Gail Simmons on her life in food

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First aired on Q (13/3/12)


Gail Simmons has been critiquing "chef-testants" as a judge on Bravo's top-rated food show Top Chef since it premiered in 2006. These days, the Toronto-born and raised culinary expert is a busy as ever. She's still a judge on the original Top Chef, she hosts the successful spin-off Top Chef: Just Desserts and she is the Special Projects Director for Food & Wine magazine -- the place that originally gave her the nudge into food television. 

Somewhere in between the writing, judging, hosting and eating, Simmons managed to pen a memoir. Talking With My Mouth Ful: My Life as a Professional Eater chronicles her rise in the world of food television, recalling (bite-by-bite) how she managed to eat (and cook) her way to a success.

Food always played a big role in Simmons' life. Her mother was a food writer for the Globe & Mail and food was a focal point for the family. "We spent a lot of time around the table," Simmons recalls to Q guest host Jim Brown. "My mother loved great food. She introduced us to great food. It wasn't about junk food or sugar or sweets. It was always about really great quality food, cooked simply, cooked well."

This passion stayed with Simmons as she left Toronto to study at McGill University, but it took several years before she realized that a career in the food industry was actually an option for her. When a fellow guest at a dinner party, aptly hosted by Simmons' mother, suggested that Simmons write down what she loves to do, she came up with four things: "eat, write, travel, cook." The dinner guest said "There's your career, now just go do it" and these four words quickly became Simmons' mantra for her future.

Once Simmons realized that she wanted to write about food, the best way to prepare herself would be to learn about food. "Be able to speak the language of chef's and understand food, then you will be able to write about it and the story will unfold," she says. She headed to New York to attend the Institute of Culinary Education to do just that. "[I] picked myself up by the bootstraps and made it happen."

A serendipitous conversation with a career counsellor turned into a job with renowned food writer Jeffrey Steingarten, which eventually led to a job with Food & Wine magazine. It was at Food & Wine that Simmons got the opportunity to be a judge on Top Chef. It was 2005 and food television was in its infancy. "I was scared out of my mind," Simmons admits. "I knew about shows like Fear Factor and Survivor. My thoughts about reality television were really scary."

Thankfully, Simmons fears were unfounded. Top Chef became a smash success, winning an Emmy for Outstanding Reality Competition Program in 2010 and inspiring spin-offs around the world.

So what advice does Simmons have for aspiring foodies? Work hard, learn as much as you can and be open to unexpected opportunities. "Some of my strategy, or lack there of, has been to not make too many goals, not stick too tightly to the path that may be my goal," she says. "It's the doors that open to the side, left and right, that I've been able to walk through into something and learned something that I could never have anticipated before."

StampedeTalking with My Mouth Full: My Life as a Professional Eater
by Gail Simmons

From the publisher: 

"Talking with My Mouth Full follows her unusual and inspiring path to success, step-by-step and bite-by-bite. It takes the reader from her early years, growing up in a household where her mother ran a small cooking school, her father made his own wine, and family vacation destinations included Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East; through her adventures at culinary school in New York City and training as an apprentice in two of New York's most acclaimed kitchens; and on to her time spent assisting Vogue's legendary food critic Jeffrey Steingarten, working for renowned chef Daniel Boulud, and ultimately landing her current jobs at Food & Wine and on Top Chef. The book is a tribute to the incredible meals and mentors she's had along the way, examining the somewhat unconventional but always satisfying journey she has taken in order to create a career that didn't even exist when she first started working toward it."

Read more at Hyperion Books.