When Gail Simmons was growing up, a magnet on the family’s refrigerator read: “A gourmet is just a glutton with brains.”
So how does a nice Jewish girl from Toronto – albeit raised with a pretty sophisticated palate honed at her mother’s table – wind up as judge on Bravo’s Emmy-winning “Top Chef,” host of “Top Chef: Just Desserts,” special projects director for Food and Wine magazine, and author of a memoir…all at age 35? To hear her tell it, it was a lot of “luck.”
With her eye on a career as a food writer, she attended culinary school in New York and “luckily” landed positions at New York’s legendary Le Cirque 2000 and Vong restaurants. She left to work as assistant to Vogue magazine’s food critic, Jeffrey Steingarten, another “lucky” break, and then as events manager for renowned French chef Daniel Boulud, leading to a job at Food and Wine magazine, where her duties included managing the magazine‘s iconic food festival, the Aspen Classic. It was during this period that she “fell into” her position as permanent judge on “Top Chef.”
Remember, reality TV was in its infancy at the time. “How was I going to tell my mother I was going to be eating maggots in a bikini tied to a tree?” Gail asked an adoring crowd last month at the LA Times Festival of Books, where she was promoting her new memoir (with recipes), Talking With My Mouth Full: My Life as a Professional Eater (Hyperion, $26.99).
When I asked Gail before her appearance about all that “luck,” she admitted, “The harder I work the luckier I am.” Lesson noted.
Gail grew up in a traditional Jewish home, “celebrating the major holidays and observing rites of passage…with way too much food and a little prayer,” she wrote.
Shabbat, however, was special. “Friday night was a sacred night for our family,” she told me. “We could be busy all week with soccer and dance, but on Friday night my father came home early. All week we had dinner together in the kitchen, but on Friday night we ate in the dining room. My mother and I lit the candles, and my father did the blessings. There were always guests.”
Gail’s mother ran a cooking school, and the children grew up on leek quiche, Swiss chard and Arctic char. “She’s an ambitious cook ahead of her time, seeking great ingredients,” Gail said, “but stuffed cabbage and matzo ball soup are very much in her repertoire. She made a mean chopped liver and gets mad at me for putting wine in the brisket.”
At 18 Gail worked on a kibbutz in Israel, honing her talent for preparing perfect scrambled eggs, another bit of “luck” that would help her later. Spoiler alert: “I owe eggs for being on ‘Top Chef,’” she noted. (Read the book for the full story.)
She married a man with a “passion for old Jewish food”: kasha varnishkes, brisket, short ribs, matzo balls. “His favorites are kasha and knishes, the beiger the better,” she said.
How refreshing that this sophisticated “Top Chef” judge who weekly debates the merits of a red curry gastrique or yuzu gelée is equally happy to discuss Jewish deli food. “I do high brow and low brow,” she admitted.
What will happen to this cuisine, I wondered. “It’s a dying cuisine with a great oral tradition. These delis are family businesses, and the younger generation just doesn’t have a vested interest in them,” she reflected. But there is hope. “Ironically this kind of nose to tail cooking has come back in fashion lately,” she wrote. “Chefs love cooking giblets, liver and brains these days.”
We discussed what she calls a “Jewish deli resurgence.”
“Talented chefs are resurrecting the classics in a new, modern way that is unfussy, trendy,” she said. “Chopped chicken liver pâté on toast is on every menu in New York City, even at ABC Kitchen from [Chef] Jean Georges Vongerichten. There’s a young Jewish kid who has opened a Montreal style deli in Brooklyn.”
Since Schwartz’s Montreal Hebrew Delicatessen, “the holy grail of cured beef,” is her standard, I couldn’t resist asking her to weigh in on the perennial pastrami debate between LA’s own Langer’s and New York’s Katz’s. “Oh, I prefer Langer’s,” she said, “but I’m a 2nd Avenue Deli girl.”
Yield: One 9-inch tart
Gail’s Plum Tart is really a cake. (Interestingly, my cousin’s German mother-in-law makes a similar dish for Rosh Hashanah with tiny Italian plums that’s called a plum cake, but it’s really a tart.) Use any stone fruit or even apples or pears in season.
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
Pinch table salt
½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter at room temperature, plus more for coating pan
1 cup sugar
2 large eggs, at room temperature
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 to 1½ pounds plums, pitted and sliced ¼- to ½-inch thick
Juice of half a lemon
Cinnamon sugar (2 tablespoons sugar mixed with ½ teaspoon cinnamon)
1 Butter 9-inch springform pan.
2 In small mixing bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder and salt.
3 With an electric mixer, cream butter and sugar on medium speed until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Beat in eggs one at a time, then vanilla. Beat in flour mixture on low until batter just comes together. Spread evenly in pan. Wrap and chill for 20 minutes to overnight.
4 Preheat oven to 350°F. Arrange plums in tight concentric circles on top of dough. Squeeze lemon juice evenly over plums, then sprinkle with cinnamon-sugar. Bake for 45 to 55 minutes or until edges are golden and center is set.
5 Cool tart in pan for 10 minutes. Run a sharp knife around edge. Remove sides of pan Serve warm or at room temperature. Wrap in plastic and keep overnight at room temperature or refrigerate for longer storage.
Source: Talking With my Mouth Full by Gail Simmons
Deli Matzo Balls
Yield: 12 to 14
Gail’s favorite New York deli makes what the proprietors call “the lightest, fluffiest, most Jewish motherly matzo balls imaginable.” I added a handful of chopped Italian parsley.
1 tablespoon plus ¼ teaspoon salt
4 large eggs
1/3 cup schmaltz
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 1/3 cups matzo meal
1 Fill a large, wide stockpot ¾ full of water, add 1tablespoon salt and bring to rapid boil.
2 Meanwhile, crack eggs into large bowl and beat thoroughly. Beat in schmaltz, ¼ teaspoon salt, pepper and baking powder. Slowly fold in matzo meal, mixing vigorously until completely blended.
3 Wet hands and folding mixture in your palms, shape perfect balls about 1¼ inches in diameter (they will double in size when cooked). Gently place matzo balls in boiling water and reduce heat to a simmer. Cook for 25 minutes. Remove with slotted spoon and serve with soup.
Source: The 2nd Avenue Deli Cookbook by Sharon Lebewohl and Rena Bulkin (Villard, $24.95)