Kitchen Insider Facebook Chat: Gail Simmons on Top Chef
F&W's own Gail Simmons joined us for a live chat on our Facebook page as part of the Kitchen Insider series. Simmons answered questions about the latest food trends, shared cooking tips and recalled memorable Top Chef moments. Here are some of the highlights.
In this article:
On Top Chef
Question: On Top Chef, I've never noticed the judges taking notes during an elimination challenge. How do you remember what each person made, as well as what you thought about it?
Gail Simmons: We all help each other remember and sometimes the producers will give us a list of each of the dishes to study before judges table, which helps jog our memories. But once we eat them they are often hard to forget!
Question: Gail, what is the biggest challenge of doing Top Chef? Is it the long waits between shots? And did you find the pastry chefs different in personality than the other chefs? Are the dessert chefs quirkier?
Gail Simmons: The hardest part of the show is that we travel so much and I am away from my family. We often also judge late into the night, which is difficult but fun. We are used to the long hours by now. Pastry chefs are certainly more meticulous and exacting than savory chefs but that is how they are able to be such great artists!
Question: Gail, as an avid TC viewer and fan, I am taken aback by the elementary challenges on All-Stars. Could you shed some light on the lack of creative challenges?
Gail Simmons: Put yourself in the chefs' shoes and I promise you will not think they are elementary. So much harder than it looks on TV. I promise.
Question: Hello Gail! The personalities of the top chefs have to affect your image of them, how do you separate the person from the dish? Or is it part of your judgment?
Gail Simmons: The personality of a chef is NEVER taken into account in our judgment. We judge only on the food set before us week to week. We never see their interviews or how they act in the house or the kitchen until after the show is wrapped so it does not effect us at all.
Question: Gail, it looks like you really have a great time with the judges from the outtakes I've seen. What is your most memorable judging moment?
Gail Simmons: Sitting at a table with chef Joël Robuchon. What an honor! Also loved judging with Natalie Portman—she was so sweet and really passionate about food. It was great to see!
Question: I've noticed more responsible ingredients in the show (i.e. no more Chilean Sea Bass). Has there been a push on Top Chef to promote such causes? And is it weird that savory chefs cannot make dessert?
Gail Simmons: We always want to showcase ingredients that are responsible and sustainable. There is not a specific push, it is just how all of us think and cook ourselves. And no, not weird that savory chefs can not make dessert. It is not what they do. That is why we have pastry chefs!
Question: Hi Gail, do you have a favorite moment or favorite episode on Top Chef, Top Chef: Just Desserts, or Top Chef Masters? And which would that be?
Gail Simmons: Too many to count! I love all the great places we have had the opportunity to explore. I love learning from all the chefs and judges. But my favorite episodes are the ones that get the chefs out of the kitchen—the surf challenge in season 2, the dessert challenge in season 6.
Cooking Tips & Food Philosophy
Question: Hi Gail, what fuels your passion?
Gail Simmons: The endless amount of great talent and delicious food this world has to offer.
Question: Gail, what's the best tip you can give for cooking a perfect piece of meat: steak, pork?
Gail Simmons: Practice makes perfect. And do not be afraid to use your hands. Learn how a piece of meat feels to the touch when it is rare, medium or well done. Then you will do it right every time.
Question: Gail, what's your favorite childhood food memory?
Gail Simmons: Wow—too many to count! Maybe the smell of the plum tarts my mom would bake in the summertime, it would fill the house and make me so happy!
Question: I know Gail that you do a lot of judging, but do you cook? What is your favorite dish to make?
Gail Simmons: I cook a lot actually! Cooking at home for my friends and family is my favorite thing to do when I have the time. What I cook depends on the season. NYC has had a rough winter so I have been making a lot of stews, soups and hearty salads with kale, sweet potatoes, Parmesan.
Plus: Gail's Favorite F&W Recipes:
Question: Hi Gail, What is your favorite way to cook cauliflower? My husband loves it, but I don't! My skill level is pretty high, as I ran a bed and breakfast in Vermont back in another life!
Gail Simmons: I used to feel the same. Only recently started liking cauliflower myself. I like it best when it is roasted on high eat to bring out the caramelized flavors. Add a little chili and freshly grated Parmesan in the last few minutes of roasting and you have the perfect side dish.
