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Gail Simmons' Rise To The Top

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By Malcolm Jolley

Gail Simmons (second from left) on 'Top Chef' flanked
by Tom Colicchio, Emeril Lagasse and Padma Lakshmi.

Gail Simmons, judge of TV's 'Top Chef' and Director of Special Projects at Food & Wine Magazine, was recently back from New Orleans when I met her on the 21st floor of New York's Hippodrome building. The view was spectacular looking south over Bryant Park almost directly at the Empire State Building and sunshine poured into the boardroom as I asked her about the twists and turns in what is shaping up to be quite an interesting career.

Gremolata: You got your start at Toronto Life, right?

Gail Simmons: I actually got my start doing food reviews for the for the McGill Trib. There was no one else doing it, and it wasn't considered a big thing to do. I just always loved food and loved to cook. I mean there was nobody saying this could be a job. I certainly wasn't doing it form my career, I just thought it was fun.

Gremolata: Do you remember what your first review was?

Gail Simmons: My father keeps all the clippings. The first one, I think, was a Peruvian restaurant in the Plateau called La Selva ("The Forest"). It's where I learned about ceviche. I wrote other things, theatre reviews, articles, but restaurant reviews were why I started and I thought it was such a blast.

Gremolata: And then to Toronto Life?

Gail Simmons: I'm sure they still do, and at the time they had an amazing internship program. It's a four month program where you really learn everything about a magazine. You learn how to fact check, copy edit: pretty much anything. It really is an editorial internship in the best sense of the word. And there were great people there. One of them and one of my favourite writers, Adam Sternbergh, is here, at New York Magazine. But John McFarlane, the then Editor was great and I became especially close to their food writer and critic at the time, James Chatto and his editor Michael Totzke. I just started following them around. I was the pesky little brat constantly hanging out in their offices, calling them up and emailing them. I just kept getting drawn back to food, and eventually James let me come with him when he reviewed a restaurant and I started to get little side pieces published and eventually the '$25 And Under' reviews.

Gremolata: But that's just your internship, what happened next?

Gail Simmons: The National Post had just launched, with Ken Whyte at the helm and a glossy weekend magazine section. I got an editorial assistant position there working for Kate Fillion. Kate was amazing and had assembled this fantastic team from all over – at the time, there were people from all over the world who had come to work on this new paper.

I put my heart into it and tried to write as much as I could. They were silly food pieces: taste testing the ten top mayonnaises. I just kept getting drawn back to food and I realised: this is what I want to do and the idea of doing this for my career started to take shape. But…

Gremolata: But?

Gail Simmons: Well, at the time there were a handful of top Canadian food writers: James Chatto, Gina Mallet, Lucy Waverman, Bonnie Stern. And that was it. And they had been in these jobs for 20 years, and they were going to be in these jobs for another 20 years. Maybe 50 years! I was 23 or 24 and I didn't know how I was going to make a living at writing about food. I went to see John McFarlane, and he said to me, "You know, anyone can write. That's what you have editors for. But if you want to write about a specific subject, then you have to learn that subject. You want to be a war reporter? Then, you go to The Gulf. You want to be a political reporter? You have to be in Ottawa, or you have to be in Washington. You've got to get on the front lines. So what did that mean for me? That meant really learning how to cook, not just tinkering in my kitchen. So that's what I did. I quit The Post and moved to New York to go to Culinary School.

Gremolata: The Peter Kump School, right?

Gail Simmons: Peter Kump, which is now called the Institute of Culinary Education. It's really grown, it was a lot smaller then. But the second I got there, I totally fell in love and realised this is where I'm meant to be. For one thing, I was in New York, albeit on a student budget with no money. But what I realised about New York is that there is a culture around food that didn't exist in Canada. There was no Gremolata at the time. There were great restaurants in Canada, great products, great wines, all that stuff. But the community and industry around it wasn't built. All the food magazines I read in Canada were published here: Gourmet, Food & Wine, Saveur. But in Canada all the food writing was one page in the newspaper, or a few in the back of a magazine. Not to disparage that, but the second I came to New York I realised there was a massive industry here. There were a million jobs I'd never heard of. Forget just being a food writer, there's the industry around restaurants: food PR, events, running the business around restaurants… I just realised I'd come to the right place.

Gremolata: And you never wanted to be a chef? I mean once you got there.

