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Have you ever met someone so enthusiastic about her job that she can’t stop talking about it - not even while enjoying a meal? Gail Simmons - food writer, critic, and recurring Top Chef judge - is one of those lucky souls. In her first book, Talking with My Mouth Full: My Life as a Professional Eater, she traces her love of food back to her childhood and her family: her mother taught cooking, her father produced wine, and the entire family travelled.
But how does one go from an inherited passion for food, to inventing a successful career as a culinary expert? Gail talks about this and more with FDL.
Originally from Toronto, Gail now lives in New York with her husband Jeremy, but seems to be ubiquitous in the culinary world. She’s the Director of Special Projects for Food & Wine magazine, a regular judge on television shows like Top Chef, and a trained culinary expert.
On the occasion of her first book, Gail talks about her profession - a relatively new one in the food world - and offers some advice to those who might want to follow in her footsteps.
First of all, what is your “real” day job?
I like to call myself a culinary expert, as it seems to put together all the things I do: the media appearances, cooking demonstrations, and writing. I’ve worked at a magazine for eight years, and I can’t call myself a chef - if anything, I’d be a cook. But as a culinary expert, I definitely understand chefs and the world of fine dining.
What would you suggest to anyone - chefs, writers, or students - who would like to become culinary experts?
It’s a tough job, one that requires a certain amount of experience. The best way to grow is to find a mentor from whom to learn. I’ve been lucky enough to have many: editors and chefs, for instance. Find people whose work you respect and try to work for them. You can’t be an expert without a lot of experience. I worked in restaurants, I’ve conducted research, I had to learn how to appear and present of television. I’ve been working for 15 years and I learn something new every day.
Etiquette bans talking with the mouth full. Unless maybe you have something special to say… What’s the most special thing you’ve learned?
I’ve learned so much. But one special lesson is that if you love what you’re doing, you’ll manage to do it - no matter how hard it is. This is what I’ve done: I’ve turned my profession into something to love. Maybe this could seem anti-conventional, or impertinent, but that’s what I do. I’m so excited about my work, that I talk about it with my mouth full!
Eating professionally must require good taste: is this something you can study, or are you born with it?
Like everything, it’s a matter of balance. Part is a natural gift - the ability to understand flavors and tastes - but this should be combined with a passion for learning. One needs to understand chemistry and biology in order to fully appreciate pairings. There are a lot of elements at play, but studying is a fundamental part.
What’s your favorite fine dining dish? And your comfort food?
I don’t have a favorite meal or dish; in general, I love all kinds of culinary experiences. I do adore elaborate dishes that make me think - those dishes that satisfy my taste with a good combination of flavors, as well as display a perfect technical execution. When I’m home, my comfort foods are soups, stewed meats, roast chicken, grilled vegetables. As for desserts, I love those that aren’t too sweet, ones that have their own special balance. But I go mad for dark chocolate.