Canadians because I always wonder if they have more career freedom because of it.

I think some do, certainly. No one in Canada leaves college with the kind of debt that they do here. It’s just not possible. Even though the cost of college education in Canada has certainly gone up a lot, it’s just not the same proportion that we’re talking about. It doesn’t really exist. Thank God.

I’m sure there was a lot, but was there anything that especially stands out, lessons that you took with you from culinary school?

Oh my god, a million. You know, the thing about culinary school that’s kind of interesting is you know, I think a lot of students come out of culinary school and they think okay, I did that, now I’m a chef. And you are not. You’ve done everything once. That’s like saying, okay, I graduated from medical school, I can now perform open heart surgery. No chance. You are not a chef. You just have a great foundation and can now go peel carrots for a year. But you’ll peel them really well and you’ll understand the language of the kitchen and you’ll understand the operations and the structure, and the basic importance of technique and the kind of history of the way that a kitchen operates.

It’s understanding the brigade mentality, the way that a French kitchen operates and my role in it, and how every role supports everyone else. A classic kitchen is modeled after the Army. So there’s a very hierarchical structure but it’s really a team sport. You need to understand, you know, how what you do affects the end results of those dishes that get put on the table and have respect for the importance of those jobs, however small they may seem.


Do you have a first food memory?

I have a vivid memory of eating pea soup in my high chair. I have a memory of being five or six years old and going to South Africa with my family because my father’s South African. We went to the wine region and I have a memory of tasting wine for the first time. Not liking it, but being sort of interested in the pomp and circumstance around it. I have a memory of the first thing I ever cooked by myself, which were scrambled eggs for my mother, and because I was probably only five years old as well, I stood on the stool in front of the kitchen stove and she had me cook them over a double boiler, like a bain-marie, so that they would cook gently and I wouldn’t burn them or burn myself. And I remember adding cinnamon and raisins to them and then making my parents eat them, which I feel terribly about now.

So most episodes that I watch, I feel like even the worst dishes still look pretty good. So for you guys to judge it seems like sometimes you have to probably get pretty nit-picky. Do you ever say something and then, sort of like laugh about the absurdity of it?

Of course we do. You mean, bitchy picky? However you call it? Which I agree with. [I believe I called them “bitchy nitpicks” if we’re getting technical]

We have this argument all the time. The thing about our show is that it’s a show about professionals. It’s not home cooks who want to be chefs or home cooks. And at this stage, in season 14, it’s about professionals who are all kind of at the highest level in their careers. A lot of them are executive chefs, heads of kitchens, chef/owners. I’m not going to say there’s not bad food. There’s certainly bad food. They walk into an empty canvas every day, they’re all alone without what they’re used to in their kitchens, and we give them really, really challenging things to do. Quite frankly, most days I’m amazed that they get anything on the plate at all.

Closer to the first two episodes, because there are so many chefs and they’re all finding their footing, the food is usually the least appealing and it gets better and better as the season goes on naturally because only the strongest chefs are left standing, and they get more comfortable with the routine of our show.

But we talk all the time about the fact that our jobs are all about picking the worst of the best. I mean, we’re all about nit-picking and that’s all we have. The better that they do on those days when we get eight great dishes, it makes our jobs a lot harder, because we have to start looking at like, you know, the really painful minutia of what they did and the merits of each dish. We just kind of become ridiculous. But that’s also the game and I think that’s what’s so interesting. We are their cheerleaders and we want them to do well and there’s nothing that makes us more proud than when they kick ass and then go on to do amazing things in the industry. But yeah, we feel like assholes a lot of the time.

I mean that’s what makes it entertainment too. I could watch really insider criticism all day. That’s why people watch Whiplash. Anything where it’s like, insider and very specific, but also really mean.

The whole point is that it’s always so close and it’s anyone’s game. People ask me all the time, do you know from the first episode who’s going to win? No, I never know who’s going to win. I can tell you who the best cook is, who the best cooks are, but that has no bearing on who’s going to win the season. Because that great person, even if I know they’re the best chef of them all, can have one bad day or make some stupid mistake or can be teamed with a partner who has immunity… You just never know.