Gail Simmons: I didn't want to be a chef, but when you graduated from the culinary school program, you were supposed to do a working internship to finish your training. My assumption was that I'd go to a magazine. But the guy in charge of the internships said to me, "Gail, I know you think you can cook, but you can't." And he was right. Just because you go to law school doesn’t mean you're a lawyer. Just because you go to medical school doesn't mean you're a doctor. You need to get practical experience. He convinced me that I had to put the theory and knowledge to work, and he said I might even like it. So I did and I did like it.

Gremolata: Where did you go?

Gail Simmons: Le Cirque, which at the time was a pretty serious restaurant, and in its hey day. I'm not sure why I chose it, but I think as a woman I felt like I had something to prove a little bit. And why not aim for the stars? It was amazing: the food and the luxury! I remember they had a baked potato, that wasn't on the menu. What they did was bake it, scoop it out, mash it with butter, cream and tons of black truffle. Then, they would re-stuff it, re-bake it on a bed of rock salt and then serve it with a piece of foie gras on top.

Gremolata: Wow.

Gail Simmons: Yeah. It was ordered all the time, and that was one of the things I would make. Le Cirque was an amazing place to be a fly on the wall, which is what I was. I was the lowest, lowest rung on the chefs' ladder. I was a commis peeling potatoes all day. Eventually I made it to the line, but it was the hardest work I've ever done. You're not really a cook until you've logged those hours and sweated over the stove. And the volume and intense urgency that comes with working in the kitchen.

Gremolata: And if you screw up?

Gail Simmons: There are real repercussions.

Gremolata: Did you screw up?

Gail Simmons: Oh sure. And you burn yourself and cut yourself. And you have all these very exacting people watching over you to make sure everything is perfect and exactly the same every time. It was a great education. From there, I went to Vong, Jean-Georges [Vongerichten]'s restaurant.

Gremolata: Again, an iconic place.

Gail Simmons: Vong in the 90s was the home of Asian fusion. I had never eaten food like that before. Thai inspirations like galangal, kefir lime, coconut and curry – things that were just starting to be used in high-end restaurants. I loved working at Vong. It was a much smaller and closed kitchen, although I was still the only woman. Really, really hard work, but a lot of fun. A lot of tears, too.

Gremolata: You paid your dues.

Gail Simmons: I did. I paid my dues and got invaluable insight into how kitchens work. When I left Le Cirque, I had to go see the Executive Chef, Sottha Khunn, so he could sign my papers. I was pretty sure he had no idea who I was. I never even looked him in the eye, let alone spoke to him. I went in  to see him to say that I was leaving and also to say thank you. And he looked at me and told me, "I'm really glad you did this because nine out of ten food writers have never been in a kitchen." I had no idea he knew that's what I wanted to do. It had been in my cover letter and resume, but I didn't know he had read it. It was really a big deal for me.

I didn't think I was doing anything different. I thought you had to learn how to cook to get to write. But now I realise that there are actually very few food critics and writers who have worked in kitchens.

Gremolata: So it helped with your writing.

Gail Simmons: Yes. Also when your at that lowest rung level in the kitchen. You're basically doing manual labour. You're executing someone else's vision. And I really missed writing. Plus, I was getting home at 1 AM when all my friends were in bed – my roommate was a trader who got up early, so I never saw him. I was hungry for knowledge and intellectual stimulation and would read every night. One of the books that I really loved from that time was Jeffery Steingarten's The Man Who Ate Everything.

Gremolata: That is a perfect segueway, because I really want to ask you about him.

Gail Simmons: Well, I read that book. I had never read Vogue - I'm definitely not a fashion person – so, I really didn't know much about Jeffery. Except when I read it, he often talks about his assistants. One day she's in Chinatown searching for an ingredient. The next day she's at the New York Public Library researching it. And then the next day she's in his test kitchen testing the recipe. To me this was it! The perfect job. I was scared to leave the kitchen and not have that visceral connection to food, but how was I going to make that transition back to food writing and still keep my knife sharp? And I was really lucky. I went to go see my career counsellor and I brought my book and said, "This is what I want to do." And he said, "He was just here. He needs a new assistant."

So, I sent him my resume, and then talked to him on the phone about an interview. I was still working at Vong and he asked me, "can you bring me some of the duck spring rolls, please?" So I worked the lunch shift that day, snuck a few duck rolls into my bag, smuggled them out the back door and went to be interviewed for three hours.

Gremolata: And what was being interviewed by Jeffery Steingarten like? He comes across as kind of intimidating person.

