Find your cullinary voice

Interview with Gail Simmons

Gail Simmons, host of Bravo's Top Chef, shares her culinary perspective with the Institute of Culinary Education.April 2010

Gail Simmons, an ICE alumna, is the special projects director at Food & Wine, a judge on Top Chef and Top Chef Masters, and the host of the upcoming Top Chef Just Desserts. As part of her role for Food & Wine, she acts as a spokesperson for the magazine to the media and represents it around the country at different events. Before Food & Wine, she worked for Daniel Boulud’s Dinex Group as management consultant, and spent two years as research and recipe assistant to Vogue’s food writer Jefffrey Steingarten. The Main Course sat down with her this winter to talk about her career and current projects.

You had a feature in the January issue of Food & Wine, “rescuing” failed Top Chef recipes. Is that part of your special projects duties, to write?
Yes and no. I had been writing before, left magazines, and then came back, so it’s something I love to do. My job changed a lot over the last couple of years. I write when I have time and when ideas come up that are fun and we can figure out how to make it work. I always love to write for the magazine, but there’s not always the chance to do so.

Would you be on television if not for Food & Wine?
It never occurred me to do television until I came to Food & Wine. That was the path that it took. When I worked for Daniel Boulud, I did all of his PR and so I was working on everything that he did on television. It had never really occurred to me to get on television myself. I don’t know. It’s hard to know where you would have gone if you didn’t take this path.

How did you get to be picked as the person from Food & Wine who would be on Top Chef?
When I first started at Food & Wine, the person whose job I took, who was leaving, had done a bit of television for the magazine. [Editor in chief] Dana [Cowin] can only do so much television and doesn’t really cook on TV. There weren’t that many people who were comfortable being on camera and cooking and who had a culinary background and culinary training. So, when I started working in marketing, they asked me if I would get some media training, because I had the culinary skills, and see if I could kind of fill that gap that had been left by him. I started doing small news segments, like the Today Show or the Early Show or NY1, whenever people wanted a food expert to do a cooking demo or talk about Easter menus, wine bargains for spring, or outdoor entertaining. About a year into doing that, Bravo came to Food & Wine with this show idea and said that they were looking for a marketing partner to help, to give them some of the culinary background and credibility and also to work with them on the marketing program for the show. Part of that deal was that if Bravo liked one of our editors, that person could be on the show representing the magazine. But it wasn’t a given—they wanted to screen test us. Food & Wine said “Okay, we’ll send you a bunch of people and if you like one of them then that would be fantastic; we would be able to have one of our editors on the panel of judges.” We had no idea if food reality TV would be good at all. There had been no great breakout reality food show at the time. Four or five editors auditioned at Bravo and a couple weeks later they called and said they’d chosen me. Two weeks later I was in San Francisco shooting our first season. And that’s it. The rest is history, I guess.

Do you need to know hands-on cooking in your role at Top Chef?
Not at Top Chef. But my role in everything I do, certainly. I don’t think I could have gotten my job on Top Chef if I didn’t really understand food. Many viewers think that judging is just people being flippant, it’s what I like or I don’t like, and it’s all personal. Judging food is actually very scientific: knowing if meat is cooked to the correct temperature, knowing if the knife skills are correct, knowing if the vegetables were julienned the right way and consistently, seasoned well. All the factors that you look for really do take a deep understanding of the science of cooking. So, yes, I guess on Top Chef, too, it certainly helped. Could someone judge the show without a culinary background? Absolutely. We have guest judges who aren’t professional chefs. Padma Lakshmi, our host, has no culinary training. But the fact that I do and that Tom Colicchio does allows other people to not have it. So, yes, I think it certainly gives me legitimacy. Tom obviously comes from a chef perspective. I’m not. I’m more of an educated diner, a professional diner. I look for things that a regular diner might not look for. Both views are valid but you need all of those views to make up the judges table. I guess my answer would be yes, that my purpose is there because I have a knowledge of food and culinary training for sure. And everything I do at Food & Wine as well: I do a lot of cooking demos, I do a lot of press now as part of my job, I do a segment once a month with CBS’s the Early Show, I also do a lot of cooking demos at events all over the country.