Do the contestants really always know the guest judges’ resumes by heart, or do you guys have to feed them that?

Most of our guest judges are pretty well known. I mean, when Sean Brock walks into a room, yes. When, most of the big chefs or food personalities walk into the room, yes, [the contestants] totally know who they are. When the founder of Anson Mills works with us, the contestants don’t necessarily know who that person is but they certainly know Anson Mills and a little information. Most of our guest judges are pretty heavy hitters.

It seems like some shows you show up late in the show, and then some shows you’re not on. How come you’re not on every show?

That’s a question you’re going to have to ask Bravo. I don’t ever show up late. When I’m on the show I’m in the elimination challenge in the second half of every show. So I never show up late. Once in a while I’m in the quickfire when that makes sense, but generally I’m there for Judges’ Table and elimination. That’s my role on the show because there’s only one other person with Padma ever during the quickfires. I’m in about 60 percent of every season, and that’s pretty much been the same since like, season three or four.


When they’re criticizing something and then you’re not there, it’s worse. I’m like, where’s Gail?

Well, thank you. I appreciate that.

You know, I love my role in the show. It took us all a while to figure out what our purposes are, what our voice is on the show. I think what I bring to the table, figuratively and literally, is that I kind of can act like a bit of a translator. I’m not a chef but I dwell in their world so I am an educated diner. I’m a professional, but I feel like my job is to be constructive and to sort of help people understand. Like Tom is the chef’s chef. He’ll tell someone well, that didn’t work because you over-rested your meat. And the viewer is like, well that actually means nothing to me.

So, I’m the person whose role is to sort of come in and explain why, as a diner, that failed when I ate it, and how it would have been better, or to get to the bottom of an issue that then makes sense for our viewers.

Is there anything that stands out as like, the best and worst things that you’ve eaten on the show?

I have to admit that we’ve done 14 seasons and I’m also the only person in the franchise who’s been in almost every season of every other spin off that Top Chef has — so, all of Just Desserts, all of Masters I think except one season, and then we did a season of Top Chef Duels, so all together I’ve done something like 22 seasons of Top Chef. It’s become a bit of a blur in my brain.

Over the years, I think the things that have been the most exciting are dishes that are really simple in their preparation but have me like, look at an ingredient or a dish in a way I hadn’t thought of.

There’s a dish that Paul Qui made on his season, on season nine maybe? Whatever our Texas season was that he was in [yes, nine]. It was like an episode towards the end where they have to cook something for their mentor, that’s the chef in their life who taught them how to cook, and he made this really simple soup. I mean really simple. When it came to the table it looked like nothing. Like, I almost laughed. Like, really Paul? This is what you’re going to serve for the like second-to-last episode of the show? It was raw vegetables, very thinly sliced in the bowl, and he poured a dashi and like sunchoke broth, into it, like soup. It wasn’t a broth, it was a puree, thicker than a broth. It was like the best thing I’ve ever eaten. You know, I took one spoon full and I looked at Tom and we both just put our spoons down and we’re like yeah, we’re done. I can just die happy now.

With Tom or Padma or like the other guest judges, do you think you could typecast their palate?

Oh yeah. We’ve essentially been like roommates for 11 years. I mean, we travel together, and essentially live together and eat almost every meal together for like two to three months of the year, every year, for 11 years. So yeah, of course I know the things that they like and don’t like. But I think that most of the chefs know too. I mean, obviously everyone knows that Tom doesn’t like okra. I know that Tom loves mushrooms and rabbit if it’s cooked well. I know that he loves peas and morels. I know that he loves eggplant.

I know that Padma doesn’t like her meat too rare, because she was raised vegetarian. So even though she’s a meat eater, she never really likes anything too rare. But she obviously loves spice and has a really strong knowledge of spices and that she loves a lot of like really simple food and she’s attracted to like, great, raw ingredients.