Gail Simmons: He does. I remember in the middle of the interview he asked me a question. And when he heard my answer he said, "You don't read Vogue, do you? Because if you did then you'd know from my column…" I thought that was it, but he took pity on me or something, because he hired me. He must have been desperate! [Laughs.] No, I don't know. I think we just kind of clicked. There was good chemistry, and being able to handle him is a big part of the job.

Gremolata: And what was your day like?

Gail Simmons: No two days were the same. It was like I had hoped: I spent a lot of the time running around the city. I really got to know Manhattan and Brooklyn, Queens, The Bronx. I would go anywhere and everywhere for research. And at the library and in his kitchen testing. Cooking and cooking with him. He gave me an unbelievable education. Sometimes the hard way – often the hard way. He did not believe in positive reinforcement. But I owe most of my knowledge of food history, food anthropology to him. Just the people he gave me access to, to talk to and do research with were extraordinary. Plus, there was his library and his brain, which he opened up and allowed me to pick every day. It was amazing. He'd be calling me from Thailand and I'd be searching all over Chinatown or Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn to find the ingredients so we could recreate what he was eating when he got back. I worked with him on most of the articles that went into his second book, It Must Have Been Something I Ate.

Gremolata: Is that the one with pizza oven piece? I love that piece. He's trying to get his oven to go to 600 F, right?

Gail Simmons: It is! That was one of the stories I'll never forget. That and the coq au vin story, which happened right at 9/11. And forever in my mind will coq au vin be linked to that experience. But the pizza oven story was awesome. I remember he made me go to this heavy-duty construction hardware store down in Tribeca and buy a RayTek, which is a laser thermometer that can read temperatures up to 1,000 F. And then we ran all over town testing every wood burning oven we could find. And then there was the dough. I think I tested over 80 different dough recipes. And getting the right mozzarella. And getting the right sauce. The whole thing was unforgettable. I worked for him for two years.

Gremolata: That seems like a long time, if it's that intense.

Gail Simmons: Two years is kind of the standard duration. That's how long he asks you to work for him for. After two years you're ready to not be an assistant and you're kind of tired of each other. It's really two years of being alone with him in his kitchen every day five, six days a week.

I have to say, one of the most amazing things about working with Jeffery is that he comes with a network of past assistants. You can't get through the experience without it. We call ourselves 'Jeffery's Angels' and since me there's been four more brought into the fold. We're all very close and we lean on each other all the time. These women have become any sort of food family in New York. He's never picked a sour grape. They're all doing the most amazing things.

Gremolata: So what did you do next?

Gail Simmons: 9/11 happened, which shook everybody's world. And my visa expired – I'm a Canadian citizen – and no one was interested in immigrant issues then. Anyway, I thought I'd try and go to a food magazine, but the economy wasn't great. It was Jeffery who had introduced me to Daniel Boloud. We had worked on some stories with him. He had a marketing and communications team headed by Georgette Farkas, who had worked with him for a long time. So I called them and asked if I could take five minutes of their time and brainstorm about job ideas. They said yes, and they said they were about to hire someone to help Daniel with his cookbook projects and I would have been perfect, but like everyone they were scaling back and they could hire me now, but they'd stay in touch. So, I went back to Toronto for a few months until Georgette called back and said they were going to go ahead. It certainly was not the job I had envisioned or planned on, but let's face it: when Daniel Boloud offers you a job, you take it.

Gremolata: And what were you doing?

Gail Simmons: Well, before I worked with him I knew a bit about writing and cooking, but I realised I didn't know anything about the business and marketing of food. Food writing is in a bit of a bubble: let's write pretty little recipes and fun profiles of hot chefs. So I knew nothing about the business and was thrown, very quickly, into Daniel's word, which is an empire of restaurants that grew very quickly with a small executive team of people that make it all happen. He had three restaurants in New York, at the time. He was opening in Miami, he was opening in Vegas and he and Georgette – I was working for her – took me along for the ride. I did PR and marketing stuff for her – something I had never done. I helped with opening restaurants and I helped with special events. He flew all over the country and the country and the world doing charity events and dinners.

What I realised doing all these new things was that I loved people. You know, when you're in the kitchen or writing you've got your head down. And when I worked with Jeffery I would be alone for a lot of the time. I really missed that socialness of food. And what is food if not a reason for people to get together around the table. Daniel's philosophy, as fancy and French as he is, is really rooted in that communal family experience. It was a dream job.

Gremolata: And what's he like?

Gail Simmons: First of all he's a master. One of the greatest chefs. And he's a generous, smart man who really believes in mentoring – there are so many of his chefs who have gone on to become great chefs in their own right.

