Interview: Gail Simmons Gets the 10

Gail Simmons probably never thought she'd become a household name, even after joining Food & Wine Magazine in 2004. But today many people, foodies and Bravo addicts, especially, know lots about this brown-haired, brazen Top Chef judge. She's also the magazine's special projects director and definitely more than just a pretty face. 

Simmons began her career as a food writer in Toronto and also worked for Vogue's curmudgeonly food critic Jeffrey Steingarten. "I think few people know that I have spent a fair share of time in professional kitchens," she added. "I am a culinary school graduate [She attended what is now the Institute of Culinary Education in New York] and my first jobs afterwards were cooking on the line at a few of New York's most acclaimed restaurants." Yep, she's talking about Le Cirque 2000 and some Vong kitchens. 

Before her judging debut, Simmons was also the special events manager for Chef Daniel Boulud's restaurant empire. See her on February 27 when the two reunite at the Food Network South Beach Wine & Food Festival, presented by the publication, where she'll serve as emcee for a tribute dinner honoring him. "I worked for Daniel for many years before coming to Food & Wine magazine, and he has certainly been one of the most influential people in my career," she said. "Not only is he one of the world's best chefs, but also happens to be an exceptional person -- he is an amazing teacher, mentor and cherished friend."

Yeah, but can he wear a sundress while macking down a bag of salt & vinegar chips and dancing 'round the kitchen to the Shout Out Louds? There's a visual we could've done without. But now at least we can enjoy the thought of Simmons doing it:

New Times: If you came back in your next life as a food item, what would it be and how would you like to be served? 

Gail Simmons: Butter, melting over a whole grilled lobster, artichokes, or the perfect steak.

NT: If you could serve a meal to any famous person, alive or dead, who would it be and what would you cook for him/her?

GS: Hypothetically, I would love to cook dinner for the survivors of Oceanic Flight 815, from Lost. I bet they could really use a good meal by this point. And besides, maybe if I served them something really delicious and satisfying (I am thinking rich macaroni and cheese, fried chicken and chocolate layer cake), they would tell me the secrets to The Island! 

NT: What was your most embarrassing cooking-related moment?

GS: Luckily, I do not have that many really embarrassing stories, but one of them has to be when I was making smoothies on national morning television recently and the blenders did not work. I was pressing the "liquefy" button frantically until someone told me I first had to turn the power on first! Ouch...

NT: What food/utensil/technique still confounds you?

GS: There are so many kitchen gadgets out there that claim to make your life easier and your time more efficient, but in fact just complicate things for me--for example, electric versions of corkscrews, can-openers, and pepper mills. Why do we need them? The original, manual versions work just fine and were never difficult to use in the first place. Besides, you are meant to use your muscles a little in the cooking process.

NT: What's your favorite soundtrack/song to cook to?

GS: My husband is in the music programming business so he makes me special mixes for my iPod, which I always play while cooking at home. Current favorites include: Shout Out Louds, Adele, Phoenix, and Lenka. It is all fun and upbeat so I can sing along!

NT: Which famous chef, alive or dead, would you like to shadow for a day (assuming you haven't already had the chance)?

GS: I recently fell in love with the book Seven Fires by Francis Mallmann, one of the great chefs of Argentina. It was the most transporting cookbook I have ever cooked from or read. He specializes in cooking over different types of heat/fires (grills, spits, griddles, wood oven, buried in embers, etcetera). The book was very passionate and articulate about the integral role fire plays in cooking (it is co-authored by Peter Kaminsky). I would love to spend time in that part of the world, learning from him. 

NT: What is your dream culinary trip? 

GS: Making fresh soba in Japan or cheese (Epoisses) in Burgundy!

NT: When you visit Miami, which restaurants do you insist on going to and what do you simply have to eat when you get there? 

1. Michy's. Michelle Bernstein is a goddess. I love her Watermelon Greek Salad, pork belly, and short ribs falling off the bone.
2. Michael's Genuine. Chef Michael is amazing at making the most of the freshest local ingredients. His heirloom tomato salad, spicy beef salad, and steamed mussels are always on my list. 
3. Puerto Sagua. For Cuban diner food in South Beach, this is where I always go. I order a media noche sandwich, tostones and extra pickles. Heaven.

NT: What's your favorite junk food and where do you get it?

GS: I am a sucker for savory, salty, spicy junk food. I will eat salt & vinegar chips wherever I can get them. I also have a soft spot for spicy chicken wings. They are always best eaten at dives and sports bars, like Wogies in the West Village, New York City, near my house. 

NT: Which chef, alive or dead, would you like to challenge in Iron Chef fashion? Why do you believe you could kick his or her ass in the kitchen?

GS: I certainly do not believe I could kick Tom Colicchio's ass in the kitchen, but I do love cooking with him, and we have had fun together doing several chef-versus-home-style demos. I would love to challenge him to a Top Chef Quickfire. Maybe Padma and I could take him on together!

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Riki Altman