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We're sitting down with our favorite writers and cooks to talk about their upcoming cookbooks, their best food memories, and just about anything else.
Today: We chat with Gail Simmons, food editor, author, and permanent fixture at the Top Chef Judge's Table.
While most of us are used to watching cooking reality shows from the comfort of our homes, with all the nail-biting and popcorn-making occuring safely in our kitchens and living rooms, Gail Simmons has had a front row seat for years. As a permanent judge on Top Chef and host of Top Chef: Just Desserts, she's seen things we could only imagine. The quick dicing! The beads (or buckets) of sweat! The weird flavor combinations! She even offered up her bridal shower menu as a challenge on the show -- now that's dedication.
Simmons' kitchen pedigree is pretty much flawless: After attending culinary school, she worked for Daniel Boulud and Jeffrey Steingarten, and has presided over the Aspen Food & Wine Classic as the magazine's special projects director. Planning food, drink, and fun for the food world's elite is no easy gig.
Top Chef will kick off another season this month with Top Chef Duels, and Simmons will take her usual seat at the Judge's Table. She stepped away for a moment to let us pick her brain about summer menus, must-have classic cookbooks, and what it was like working for the man who ate everything.
What's your go-to weeknight dinner?
In summer, [it’s] roasted or grilled vegetables like squash, corn, asparagus, or eggplant with a big, crunchy salad and maybe a simple piece of grilled fish. In winter, I try to make a big, hearty vegetable soup or stew with barley or beans, and once in a while [I’ll make] chicken or braised beef at the start of the week that we can eat for several days and keep in the fridge.
What's the most interesting cooking tip or technique you've learned from a cheftestant?
It’s not a tip or technique but an important cooking lesson: Trial and error is a vital part of the cooking process. So embrace spontaneity. Never be afraid to try any and every flavor combination -- while some may be terrible (chocolate and snails), some are absolutely revelatory (banana and Sriracha)!
What is your least favorite kitchen task?
Washing lettuce and cleaning mushrooms.
What do you look for in a good cookbook?
Dependable and clear recipe writing that explains the "why" of each step, and techniques that teach me something special about a classic dish or a new cuisine. I use cookbooks for so many different reasons: inspiration, aspiration, exploration, and reference. A good cookbook should do all of these things.
What are your favorite classic cookbooks?
Well, to name a few:
Mastering the Art of French Cooking
In the Vietnamese Kitchen
Chez Panisse Vegetables
The Zuni Cafe Cookbook
The Book of Jewish Food
The Picayune's Creole Cookbook
The Joy of Cooking
Desserts by Pierre Herme & Dorie Greenspan
Canal House Cooking
Cradle of Flavor
The Balthazar Cookbook
I could go on and on....
You worked with Jeffrey Steingarten at Vogue for a long time. What's the most important lesson you learned from him?
Jeffrey gave me an immeasurable education in the world of food. The most integral thing he taught me was the value of research. He taught me to be relentless and curious, to ask lots of questions and to not take no for an answer -- whether I was learning about cheese pasteurization laws or testing a recipe for the best pizza dough. Laziness was not an option, nor was Wikipedia. Sourcing and uncovering all the details, getting to the root of an issue and thoroughly understanding it are what allow you to write and speak with authority and authenticity.