Question: KitchenAid mixer... what color is yours?
Gail Simmons: Good one! My KitchenAid Stand mixer is RASPBERRY (pink/purple). It was a wedding gift and I cherish it.
Question: Gail, do you think the emotions of a person can be tasted in food? Can you taste the adrenaline and anxiety of the contestants? I notice that my mood affects the flavor of the food I cook.
Gail Simmons: If the chef is stressed and unfocused it definitely comes through in a poorly-developed or presented dish. If they are clear-headed and confident we can tell that too.
On Food Trends
Question: Hello Gail, is the idea of the "celebrity chef" consistent with sustainable and ecologically sound eating? It just seems a lot of resources go into feeding a very small, select group. (Admittedly, I love Top Chef and Top Chef Masters.) Also, what is done with the "leftovers" from all the cooking and prep work done for the shows?
Gail Simmons: I think celebrity chefs actually are a great vehicle for spreading the word about sustainable eating and ecology. They have big audiences and broad reach. They get us all thinking more about food and cooking more! Our 60 person crew demolishes the leftovers. Very little goes to waste.
Question: Gail, how do you feel about the trends of healthier concept restaurants like Seasons 52 and people in general leaning towards a more healthy lifestyle?
Gail Simmons: All for it! We all need to spend more time thinking about exactly what we are putting in our bodies.
Question: Hi Gail, what three trendy ingredients do you dislike and find boring? I'm based in Hawaii. And this fad for Açai berry in desserts is uninspiring.
Gail Simmons: Three things I am not interested in on my table right now: Truffle oil, too much smoke or bacon, root beer (just don't like it).
Question: Gail, the next time I hear a chef use the word "deconstructed" I think I'm going to scream. If you've deconstructed it, then it's something other than the original dish! SO GIVE IT A NEW NAME! Using deconstructed sounds a bit pretentious. Your thoughts?
Gail Simmons: It doesn't bother me when it is done well. Taking apart the key flavors of a familiar dish and presenting them in a new way is often refreshing. But not for the sake of doing it alone—there needs to be thought behind it or I agree it comes across as pretentious.
Question: Hi Gail! Okay, street food and food trucks being all the rage that they are—what is your absolute favorite street food?
Gail Simmons: TACOS. And ice cream cones (made with good quality ingredients of course).
Question: Gail, what is your take on the new cocktail explosion?
Gail Simmons: I love that classic cocktails are making a comeback but with new modern twists. I recently had the most amazing Ginger Mule. Made with ginger beer that the mixologist made himself. It was inspiring!
On Finding Success in the Food Industry
Question: I was wondering what made you want to pursue a career in the food industry and how exactly did you begin? I'm an aspiring baking and pastry student and would like to see how many people, who are doing as well as yourself, have started. Oh and one more question, Vanilla or Chocolate?
Gail Simmons: a) I started by working for a boarder magazine which taught me how to write, do research and fact check. Then I went to professional culinary school to get the skills and language I needed to write about it. I spent time cooking in professional kitchens to solidify that skill. They wrote and worked for great people. You have to pay your dues but the end result has been worth all the hard work! b) chocolate.
Question: I'm curious if there are some favorite classes or schools that you might recommend for recreational chefs to improve their skills? Even vacation destinations for cooking (and fun)? Thanks!
Gail Simmons: If you ever have the chance to come to the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen it is a great place to meet the best chefs from around the country, drink great wines and learn a ton about food. In NYC, check out the Institute of Culinary Education (ICE). They have a huge array of recreational classes.
Question: Hey Gail, what advice do you have to food journalists just getting into the field? Is there anything you wish you knew when you first started?
Gail Simmons: Find a great mentor! And write, write, write. There are no short cuts but if you love food and love media there are so many more avenues now than there were when I started.
Question: Gail, I see your background was anthropology, and you became a food writer in school. How do you suggest someone break into food writing? I am attending Top Chef University Culinary School at the moment, and have a journalism background. Thanks!
Gail Simmons: Sounds like you are doing all the right things. Practice is the key—keep writing and find a mentor who you admire to give you guidance and advice. Good luck!