The Top Chef judge spills the beans on bakers’ personalities, cookbooks and Tom Colicchio’s head.
Since 2006, Gail Simmons has been a judge on the number-one rated, Emmy award–winning Bravo show Top Chef. A Toronto native, in 1999 Simmons moved to New York, where she attended culinary school, trained with such chefs as Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Daniel Boulud, and worked for Vogue food critic Jeffrey Steingarten. A contributor to several cookbooks, her memoir Talking With My Mouth Full was published last February, and she directs special projects for Food & Wine magazine. On Oct. 23, she’ll be the special guest at the Melanoma Foundation’s Shades of Hope Gala, to be held at the Mandarin Oriental, Boston. Simmons lives in New York with her husband, Jeremy.
Jonathan Soroff: You’re in town to help the fight against melanoma. Are there foods that protect the skin?
Gail Simmons: Your skin is the biggest organ on your body, and you can protect it by eating well. Foods with lots of antioxidants and omega-3s, for instance. Wild-caught salmon. Blueberries. Dark, leafy greens.
Do you wear sunscreen 365 days a year?
I do. And everyone should. I’m the person on every vacation wearing a hat, scarf, long sleeves. I’m so fair I don’t burn. It goes straight to a rash.
Do you get extra UV rays from a combination of studio lights and Tom Colicchio’s head?
[Laughs.] I think his head gives me vitamins and minerals. It just emanates those things.
There are so many great kinds of pepper, from Aleppo to dried chili peppers, and straight-up black pepper.
One dish you’ve never mastered?
I’m not a great baker. The world of pastry eludes me.
What about the theory that people are either great chefs or great bakers, but rarely both?
I think that’s true, and I think that it has to do with personality types. Baking is chemistry, and if you’re the type of person who likes to be very exact and measure things and do things precisely, you’re better suited to baking than someone like me. I’m more a dash of this, a pinch of that, improvisational kind of cook.
Favorite ethnic cuisine?
I’m not a big gadget person. I don’t need an electric pepper grinder. I like to sear my meat and put my fingers on it to see if it’s done. I like to get close and cuddle with my food. But I do have a Sodastream soda-maker that I’m obsessed with.
Are cookbooks their own form of literature?
So which would be the great classics?
Oh, God, the old French ones, like Escoffier and Brillat-Savarin, Julia Child and Jacques Pépin, Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything, The Silver Palate, Joy of Cooking.
How many cookbooks do you have?
At least 1,000, which is a lot less than some people, but I’d like to point out that I live in New York City. And that’s part of the reason why we just bought a house in Brooklyn.
Ferran Adrià, Eric Ripert and Anthony Bourdain send you Valentine’s cards. Whose makes your heart go pitter-pat?
Oh, Eric, by far. Come on, now. I love them all, but that’s an easy one. I’ve been privileged and humbled to share a table and spend time with all of them, and they’re all brilliant. But Eric? Just look at the man, for God’s sake.
Grossest thing you ever ate?
The grossest thing I’ve ever eaten wasn’t because the ingredients were gross, per se. It was more the preparation. Although I’ve eaten stuff like fried larvae and the innards of animals from the African savannah, kudu and wildebeest.
Isn’t writing about food in Vogue a little like writing about yoga in Popular Mechanics?
No. It’s more about the person who’s writing it. The correct writer could make a story on yoga very, very interesting to a mechanic if you position it the right way.
Oblique comment to use with a friend who serves you something you don’t like?
I always say how grateful I am to have someone cooking for me. So many of my friends are intimidated to cook for me, which is ridiculous. I’m just thankful for the invite.
Favorite seduction dish?
I’ve only seduced one person in the last 12 years, and he’s a really easy target. Anything that has chocolate, banana and peanut butter, in any order, gets him every time.
Guilty pleasures: McDonald’s, Doritos?
No. I don’t really consider them guilty because I don’t eat them that often, but I do have a weakness for salt and vinegar chips and spicy buffalo chicken wings.
Are restaurant kitchens as disgusting as we’ve all been led to believe?
They’re not disgusting at all, if the right person is in charge. The kitchens I’ve worked in were immaculate. Daniel Boulud’s kitchen is a fine-tuned machine, and it’s spotless.
Top three food-centric movies of all time?
Delicatessen, Big Night and Tampopo, maybe?
How do you stay so skinny?
I take care of myself and exercise more than I want to. I have to. My life revolves around being on camera in front of millions of people. I stuff my face with food on TV and consume a lot of calories every day. And I love food. You practice restraint. It’s a question of balance.