That educated diner approach is what you bring to the table as a judge. But is there anything else that you uniquely bring, would you say, that no one else can?
I guess there’s a reason that they keep me on. [laughs] I don’t know. I think that I’m very approachable. I make the chef world a little more approachable to the regular diner and to the viewers. I’m sort of that halfway point. People can look to me to trust me because they know that I have a professional background and that I take what I do seriously. But I’m not speaking in this chef-y language that some people can’t understand and I’m not bogged down in some of the really technical details that a chef might be. I talk about food from a very emotional experience and as an idea, from a place that people can relate to no matter if you are a professional or if you’re just a viewer who likes to eat or just wants to watch the show.

The show has gained a lot of credibility among professional. Has that changed the way you work on the show or the way the show is conceived?
Absolutely. I think it was our biggest fear. Tom and I talked about it a lot at the very beginning when we first started shooting. What if the industry laughs at us? What if the show doesn’t have the integrity that we think is so important? What if it’s not taken seriously? What if the food isn’t good? What if the contestants aren’t professional enough? We were so worried that it would be a show that wasn’t serious about the food industry. That’s not to say that we don’t want it to not be fun. But being fun and being serious about food can go hand in hand and we wanted to make sure that they did. It was a big relief and also a big credit to our producers when the show came out that they really understood the industry and the relationships in the food world and how important they are to us. They wanted to make a show about real culinary professionals and I think that it was the first show to really do that. All the greatest chefs from around the country, and really, around the world, are now coming to us because they want to be on the show and they want to be a guest judge. Because they’ve, number one, seen the power of the show from a marketing perspective and from an exposure perspective: the opportunities that come out of that show for the chefs, for the judges, have just been incredible. But also because it’s a show that really takes pride in our contestants. I think that’s, at the end of the day, why the show is as successful as it is: because it’s about the contestants. It’s not about us grandstanding. It’s not about us being snarky or mean. It’s really about the food and about these young chefs and how talented they are.

How has food television positively or negatively impacted the industry, from your perspective?
I don’t know if I’m the authority to answer that question. Ultimately, I sincerely believe it’s positive. Certain pieces of it get a bad rap. Certain consequences of it have been difficult for the industry. Mostly—and I can imagine that culinary schools see this lot—that every kid coming out of culinary school thinks they’re a chef and think that being on TV is what being a chef is, and the two are actually not related at all. First of all, when you graduate culinary school you’re not a chef; you’re a cook. It takes many years of practice to become a chef and to lead a kitchen. But on the whole, I think that our show, and food television in general, have given people a window into an industry that they otherwise never see the back door of. The life of a kitchen is a very secret life that, until recently, no one really knew about. You go to a restaurant and you sit in the dining room but you don’t really think about who prepares your food and the work that goes into preparing it. It’s never discussed; it’s just assumed and taken for granted. Food shows, and especially our show, have not only opened up people to the knowledge of what goes into being a chef, the hard work that’s involved in being a chef, the hours, the stress, the talent and skill required, but also have given America a vocabulary about food that it just didn’t have before.

Having been put in such a public space now—for the show but also for the magazine—have there been things that have affected you negatively, in print or in blogs for example?
There are. I don’t read them. You can spend your whole life in a dark room crying about what people think of you. But that doesn’t make your life very productive. There are blogs about every single person who’s ever done anything public in their lives. You’re never going to be loved by everyone. I don’t let it come into my space. Yes, I’ve put myself out there in a public way and you make mistakes, sure, and you learn from them and you don’t have the luxury of learning from them in private any more. It has changed my life, for sure, in ways I never imagined and in many ways I wasn’t ever prepared for. Because there are so many things about being recognizable that you don’t think about until you’re recognizable. Things like people looking in your grocery cart when you’re trying to do your groceries, or stopping you on the subway when you’ve had a really bad day and you’re running late and they want to take a picture with you but you are late for a meeting and you know have someone yelling at you and your phone’s ringing. Or things like that. But at the end of the day, I can’t complain about any of those things because on the whole, the response to the show and for the most part, the response to my work is really positive.

