Gail Simmons pulls apart a question as she would a meal served up for her judgment.
“Ah, there are a few things in that,” says the Top Chef judge, host of the spin-off show Top Chef: Just Desserts and author of the memoir Talking With My Mouth Full, My Life as a Professional Eater. She shifts forward in her chair at the boardroom table of her Toronto publisher as though preparing to tuck into a fancy entrée.
The question is meat and potatoes, frankly – something about how she had gone from being a food writer to becoming a TV star and whether her ambition to write had been sacrificed to the popularity of reality food shows. But she doesn’t offer a simple reply. Rather, she steadily and politely masticates the thing until there is nothing left. She opines about the obvious (Internet, cable TV and changes in media consumption habits) and offers up a spice-less take on the popularity of food television (smaller world, more travel, more adventurous eaters.)
Which is not to say she isn’t fun. She’s just trying to ace the interview game, to come out on top; do a good job; be liked. At least, that’s my critique, sitting on this side of the table.
Slowly, though, she becomes the voice of her book – lively and spontaneous, that of a free-spirited 35-year-old navigating unplanned fame. On the subject of starting a family with her husband, Jeremy Abrams, an executive in the music industry, she deadpans, “It’s hard to make babies when you’re not in the same bed. Apparently, that’s how it happens.”
In her writing, she is unabashed. She describes her childhood in Toronto, the youngest of three children and the only daughter. Her mother, Renée, was a great influence in the kitchen, because of her love of food and her determination to be more than a wife and mother. She had a cooking school and wrote about food for The Globe and Mail . “My mother made [food]her job, first of all, and she showed us that it’s a career and that you can do it at a bigger level.”
She describes the family trouble with one of her brothers, who is mentally unstable, boyfriends, breakups, her eventual marriage and her physical anatomy. “I’ve got big boobs!” she bellows toward the end of the conversation when asked why she frequently makes reference to her frontage in her memoir. “I’m not talking about it to say, ‘Look at me. I’m so sexy.’ It’s kind of a joke. It’s just a subject that comes up and it’s something I feel insecure about.”
She is ambitious – she acknowledges that with the authoritative nod of a chef who approves of an ingredient – but there’s a defensive quality to her. She exudes confidence, but it’s a determined variety that doesn’t completely obscure her surprise and vulnerability over being a television personality. In an ironic twist only today’s celebrity culture can deliver, the woman who eats food for a living has become a meal for her audience’s consumption.
People tweet about her, take pictures of her on the street and discuss her weight, she offers. “It bugs the hell out of me,” she says of the constant scrutiny about her body shape. “I sit at this really weird crossroads. My job requires me to take in calories. I take care of myself. I eat healthy. I exercise a lot. But then I have to go to events in cocktail dresses and look fancy, and people want to interview me about what I’m wearing, and then I’m compared to people who are wearing size 2 all the time.”
She is still seated forward, leaning over the lip of the table, poking at the issue, assessing it carefully like a cabbage she might buy. “The first thing people say to me when they meet me is, ‘You’re so much skinner in person,’ ” she complains with a roll of her eyes. “You have to live up to these standards that are so unrealistic. I try to tune it out.”
Satisfied with her examination of the subject, she sits back and drops it.
If the ramifications of her success irk her, it’s because she never knew where her drive would take her. “It was only a few years ago that my mother stopped telling me I should go to law school,” she jokes. “I could never have imagined that there would be a job like the one I have now when I graduated college.” At McGill University in Montreal, she studied anthropology and Spanish. It was only when a family friend told her to make a list of what she loved to do – eat, write, travel, cook – that she found a career.
Starting out in Toronto media (Toronto Life and the National Post), she headed to New York to what is now the Institute of Culinary Education to augment her knowledge of food, then went on to apprentice in two legendary New York restaurants, Le Cirque and Vong, where she was the only woman. “I never saw it as [acquiring]kitchen cred. I thought of it as education and skill,” she says. “I had decided I wanted to write about food, and I knew the only way to do that is to speak with authority, which meant learning the language and knowing what that experience is like.”
A stint as assistant to Jeffrey Steingarten, notorious food critic at Vogue, was followed by three years with New York chef Daniel Boulud, where she managed special events and projects. From there, she went to Food & Wine magazine, where she headed up the Classic in Aspen, a revered event in culinary circles and logistical nightmare (for an organizer), involving cooking demonstrations, booths, seminars, cookbook signings, panel discussions, parties and a food cook-off in which two great chefs compete.
In 2005, her superiors at Food & Wine, where she still works on special projects, asked her to go to a screen test for Bravo’s new reality show Top Chef. “It really markedly changed my life in ways I could not have anticipated,” she says. “There was no guarantee it would come to anything. … It was a social experiment.”
Her memoir is an attempt to round out her on-air personality, she says. (It’s also an expected side dish to TV fame, she says, pointing out that her Top Chef co-judges, Padma Lakshmi and Tom Colicchio, have both published books.) “I’m not a chef, so people don’t really know what my background is. I just started appearing on TV and being mean to people.”
She is laying it all out on the table – most of it, anyway. If she’s out there for public consumption, well, it’s best if people know exactly what went into her composition.