Confessions of a picky eater

by Maeve Haldane

Author, food expert and TV personality Gail Simmons, BA'98

There are definite perks to being a TV star. For instance, when Gail Simmons, BA'98, decided she’d like to stroll into a version of Willy Wonka’s land of sweets, complete with a carrot cake garden, cream-filled chocolate flowers and an edible beehive oozing honey, the pastry chefs vying for her favour on Top Chef: Just Desserts rolled up their sleeves and got busy. In her just-published memoir, Talking with my Mouth Full: My Life as a Professional Eater, Simmons reports that the end result turned out to be her “favourite day working in television to date.”

As host of Just Desserts, and as a judge on Bravo’s Top Chef, the popular reality TV show in which chefs pit their culinary skills against one another, Simmons has sampled many a terrific treat. The Emmy-award-winning Top Chef just finished its ninth season and airs in more than 30 countries, and Just Desserts has two tasty seasons under its placemat. The shows have transformed Simmons from a respected behind-the-scenes foodie into a full-fledged celebrity. Two years ago, the New York Post declared that the “attractive, knowledgeable and down-to-earth” Simmons was the best judge appearing on any reality show on television.

“I used to think we’re a niche show for specialists or foodies, but not anymore,” Simmons says. “Everybody eats, everybody can relate.” While she doesn’t expect her audience to start wielding chef’s knives as adroitly as the experts do on her shows, Simmons does hope they might be inspired to “expand the palate and get into the kitchen more.”

By swinging “open the doors to the professional kitchen,” Top Chef can “spread the word about good food and the challenge it is to be a professional chef.” And conversely, as diners become more aware of the processing path of food from field to plate, she hopes they’ll demand quality and there will be a trickle-down effect back to the chefs and farmers.

Simmons hails from Toronto (where her mother worked as a Globe and Mail food columnist and where, she contends, her dad still makes the best pickles ever) and came to McGill to study anthropology and Spanish. A passionate love affair with Montreal bagels soon ensued.

She spent a semester abroad in Spain, where she gorged on juicy oranges, learned about tapas and developed an interest in other countries' cuisines. She began writing restaurant reviews for the McGill Tribune during her last year at McGill and realized she liked blending eating with writing. After graduation, she landed back in Toronto, working at Toronto Life, then the National Post. Seeking to acquire a more detailed understanding of food, she headed to New York City to attend culinary school. That move changed her life.

Her mix of moxie and acute networking skills led to an assortment of out-of-the-ordinary jobs. Simmons spent two years as a research assistant to the irascible Vogue magazine food writer Jeffrey Steingarten, furthering her education in aging meat, edible insects, soba noodles and caviar. For one memorable assignment on peaches, the demanding Steingarten had 20 different varieties shipped in daily, with Simmons assessing each for taste and sweetness.

Her next gig was with restaurateur and chef Daniel Boulud, managing special events and learning more about the pressures of running world-ranked restaurants. Every evening, she remembers the general manager would finish the pre-dinner staff meeting by saying, “People, remember: this is a ballet, not a rodeo.” It’s advice that Simmons still takes to heart when she’s under pressure.

Following that job, Simmons joined Food & Wine magazine, focusing on special projects, including coordinating the massive Food & Wine Classic event held each year at Aspen. It was around this time that Simmons got her first taste of judging competitions. At one event, she remembers seeing a contestant fumbling with a live lobster as the poor crustacean kicked and writhed before its demise (she explains in her book how to quickly and humanely do the deed).

When Bravo was looking to develop a new reality show about chefs, Simmons was summoned for a screen test. She expected nothing, but after sharing her worst-restaurant story about how a breakfast joint left her in tears after repeatedly butchering her omelet (the second version had the texture of a flip-flop), producers were impressed by her passion for food. (Lousy cooking rarely leaves her quite that upset, Simmons is quick to add.)

Although TV has made her famous, Simmons still has a soft spot for the print media where she began her career. There are few things she enjoys more than curling up with a good magazine and a cocktail or coffee. She loves picking up city magazines wherever she finds herself, be it her hometown’s New York magazine, or Toronto Life. A city mag “lets you know the conversations going on in the city.”

Simmons sits on the boards of several anti-hunger organizations, including City Harvest and Common Threads. She says the recession has dealt a damaging blow to the culture of New York City’s expensive restaurants – and she isn’t so sure that’s a bad thing. “I think it’ll never go back,” she says, and “it’s for the better.” Everyone’s become much more aware of sustainability and environmental issues, she believes, and restaurants are forced to pay attention and move beyond their own comfort zones. People are now looking for food that is “affordable and satisfying.”

Is there anything Simmons won’t eat? Black beans don’t agree with her, and she avoids veal – because of its blandness rather than any moral queasiness. Cooking doesn’t have to be a mystery, she says. Pay attention to the steps and order of techniques in recipes, and most home cooks will soon start to notice patterns they can apply to other dishes. Once you know how to sauté a piece of chicken, for instance, you don’t need a new recipe to sauté a piece of fish. Some of the elements might change, but the basic method doesn't.

Thanks to having married a Snowdon lad (the first man who could keep up with her eating, she says), Simmons comes back to La Belle Ville to nosh several times a year. “Montreal gets better and better,” she says, and she is quick to list several restaurants that have impressed her, including Joe Beef, Au Pied de Cochon, DNA, Nora Gray, Jane, and even the hip little diner Nouveau Palais. Simmons singles out the Syrian restaurant Damas, calling it “fantastic – the best Middle Eastern food I’ve had.”

“Quebec has a cuisine – hearty, rich, rustic food. Comforting in times like now.”