Hugh [Acheson] and I, I mean both as a chef that I love eating with and cooking with. We both are Canadian but I love that he kind of views the South as a second home. I know that he loves those sort of classic Southern flavors. He loves corn and grits… He loves kind of that concept of sweet and sour in food. Tom doesn’t like really spicy food.

Do you have a favorite and least favorite current restaurant trend or food trend?

I’m sort of over the sugar bomb crazy sundae with cotton candy on top and then layered with whipped cream and, you know, the like, mega food-porn desserts. They don’t make me very excited to eat them. They’re like a little bit, just overkill for the point of the visual. People, I think, have forgotten food’s for eating, not just for taking pictures of.

I’m into the fried chicken craze. I mean, the burger’s always going to be the burger but I like that fried chicken sandwiches are getting their due these days.

I really love that the world’s gotten really regional, I’m kind of into the blending and really niche regionality of like, now in America, it’s not just like Japanese food. It’s about yakitori and ramen and soba and izikaya and that we’re starting to understand the nuance of cuisine. Chinese restaurants are specifically Szechuan or Canton or Hunan. I really like that there’s cuisines that kind of, you never heard about from minorities in different countries that have been here a really long time cooking really great food, but because that’s viewed as kind of more home cooking, the greater population didn’t really get exposed to it.

Like Filipino food. Certainly like Korean food, but Filipino is one and then some of the smaller Latin American countries like Salvadorian food or Peruvian food. Caribbean food is something I’m really excited about right now.

Is there any food or dish that you never order and if so, why?

I couldn’t do my job if I had a laundry list of stuff I didn’t eat. There’s nothing I won’t eat. There’s nothing I won’t try, even if I know that it’s an ingredient I’m not a fan of, especially if it’s cooked on the show or it’s cooked for me by a chef or at someone’s house who took time and care to prepare it.

But there’s food that I don’t choose to cook myself or order in a restaurant when I have the choice. I’m not really a veal fan, never have been. I don’t know if it’s emotional or about the texture and flavor that I don’t love. I have a totally irrational aversion to black beans. I just got very sick when I was in college from black beans and then I got sick, again, from black beans, right around 9/11, and I just couldn’t shake the memory. We all have those moments, you know? So that’s just an aversion. I really don’t like root beer. Which a lot of my friends hate me for. There’s something with the flavor of root beer that creeps me out.

All right, last two questions. Do you have a favorite food movie?

Big Night.

Have you ever eaten or made a timpano or whatever?

I’ve eaten one. I’ve never made one.

Home fries or hash browns.

Hash browns. I like a big piece. [apple polisher. -Ed]

All right. All right, well that’s all I got, I appreciate it.

Thanks for writing about us. Thanks for the recaps, by the way, they’re really entertaining.

Oh thank you, no, I love doing them. It’s my favorite thing.

They’re pretty spot on, I’m going to say.

Thanks. I always worry that someone’s going to be mad at me.

I’m sure people are mad at you, but you know, I mean… From the Judges’ Table, we get it. It’s a good thing. We want you to have opinions and write about it, even if you’re not necessarily always complimentary. That’s also taken me 12 years to build a thick skin, but like, part of being on television is knowing that not everyone’s going to like what you do every day, but if they’re talking about it and writing about it, then you’re still winning.

Right.

Sometimes that’s good. And yeah, I’m sure that the contestants take everything very personally. It’s hard not to when they’re like, in it.

Yeah.

And they’re so invested and it’s so much about ego and about competition, by nature, that’s who they are. But I still think, you do it with like a wink and you seem to understand the show, which I think is really great.

[Author’s Note: If I’ve ever said anything bad about you and you’re holding a knife, I was definitely just kidding.]

*Currently $7,494 – $8,713 a year for Canadians, $3,730 – $4,948 for Quebecois, and $15,061-$34,263 for international students (in US dollars). My California public school alma mater currently costs $15,193 for in-state, $41,875 out of state. My private graduate school alma mater? $62,300 per year, as of this writing.

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