Spreading the gospel
NEW YORK — Every reality competition with judges has a “mean one”: Simon Cowell’s scathing remarks made plenty of “American Idol” contestants cry.
For the first couple of seasons of “Top Chef,” the Emmy Award-winning Bravo TV series now in its seventh season, that judge was Gail Simmons.
But behind the scenes, the personality of the vivacious and fast-talking Simmons, who tap dances for the producers and refers to herself as the little sister of the show, stands in sharp contrast to her earlier television persona.
And now she has a new role: host and consulting producer of “Just Desserts,” a Bravo show premiering Sept. 15 that will challenge pastry chefs.
While Simmons, 34, a special projects manager at Food and Wine magazine, is perhaps one of the best-known food critics in the country now, at first she had no interest in pursuing a path in the culinary world, let alone one on television.
“I kind of joke that I’m not a food critic but that I play one on TV. It has become a self-fulfilling prophecy,” said Simmons, whose sharp tongue has noticeably mellowed over the past couple of seasons of “Top Chef,” which pits young, talented, fame-hungry chefs against one another in grueling culinary challenges. “I always loved food, but in truth it never entered my mind as an occupation until college.”
Few were raised in as epicurean a household as Simmons.
Her mother, Renee Simmons, wrote a food column for the Globe and Mail, Canada’s largest newspaper, in the 1970s and ’80s, and she later opened a cooking school in the Simmons home in Toronto.
“My mom built our kitchen as a teaching kitchen where people can sit around and watch you cook,” Simmons said.
Her childhood home was a fairly traditional Jewish household, complete with hearty servings of Eastern European Jewish food, especially for the holidays.
“We had Shabbat dinner every Friday night, without fail,” Simmons said. “There was always challah and my mother’s outstanding chicken soup.”
Ask Simmons about her favorite Jewish food memories and she points to two foods: brisket and latkes.
“My mom’s brisket is killer; so are her latkes,” she said. “They’re the standard by which I will forever hold all other briskets and latkes.”
In college, Simmons shied away from comparisons to her mom, despite cooking often and reviewing restaurants for her college newspaper.
“When you’re 20 years old, the last thing you want to hear is that you’re just like your mom,” she said.
So she pursued degrees in anthropology and Spanish at McGill University in Montreal and planned to work for a nongovernmental organization in the developing world. After graduation, feeling a bit lost, Simmons took an internship at Toronto Life, a lifestyle magazine.
“I loved it; I found myself drawn to the food editor,” she said. “And that’s when I realized, wow, there could be a job here for me.”
Following stints at a couple of publications, Simmons moved to New York to attend the Institute of Culinary Education. After graduation, she cooked at some of the city’s most exclusive restaurants, served as an assistant to prominent food critic Jeffrey Steingarten and worked as events manager for chef Daniel Boulud’s dining group before joining the staff of Food and Wine in 2004.
In 2006, when Bravo approached Food and Wine about a partnership for a new show called “Top Chef,” Simmons was chosen to represent the magazine as a judge. Her incisive remarks about the dishes of “chef-testants,” as they are called on the show, earned her the title of the “mean judge” by viewers.
Although she often followed her critiques with positive feedback, the show’s producers edited out the latter in their effort to make each judge into a distinctive character, Simmons said.
“It was an experiment for all of us,” she said. “As much as it’s about the drama and the characters, it’s more about the chefs, and we’re the eyes, ears and taste buds of the viewers.”
With the show well established, and with its first spinoff, “Top Chef Masters” — Simmons is a judge on a show that features famous chefs competing against one another in the kitchen — having wrapped up its second season, Simmons is finding herself on a set filming for much of the year.
She’s not complaining.
It’s a “great family of people,” Simmons said, referring to the “Top Chef” crew and such co-stars as fellow judge and celebrity chef Tom Colicchio and cookbook author and actress/model Padma Lakshmi, the show’s host.
“For five years it’s been like a traveling band of gypsies and roommates. We get into silly arguments and when there’s a lull, I’ll tap dance for the producers,” she said. “I’m like the little sister of the crew … a bit of the clown.
Simmons recalls falling asleep at the judge’s table.
“It was the finale and we were shooting all night, and at about 4 in the morning we took a 20-minute break,” she said. “All of the producers took pictures, which they aired on a reunion episode.”
On “Just Desserts,” Simmons will be spending more time in front of and behind the camera. She is a consulting producer for the first time on a show in which pastry chefs will be tested in the art of sugar work, bread and cake baking, chocolate, candy, maple syrup and more.
Despite her “Top Chef” experience, Simmons was surprised at just how tough her hosting role proved to be. Hosting, she says, is “a harder job than judging — you have to lead the plot.”
Making the job even more difficult is the fact that as host, Simmons has to taste each dish, sampling as many as a dozen sugary desserts in a single show.
“I was bouncing off walls at the end of most days,” she said.
The sugar highs may come in handy: Simmons has other projects in the works. In addition to her position at Food and Wine, she is partnering with AOL for an online cooking series, and she is hoping to write a food book soon.
But “the most gratifying thing,” Simmons said, “is when people come up to me and tell me that their 5-year-old knows what a chiffonade is” — a slicing technique for herbs and greens — “or that they hate to cook but they’ve started to try at home and they are trying new things on menus.”
“That’s why I’m doing all of this in the first place — to spread the gospel.”
(Devra Ferst is editor of the The Jew and the Carrot food blog, a new Forward and Hazon partnership.)