Gail Simmons has quite the packed schedule. As a judge on the Bravo sensation, Top Chef, and host of the spin-off, Top Chef: Just Desserts, you would think that her days would be full enough. But add Food & Wine special projects director and her most recent title of author to her resume and you have one of the busiest ladies in the culinary world. Somehow, Simmons found time to chat about her new book and her life as a professional eater, why she feels so comfortable in Chicago and what makes the city a culinary giant.
Talking with My Mouth Full: My Life as a Professional Eater is your first book. What did you think when you first held the finished product?
Starting out to write your first book, you can't really imagine getting to the end. A year ago I really couldn't have imagined finishing it. It was just an amazing project. Once in a while I flip through it and want to change everything. I could have worked forever, but that's why there are deadlines and editors. And in the end I'm happy with it. The response has been pretty amazing. I wanted it to be something that everyone could read, not just people who are obsessed with Top Chef.
What is the significance of the book's title?
It's sort of a joke, to think about being a professional eater. If you had told me that that's what I'd be for my living, I would have never believed you. Ten years ago that didn't even exist. Talking with my mouth full is also contrary to what I was always taught to do. You're told that it's inappropriate, against traditional manners. And that's really the theme of the book: going against what our elders told us to do when we were figuring out our lives. I love eating and I'm passionate about eating, but not in a glutinous way. It's about how eating and food brings people together.
What do you hope the take away will be for readers?
I hope that people will walk away with a little more understanding of what it takes to be a professional chef and the work and focus and strength involved. The chefs who I work with at my job or on the show, I have so much respect for them. I also hope that it will inspire people to follow whatever they love to do, that it can be unexpected, that it doesn't come without work, but there are certainly great rewards.
You are on the Chef Advisory Board of Common Threads, a Chicago-based organization. How did you get involved?
We shot the fourth season of Top Chef in Chicago in 2007, and that was the very first time I had been there. We did an episode with Common Threads, and I loved their mission: teaching young children about tolerance and non-violence through the use of food. It was the same philosophy I had always believed in. And so I ended up coming back to Chicago with Tom and Padma to host an event for them and it just sort of stuck. I've come back every year since.
Are there specific chefs and restaurants you love and respect in Chicago?
Honestly the list goes on and on. Over the years, I've become friends with the guys of Boka Group, and I love their spots. I love Stephanie's restaurant, Girl & the Goat for obvious reasons. I've idolized Paul Kahn for years with The Publican, Blackbird and Avec. Obviously I've come to know Grant Achatz quite well over the years. When I was there last during the El Bulli menu, I ate at Next. But then there's a lot of great casual, ethnic dining in Chicago. I love an Italian dipped, roast beef sandwich. There are tons of great bakeries. There's just so much great diversity.
Over the past decade, Chicago has arguably become one of the world's best culinary cities. What do you think makes Chicago so special?
One of the Top Chef producers and I have this tradition where he gives me a book to read about each city. When we were in Chicago, he gave me The Devil in the White City, and I read it in two and half days. I totally fell in love with the architecture and the history. Chicago reminds me a lot of Toronto where I'm from, so I feel really comfortable there. Those things have obviously molded the way the city has grown. Over the past decade, Chicago has developed this really amazing energy of young chefs who aren't afraid to take a lot of risks. It has a lot of really ambitious people, and the cooking reflects that. There's eagerness, nice people who work hard and are excited by what they do.