Are there things that you do now, though, that you didn’t do before? Do you not leave the house without make-up? Do you think about what you’re wearing when you go to the grocery store?
I’m not wearing much make-up right now—this is what I wear every day. Certainly, when I have to go out to more public events I’m much more conscious of what I wear. I know that my picture will probably be taken and it wasn’t taken before. So I have to think about that. But those are trivial things, superficial things. I’m a pretty low maintenance person in general. I try to just live my life the same. I don’t think much has changed in my personal life. My husband is really protective and a really amazing support. We’ve been together for ten years so we were together long before I was on television and he knows me better than anyone.

Tell me about the new show, Top Chef Just Desserts.
I’ll be hosting the show, as well as being a judge. Amazingly, I don’t know that much about it. My understanding so far is that it will be just like Top Chef but for pastry and baking, more or less. It will all be filmed in one location I think. But otherwise, same format. We’re starting off with fewer episodes to just kind of get our feet wet, see how it goes. It’s really giving pastry chefs the credit they deserve, because pastries have gotten a bad rap on our show. For so long there’s been an outcry from our viewers but also from pastry chefs, saying “Come on, guys, let us show you how it’s really done. We want people to see beautiful desserts and show how creative we can be.” So, finally, we were able to do it. I’m really excited because I’m not a pastry chef. I did the culinary program at ICE and all the cooking I did in professional kitchens was always on the culinary side. But I love desserts. I’m sort of mystified by desserts, because to me, they’re very magical. It’s really chemistry. You put it in an oven looking one way and it comes out completely transformed.

Do you have any input on the format, the content of the shows?
For this show I will, yes. I’m a consulting producer on the dessert show. That was part of our discussions in being part of it. I’ve been speaking with them about it at length. I can’t get involved in too many details because I have to do my own role, but we’re all talking about how to best make it work. I have less say on Top Chef and Top Chef Masters, but Tom consults a lot to make sure that the challenges are good and the contestants are up to par. But we also don’t want to know too much because we don’t want to learn too much about the contestants or the challenges. We want to be surprised. We want to make sure that we come to every challenge with a clean palate, so to speak.

Another big thing that you do is the Aspen Food & Wine Festival, right?
I was the director for four years but I’m no longer the director. I only am one human being. [laughs] I transitioned it to someone else on my team. I’m still there to oversee and guide them and answer questions, and I’m still going to be there this year, but I physically cannot be in so many places at once any more. I’m on three television shows and at the magazine. The festival is so massive—it takes a full-time team of four or five people. When their leader is gone for three or four months throughout the year, it just kind of doesn’t make sense.

You chose the media route a long time ago. How did you decide to make that the focus of your career?
When I graduated college I loved writing. My first job was for a magazine. I found myself drawn to the food editor and the food side, and I kind of decided that I loved the two together. That was before television came into it. Really, writing was how it started. I went to culinary school because I knew that I could write, but I needed to know the subject I wanted to write about. From there I went to work for Jeffrey Steingarten at Vogue, researching and testing recipes. I love magazines and books and media, and when the media changed to TV and online, I just kind of changed with it and was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time. I’ve always been fascinated with media. It can take so many shapes. I just did another project with AOL, where I’m doing a cooking series. That’s something I’d never done before: really short online cooking videos. I don’t know if I want a traditional cooking show, but I love to cook and AOL came to me with an opportunity where I could really cook just my own recipes, which were accessible to people but also a little bit elevated. Sort of that same role I play on Top Chef, where I am the professional but I can bring food to people’s homes in a way that’s a little more accessible.