Gremolata: So, the opposite of the temperamental chef stereotype?

Gail Simmons: Totally. Sure, he's a genius chef and you don't get in his way on a Saturday night at 8:30 in the kitchen. He is also from that French tradition where he is in the kitchen every day. If he is not travelling, he is in the kitchen on the line in one of his restaurants. I mean he lives on top of Daniel! His apartment is directly above the kitchen and he's there watching every piece of chervil you put on the plate, which is invaluable for young chefs who want to learn.

Gremolata: So how did you get to Food & Wine?

Gail Simmons: Well, Daniel did a lot with Food & Wine. He had been one of the magazine's first 'Best New Chefs' in 1988 when he had just come across to America. (In that class were Hubert Keller, Thomas Keller, Nobu, Rick Bayless – these guys had just started to make names for themselves.) So over the years, Daniel came to have a close relationship with Our Editor-in-Chief Dana Cowin and the team, and I came to know them. When one of them was leaving his job he asked me if I would be interested in taking his place. I've been here ever since.

Gremolata: And now you're in charge of the greatest party in the world every year in Aspen.

Gail Simmons: It is the best party in the world! It came a little later: after being here for about a year I took over directing the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, which is in its 27th year. It's certainly not the biggest any more, but it's definitely the most acclaimed food festival in America.

Gremolata: It looks like the coolest. I see all these pictures of top chefs partying it up.

Gail Simmons: It is the coolest. It's very exciting, and I'm so happy to be a part of it – it's certainly bigger than me. The town of Aspen has a lot to do with it. But, yeah I'm its director and I manage every part of it from every chef to every sponsor to every demonstration, every dinner and every wine tasting. I'm not alone by any means, and we have a manager in Aspen who's on the ground getting things done.

Gremolata: How do you manage all these big chef egos?

Gail Simmons: You know what? The Classic is great, it's sort of magical beacause it's been around for so long and it's so different. It's so intimate and very trade oriented, although any one can go. It's also isolated and it costs quite a bit of money, so people really want to be there if they come.

It's a very tactile experience and many of the chefs have been coming for many years – Mario Batali for 10 years, Bobby flay for 15. Tom Colicchio, Thomas Keller, Daniel: I think it holds a special place in their hearts too. It's something they put on their calendars two years in advance. They all get it and they all love the casual family-like quality that we've been able to maintain. That's the most important thing, in my mind, because no matter who you are, a consumer or a great chef, you're rubbing elbows with everyone, and everyone's on equal ground.

Gremolata: And you're on TV a lot.

Gail Simmons: That sideswiped me. Our Editor, Dana Cowin, can't do every appearance, so I have taken on some of the spokesperson duties. I did not plan on that, but sometimes the stuff you don't plan on is the best. I took a chance, just like I took a chance working for Daniel or coming to New York. When I worked for Daniel and Georgette I knew how it worked, but I never thought I'd be in front of the camera.

Gremolata: 'Top Chef' seems pretty intense.

Gail Simmons: What I love about 'Top Chef' is that it's really about discovering great talent. It's incredibly stressful for the contestants, who I only know by their cooking, buy the way. And what you don't see on TV is that Tom [Colicchio] and the judges go over each dish with the contestants for hours – they only show highlights. I really give credit to Bravo for creating something special.

Gremolata: You've already taped the end. Can you tell me who wins?

Gail Simmons: Sure, if you have two million dollars.


Pssst... There's a typo in the first question.
Post Reply By Andrea in TORONTO on 3/2/2009 9:51:27 AM

Apologies Lana. And a hat tip to Susan.

Post Reply By Malcolm in TORONTO on 2/28/2009 1:52:38 PM

Ouch! Top Chef fans who don't want to know who won DO NOT READ PAST THIS POST! :)
Post Reply By Susan in TORONTO on 2/28/2009 10:31:04 AM

Malcom...please please tell me you're kidding about revealing who won Top Chef - we don't have satellite, so were just watching the finally this week!!!!...and HAVE NOT FOUND OUT who won yet!!!
Post Reply By Lana in BELLE RIVER on 2/27/2009 9:24:59 PM

What an inspiring interview. Everyone with grand aspirations should read it!
Post Reply By Jeff in ANCASTER on 2/26/2009 11:36:34 AM

A post script: Hosea Rosenberg was named this year's 'Top Chef', and I can assure you that I opted not to pay $2,000,000 to find out...
Post Reply By Malcolm in TORONTO on 2/26/2009 9:22:11 AM

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