Gail Simmons came home with her mouth full

This is one of those blog posts that ruminates in my head for a few days, sounds great in there, and I hope that the words come out of my fingers as eloquently:

Some things you don’t learn through Facebook

I hadn’t heard the name in years.

Back in 2008 I was scrolling through Google Reader when I saw the name “Gail Simmons” in a headline in the Serious Eats feed with accompanying photo (I think this is the interview, though Serious Eats founder Ed Levine’s name was originally attached to it). I abruptly stopped, clicked, read.

“Gail Simmons?? So THAT’S what she’s up to!”, I thought. Years prior I’d seen her bio and photo and an article she wrote for FASHION Magazine, but that was the last I’d seen or heard about her.

Photo credit: Kyla Zanardi for Swallow Food*

Then in its third or fourth season, Top Chef wasn’t a show I watched. I don’t have cable, don’t watch “reality TV”, and hadn’t paid attention to Bravo’s giant ads on the subway. I’d only recently and vaguely become aware of the show after scrolling past headlines about the winner. I subsequently acquired the show and watched, to see Gail. It was a one-way reunion.

In the past I’ve felt weird about saying so on my blog or on Twitter, though I might have mentioned it in passing on rare occasion [edit – this post even sat as a draft for nearly 2 weeks & the thought of it appearing on my Facebook page via Networked Blogs gives me a bit of anxiety]. I didn’t want it to seem like I was implying that Gail and I had more of a relationship than we did now that she’s a “celebrity”. It was just a fact: Neither friends nor foes, we were in the same grade through middle & high schools.

To my recollection, she was one of the popular kids in high school. I didn’t really have a crowd. I was (and am) an introvert, displayed characteristics of my still-undiscovered ADHD, had been bullied since the beginning of grade school and mostly kept to myself. In my last couple of years, I was involved in a few low-key extracurricular activities, including contributing to the school newspaper and, when it was resurrected a few years later, becoming an editor.

As she recalled in Talking with My Mouth Full, Gail was in multiple school productions. If I recall correctly, my sister was part of the production team of some of them. I recall her singing during the annual outdoor high school concert, and what she sang. This was before YouTube, and cell phones with video capabilities.

Childhood acquaintance meets childhood celebrity crush

In the years since I’ve started watching her career I’ve thought about how lives take the trajectories they do. I feel like her and I have much in common but our lives taken different paths, as lives do. Sometimes it’s surreal to watch her. How surreal? Last year I witnessed a Twitter conversation between her and actor-turned-director Fred Savage, one of my celebrity crushes. He, his character “Kevin Arnold” and I were the same age so we shared our awkward “wonder years”.  He tweeted at her. Fred knows who she is (he’s a TV director now). Then there was her show winning an Emmy. An Emmy! It was thrilling. I genuinely enjoy seeing people I know succeed and there’s a sense of hometown pride.

When I learned that she had published a book (when did she have time??) I had to read it so I sought out the publisher. Two days before the book’s VIP & media launch at the Drake Hotel (thanks, Swallow) I got my copy (the first one they sent never arrived). I read most of it in that time. I bought a second copy from Type Books at the launch.

Similar upbringings

Gail and I grew up Jewish in adjacent neighbourhoods. We’re both the youngest of three, born to parents who are still married to one another. Me, in a kosher home with multiple sets of dishes. When we ate out we had our modified version of “kosher”. For some reason I was allowed to eat clam chowder (a favourite because I didn’t like fish) but pig was discouraged. I didn’t try bacon until after high school. Pork belly is now a favourite. I recently had the best carbonara of my life, made with pig cheek (guanciale). Gail, on the other hand, grew up eating all of it. Both of us had moms who cooked, though their cooking was different. Both of us helped in the kitchen from a young age, which I think is important for any family. For both of us, food was a large part of our upbringing. I think that for all Jews – and all people growing up with some sort of ethnic or religious background – it is.

One of the tales that Gail tells in her book is about emulating her mother in the kitchen:

When I was a little girl, she let me run around her kitchen. I loved to raid to pantry and her dried spice and herb drawer. I would take out a hundred different ingredients to make soups….fill a soup pot with water, and stand next to her on my wooden stool that had a grape scratch-and-sniff sticker on it.

I would stir, sprinkle, and season, just like my mother. It was kind of disgusting. But the actions seemed so grown-up and I loved the feeling of cooking Even if the dish was inedible, I felt the thrill of creating.

