Gail Simmons' Memoir Details Canadian Roots
TORONTO - As a judge on "Top Chef" and host of "Top Chef: Just Desserts," Canadian food critic and writer Gail Simmons has found herself under close scrutiny from fans.
Readers and viewers ask about her personal life, and inquire about the world of cooking and food critics in general.
"And then specifically: 'Who are you, Gail Simmons, who just appeared on our television screen? You're not a chef, you work for a food magazine, but how did you get there?'" the amiable Simmons, 35, said in a recent interview.
"A lot of people ask it because they want to emulate it," added Simmons, a special projects director at Food & Wine magazine.
"And sometimes people are like, 'How did you get to have your job, because who are you anyway? Why should I trust you? Why should I watch your show and engage with what you have to say?'"
Enter "Talking with My Mouth Full: My Life as a Professional Eater," Simmons' new memoir that answers those questions as it runs down everything from her upper-middle-class Jewish upbringing in Toronto to her culinary studies in New York and her TV career.
It also includes her thoughts on the food industry as well as cooking tips and some of her favourite recipes.
"I wanted to have a chance to tell people that it wasn't like I woke up one morning and decided to just be a food judge on television," said the eloquent Simmons, looking chic in a red dress and heels at the downtown HarperCollins office.
She also wanted to let fans know of her Canuck roots.
"I feel like it took awhile for Canada to catch on, because my career really started in the States," said Simmons.
"Canada is a big part of my life."
Simmons first fell in love with food in her family's kitchen in Toronto's Cedarvale neighbourhood, where her Montreal-born mother — a former United Nations guide who wrote about food for the Globe and Mail — ran her own cooking school.
"She taught me that a woman in the kitchen isn't a symbol of domesticity, but of empowerment," writes Simmons.
Though the family's extensive travels to far-flung locales — including trips to her dad's native South Africa — helped further Simmons' interest in food, she didn't know she wanted to work in the industry until after she graduated from McGill University.
That's when a family friend suggested she make a list of what she liked to do.
On a random piece of paper she wrote: "Eat. Write. Travel. Cook."
"It was at that moment that she looked at me and said, 'Well what are you so worried about? Go do it,' and so I did," said Simmons.
After doing editorial internships at Toronto Life magazine and the National Post, Simmons came to the conclusion that she would have to move to New York because at the time, "there weren't any full-time food magazines" in Canada.
"There were food pages in newspapers and at the back of women's magazines, but there just wasn't the sort of media around food that there was in New York," said Simmons.
With that, Simmons attended what was then called Peter Krump's New York Cooking School in the Big Apple and landed strenuous gigs in the kitchens of high-end restaurants Le Cirque 2000 and Vong.
Realizing the male-dominated kitchens were not the right environment for her, Simmons took on a job as the assistant to Vogue magazine's taskmaster food critic, Jeffrey Steingarten.
Later, she worked for acclaimed chef and restaurateur Daniel Boulud, managing special events and projects. That was followed by a marketing gig at Food & Wine, which led to her star-making turns on "Top Chef" and "Top Chef: Just Desserts."
Despite what viewers may think, the process of critiquing food and choosing a winner on "Top Chef" isn't taken lightly, said Simmons.
"Sometimes, during a finale especially, we can sit down at nine or 10 at night and not get up until six or seven in the morning, mostly because there's so much to consider," she said.
"We want to make sure we're making a very informed decision. It has to be unanimous."
Simmons still lives in New York, with her husband, who hails from Montreal. She writes in the book that she felt guilty leaving her family in Canada, particularly because one of her brothers has led a troubled life here.
Though she visits them several times a year, she doesn't think she would move back as her life is now deeply rooted in New York.
"But I certainly think there's opportunity here to do great stuff, to start new food media, be involved in the kind of ever-evolving food scene in Canada, for sure," added Simmons.
"Canada has an enormous amount of food media," she noted. "There's Food Network Canada, which has such great programming, there are so many outlets now that didn't exist when I first decided I wanted to work with food."