A Cooking Life: A Sneak Peek Inside Gail Simmons' First Cookbook
A Cooking Life
I've been lucky enough to spend the last 20 years working in food media, following the brightest restaurant talents, traveling in search of great food and eating alongside some of the world’s best chefs. In my role as special projects director at Food & Wine and as a judge on Bravo’s Top Chef, I’ve eaten my way through more tasting menus, late-night small plates and street-food stalls than I’d like to admit. But, of course, that’s the side of my life everyone who knows anything about me already knows.What most people probably don’t realize is, long before I sat at the Top Chef Judges’ Table, I was a cook. In fact, cooking is in my blood. When I was growing up in Toronto, my mom was a cooking instructor and food writer. She made our kitchen a teaching space and filled our fridge with exotic-seeming ingredients. The happy times I spent with her there helped make the kitchen a place where I’ve always found comfort and exhilaration. It was my love of the kitchen that drew me to New York City after college, first as a culinary student, then as a line cook. It’s also what motivated me, once I left restaurant life, to seek out jobs that kept me connected to cooking. I did research and recipe testing for a food writer, managed events and PR for a chef, and then landed at Food & Wine, while also taking a seat at the Judges’ Table when Top Chef began in 2006. I’d like to think of my role as that of chef translator, helping to make dishes, techniques and flavors accessible to home cooks.Among the most meaningful moments in my career so far have been opportunities to learn from chefs and food experts I’ve befriended. Lessons these mentors have shared can be found throughout my new cookbook—my first—Bringing It Home: Favorite Recipes from a Life of Adventurous Eating, a collection of dishes I love making for family and friends. Many are ideal for entertaining, something that’s very important this time of year. My hope is the book will encourage people to embark on their own cooking and eating adventures. Here’s a taste, with recipes I’ve created specially for Food & Wine.
Spaghetti Pie with Wild Mushrooms and Spinach
When she was 19, Gail Simmons traveled through New Zealand and quickly became obsessed with a local specialty that appeared at practically every roadside diner: spaghetti sandwiches. Part oozy grilled cheese, part tangy, tomato-sauced noodles, this mash-up was the inspiration for one of the Top Chef judge’s greatest culinary triumphs, spaghetti pie. She’s prepared multiple flavor variations, and it always makes her guests extremely happy. This version, perfect for fall gatherings, incorporates plenty of wild mushrooms, spinach and herbs (plus a spoonful of chopped oil-packed black truffles, if she’s feeling decadent). Bonus: If you don’t finish it all in one sitting, leftovers make possibly the best next-day treat of all time.
Za’atar Baked Eggs
In her teens, Top Chef judge Gail Simmons spent a summer on a kibbutz in Israel, working in her first professional kitchen. She was assigned to breakfast duty and fell in love with scrambling, poaching and frying eggs by the dozens. “Today, one of my go-to brunches is baked eggs in a cherry tomato–pepper mix seasoned with the Mediterranean spice blend za’atar,” she says. “It never fails to conjure happy memories of that magical time.”
Chile Grilled Cheese Sandwiches
In the early years of Top Chef, the judges took forever to agree on which contestants should stay and which should go, and conversations often dragged into the wee hours. These days, the judges generally decide more quickly, but during season 7, one particularly long, lively debate required substantial refueling, and Padma Lakshmi introduced Gail Simmons to a favorite late-night snack: melted sharp cheese and spicy chiles on toast. Simmons had to know more! Lakshmi explained that she often ate this popular open-face sandwich as a child in India. A recent taste of the cheese toast at a buzzy Indian restaurant in London inspired Simmons to create her own version. Her grilled cheese crossed with chile-cheese gets a flavor boost from mango chutney spiced with fresh ginger, which lends both floral and peppery notes.
Butterscotch Pudding Pie
Butterscotch pudding was Gail Simmons’s number one dessert choice when she was a kid. It’s recently made a comeback, and the Top Chef judge has seen it embellished with creative and sophisticated flourishes, but she still likes to keep it homey, focusing on the buttery flavor and lingering finish of real Scotch. Once in a while, if she wants to impress, she thickens the pudding more than usual and pours it into a fully cooled piecrust flecked with golden pecans. The contrasting textures of rich pudding and nutty, flaky dough make this a grown-up ode to the comforting childhood classic.
judge Gail Simmons was married on a beautiful August day in 2008. Star chef Daniel Boulud, her former boss, cooked the feast, which included seven different vegetable dishes, all served family-style. Her favorite was his modern take on ratatouille, the traditional Provençal stew flavored with herbes de Provence. Taken with the dish’s simplicity, Simmons first came up with a rustic tart using similar flavors, then varied it with the seasons. In colder months, she prepares it with root vegetables, layering paper-thin slices of whatever’s on hand, from potatoes to carrots or celery root. The versatile dough is easy to prepare and shape into a free-form crust, and fresh ricotta, infused with herbs and lemon zest, forms a creamy and aromatic base for the seasonal vegetables that roast on top.
Chewy Black Licorice Chocolate Brownies
judge Gail Simmons’s father, Ivor, comes from a small town in South Africa. Although his background is English and Eastern European, he was raised in a region with strong Dutch influences. One Dutch passion he passed down to his daughter is a love of black licorice, specifically a salty, chewy variety. Whenever their family visited his homeland, Ivor stocked up on dubbel zout (double salt)—coins of salted black licorice about the size of a quarter. Simmons devoured them, relishing the savory, saline exterior that gave way to the barely sweet, chewy center. Her father’s other sweet vice, which she also inherited, is chocolate. Not white, not milk, but the pure bittersweet kind. This deeply dark-chocolaty brownie is her homage to him. It has a sophisticated touch of salt, plus notes of molasses and anise from black licorice, and the combo makes a brilliant treat that is irresistibly chewy and not too sweet.
Vietnamese Lemongrass Meatballs
judge Gail Simmons first met Andrew Carmellini in 2002, when he was chef de cuisine at Café Boulud. She was working for chef-owner Daniel Boulud at the time and spent hours hanging out at the café, usually because its kitchen always had the best staff meal. One of the things she loved about Carmellini’s menu was the changing section highlighting a specific world cuisine. Carmellini left Café Boulud in 2005 and went on to open many of New York’s most successful restaurants, including Locanda Verde, where his lamb meatball sliders caused a national frenzy. Simmons’s own recipe owes a debt to his meatballs, as well as to her honeymoon trip to Vietnam. The combination of lemongrass, a few dashes of fish sauce and tons of fresh herbs creates a salty brightness to crave year-round.