I might not have become a chef, but as a little girl I’d pretend that I was hosting a cooking show. I would pull items out of the cupboard and mix ingredients together. My mother tells one story that ends with her walking in on me surrounded with food items one morning and her being both amused and angry, wanting to simultaneously laugh and scold. I loved watching Julia Child, The Urban Peasant, Wok with Yan, etc. PBS, which aired Sesame Street, was full of cooking shows. I once critiqued my mother’s knife skills after seeing proper technique on TV.

My childhood memories include my sister and I cooking and baking with our mom. For years I made breakfast for the family every Sunday. One August my sister and I made our mom a birthday cake from a mix and forgot to grease the pan. This story was told for a long time in the context of, “Remember that time when?”

You want to be what when you grow up?

I was once asked what it is about people from Forest Hill choosing food as a career. Many of my former schoolmates have entered the industry in some way.

My short answer:

Access to a variety of good food & family traditions.

Medium length answer:

Forest Hill is an upper class and upper-middle class neighbourhood, predominantly Jewish (or was), well educated, good family structure.

The longer answer:

Some children attend a sports game, hear the crack of the bat or the scrape of the stick, feel the energy of the fans, and leave with the desire to become an athlete.

A school trip to an art gallery can result in a painter or a sculptor. Visiting a theatre, a child might become mesmerized by choreography, or dancing, or set design, or music design. Maybe they want to direct. Watching good films can later result in a career in writing, directing or editing.

Some kids see live music for the first time and feel the rush that leads them to become musicians.

Read great books? Fall in love with words and want to become a writer. (Hi!)

Take a child to a good restaurant with a solid chef and amazing food, and watch them fall in love with the food and the process. Good cooking technique is an inspiration. A beautiful plate and a variety of textures, colours and flavours, is a work of art. I’m constantly inspired by this. Chefs are stars to some, and have been since before the establishment of the Food Network. You may even have a child who, inspired later in life, grows up to be a sommelier or cicerone (beer sommelier) or cocktail bartender. Many Forest Hill parents could afford, at least sometimes, to take their children to good restaurants with great chefs – and I’m not just talking expensive restaurants. Inexpensive, well-made food can be a revelation.

All of these examples are experiential and use many or all of our senses and relate that food is a form of art.

Restaurant inspiration aside, all those Forest Hill chefs are Jewish. Judaism is infused with food traditions that get passed on through generations.

Our holidays, even the fasting ones, involve food. The fasting ones have elaborate “break fasts”.  Every Jewish family seems to have slightly different traditions, different recipes, based on their ancestry. Sephardic Jews and Ashkenazi Jews have very different food traditions. Sephardic Jews tend to be of French, Spanish, Indian or Moroccan heritage. Ashkenazi Jews are of Eastern European descent. Israeli Jews can be either but have their own, Israeli traditions. And, as I’ve already said, we had moms who cooked and let us help in the kitchen, and grandmothers who cooked. Family cooking is itself a big factor, regardless of family structure, culture or financial situation. Parents lead by example.

In her book, Gail talks about Shabbat dinner being special: Catching up on the week, having family time, saying blessings, and having good food. She talks about chopped liver, and knishes. She includes a recipe for kasha and bowties with mushroom gravy, which is a standard. Her husband has a penchant Yiddish food. I still love shabbat dinner and shabbat itself, though I rarely engage in either.

I once had a non-Jewish friend/roommate of German and Austrian descent. We ate a lot of the same traditional foods and argued about borscht and cabbage rolls. I converted her from Polish pickles to Strubb’s kosher dills.


Photo credit: Kyla Zanardi for Swallow Food

On the evening of Gail’s book launch I was nervous, over-stimulated from coffee and had just come from a job interview. When I saw her I tried to be calm but stammered something like, “We used to know each other. I don’t know if you remember me.” She did. It’s not the first time I’ve been nervous and flustered when seeing someone from high school whom I haven’t seen since, so it wasn’t specifically a “Gail Simmons from TV” thing. It’s as if I revert back to the shy kid I was.

It’s taken me nearly 1900 words & many edits to get to this point but here you go: I am proud of Gail and her accomplishments. I think it shows how some good advice, self-awareness and hard work can lead to a career you love. And so, despite having received a review copy of her book from the publisher, I bought one to share with one of my readers and I had her sign it.


In a subsequent post I’ll tell you how.

*Photo credit: Kyla Zanardi / Swallow Food

2 Responses to “Gail Simmons came home with her mouth full”

  1. April 6, 2012 at 12:20 pm #

    Cool, Andrea. And I totally know that feeling of reverting to a stammering, nervous bowl of jelly.


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