You’re obviously very savvy in moving to these media that are not print. Where do you think we are we going with magazines and with books?
The last few years have been very scary for magazines in general. Gourmet closing was no different than so many other magazines that closed. I don’t think it actually had anything specifically to do with the food industry. Gourmet had been on a decline for many years from a revenue standpoint. Food & Wine’s been really lucky. I work with an amazingly bright group of people and they’ve been really smart about capitalizing on opportunities. But publishing is changing. I would like to think that the glossy, beautiful magazine is here to stay because that’s where my heart is, but I think that people are going to consume their information differently. But it’s still going to be the same information. I don’t think Food & Wine is ever going to go away that same way. It might take more of its content online, and that’s kind of what everyone’s doing. Everything’s getting online because everyone wants to be mobile. It’s all about convenience. I want to make sure that I keep up on all my information while at the same time getting it in the easiest way I can, because I don’t have time for it otherwise. Except that what magazines do, which Twitter and online headlines don’t do, is literary reporting, is long-format reading. You can’t get that anywhere else. There’s no other format where there’s extraordinary writing, in-depth researching. There’s always a need for that information. The world can’t function on 140 characters. People have forgotten that real research, real recipe testing, real development of a story is still an important thing. Although I’m all for Twitter—it serves my purpose from a convenience standpoint.

What do you use it for?
To get my top headlines, to find out what my friends are doing, what people I respect are doing at the moment, to disseminate information. But to me, it doesn’t take the place of a magazine.

Who are you favorite people to follow on Twitter?
There are a lot of good people that I really like following. Frank Bruni—I like what he has to say. I follow a young director in Hollywood named Ruben Fleischer. He made a movie called Zombieland. Peter Lindberg is a travel writer that I like. I follow a lot of my friends, my Top Chef friends, contestants and the judges, Padma Lakshmi, Gael Greene, Tom Colicchio, of course. I follow the Today Show. I follow a lot of chefs. One of my favorite food writers is John T. Edge; I follow him. The New York Times. CNN.

What is your biggest strength as a writer?
I think that my empathy for my subject is a big strength. Subject being food and subject being people I write about. Having been a cook for a short amount of time in my life made me really understand and be empathetic to cooks and chefs. Part of my job at Food & Wine is to cultivate relationships with chefs around the country and maintain those relationships. It was part of the reason I was hired by Food & Wine in the beginning, because I had come from working with Daniel [Boulud] and so many other great cooks and chefs whom he works with, so I had a really great network of relationships with chefs. I’m certainly not a chef and I never claim to be one. But I empathize with them. I am motivated by them, inspired by them. I understand their lifestyle. I understand how excited they are about the product and the skill that it takes to do what they. Writing well, really, comes from understanding your subject and wanting to tell that story.

Do you see yourself continuing on the path you are now, with Food & Wine and Top Chef?
Who knows? I could have never known I would come this far. You just have to leave the door open. I would never have thought I would do this but I kind of took a chance and Food & Wine supported me and Bravo has been really supportive of me. And so, I’ll ride it out and see what’s next. Hopefully, by the time this ends there’ll be something that I’ll be really excited about. I’d love to do more TV, I’d love to do more book projects. There are so many great projects out there in the universe, and I don’t think that food is going anywhere. We all have to eat, right? I don’t want to close myself off to anything, as long as it has to do with good quality food and people that I like to work with. I’ve just been so lucky because that’s such a big part of it. I really love the people that I work with at the magazine and Bravo. We’ve had the same crew on Top Chef, Top Chef Masters, and Top Chef Just Desserts, and everyone is so smart and young and dedicated.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to be on TV?

I didn’t just get this job because I smiled and thought I knew about food. I worked in kitchens for a long time. I got my ass handed to me. I did five internships, three externships. Then I worked for two years as someone’s assistant, doing whatever I had to do, whether it was testing recipes or making photocopies or picking up dry cleaning. And then I worked for three years under someone. There’s no shortcuts. That’s something that you should feel free to stress. You need to really master your skill in order to be on TV. There’s no way to fake it. There are too many critics out there who will call you out if you’re trying to fake it. The most important thing is just really understanding and learning what sets you apart from the hundreds of other people who also want to be on TV and also want to be a celebrity. Because being a celebrity is actually not at all the goal. Being famous was never my goal. Loving food and being part of something new and interesting and serious about food was my goal. The part of being on TV is a great surprise. I think that’s part of the reason that it went so well. I don’t have advice for people to be on TV. Be true to yourself and do something that’s a quality project. Find people to mentor you who are really good at what they do and work hard for them and put in the hours and learn from great people.