GAIL SIMMONS IS the woman we all aspire to be. She never turns down an amazing burger, has a serious opinion and she's cool as hell.
On this week's STYLE SCOUTING podcast, I SAT DOWN WITH THE TOP CHEF HOST TO TALK PRE-Bravo fame AND THE culinary roots THAT INSPIRED HER TO BRING HER PASSION TO THE AT HOME CHEF IN ALL OF US.
For the full interview download the podcast here
Alia: Top Chef started in 2006 and you've been there since the beginning.
Gail: I have. Well, we actually shot our very first season in 2005, which you had a weird little hand in, in a way.
Alia: Speaking of going back to history, I actually knew you when you were first starting the show. I remember talking to you about what are you going to wear on camera!
Gail: Yeah. I actually believe we had a conversation. This is really like 2005. I turned to you to ask you what I should wear to my screen test to go in and talk to the producers of Top Chef, to do this crazy show they had an idea to do. We discussed an outfit, and I went in and I got the job, and it’s probably because of you and the outfit, which when I think about it now, it’s a hilarious thing.
Alia: I think there was a skinny belt involved...
Gail: Totally. We shot our first season in 2005, and it aired in 2006, which means we have been making the show for a decade, which is pretty amazing and hard to believe.
Gail: A lot of my life, because I was 6 when we started, and I’m only 16 now:)
Alia: It’s the number 1 rated show on cable right now.
Gail: Food show.
Alia: Food show, and you just started your 13th season?
Gail: We did. We shot our 13th season last spring in California, and it’s on the air right now on Thursday’s at 9 O’clock, sometimes 10. It was at 10, now it’s at 9 starting this week, I think.
Alia: This Thursday is all about going back to your culinary roots. What is better than for you to take us back to your culinary roots? We’re actually at DBGB in Manhattan, and you actually had a hand in Daniel Boulud’s empire as special events manager for Daniel back in the day.
Gail: I did, I mean, have a hand, a very small, tiny little hand, miniature hand, before I worked in Food & Wine. I’ve been at Food & Wine for 11 years, and it was through Food & Wine that I started doing Top Chef, but before my job at Food & Wine, I worked for 3 years for Daniel Boulud, one of the world’s greatest chefs, most innovative, amazing, generous, hospitable men in the universe. I was his special events manager, so I did PR, and marketing, and special events, and projects with him. Everything from helping with his books and his press, to opening restaurants. DBGB was not open when I worked for him, because I worked for him now 12, 13, 14 years ago. Wow, we’re getting old, but when I was working for him, it really, I would say, laid the groundwork for so much about my life and work in the food industry. I was already working in the food industry before I came to Daniel, but I always like to say Daniel Boulud gave me an MBA in the world of restaurants. He taught me about the business of restaurants, which is such a huge part of my life on Top Chef. The business of actually being a chef is what I learned from him, and that was a massive lesson and a huge education, that I’m so grateful for. It’s nice to be back at DBGB which is his downtown, most casual restaurant, and the man can make serious fancy food, but he also knows how to make a burger, so I’m always happy to eat whatever he wants to serve me.
Alia: When Gail Simmons invites you to have a burger, you don’t say no.
Gail: I like to say, when Daniel Boulud offers you a job, you don’t say no, so we’re putting it all together today, that works.
Alia: Well, I have a friend who is a huge foodie. She does not ever miss an episode of Top Chef.
Gail: Thank you friend.
Alia: I put it out there to all my fans, what would you ask Gail Simmons? I’m talking to her. What do you want to know? Literally it didn’t even hit the air, and I got a text from her, and it was an all emoji text. I’m a huge fan of all emoji texts.
Gail: Oh yeah. What was it?
Alia: 10 dancing girls, some hearts and firecrackers thrown in there, thumbs up, first punch, followed by ‘I hope you’re wearing something good.’ Hilarious. She’s in finance. She’s not a fashion girl, and I was laughing to myself thinking, well I’m not asking her out on a girl date, but it really reminded me what a culinary role model you are to so many women, and a role model in general. You’re a working mother with a career who actually is an expert in her field. I think a lot of the social stars we see today are … They’re famous because of their connections and who they know, but I can tell everyone out there that Gail is a star, just like us. You actually went to culinary school.
Gail: I did, yeah.
Alia: Did you imagine that you would be a TV personality?
Gail: Never in a million years. It’s funny to think back on the trajectory of my career, because life in general takes you on a path you never anticipate. I like to say I’m not smart at a lot of things, but I least I have the wherewithal to walk the doors that were open to me to the left and to the right, instead of staying straight on the path that I had planned, because when you plan and you stick to strictly to that path, you really miss out on all the good stuff. I knew from probably my last year of college, that I wanted to work in food media, but back then, media really meant print. That was publishing, print publishing, and this was literally when email was starting, when the internet was beginning more or less.
Alia: But you’re 16.
Gail: But I’m 16- LOL- really no. It was before blogs and before the explosion of … Certainly before social media. I really had this idea that I wanted to be in food writing. After working as an intern in a magazine and really deciding that food was my beat, food was my jam, I was instructed, look, anyone could be a good writer. Anyone could be in media but if you want to be in food, you actually need to know something about food, which was a revelation to me. I think it’s still a revelation to a lot of young people I speak to, because I was like, yeah, I know you like to eat, but PS, you’re human. So does everybody, because you have to do it to survive, so just because you like to eat doesn’t mean you’re an expert in cooking and in food. That motivated me to quit my job. I was an intern, and then I was an editorial assistant at a newspaper. I grew up in Toronto, Canada, and I went to work, I went to culinary school. I moved to New York. I dropped my life in Canada, moved here, and went to culinary school, and learned how to cook. I realized more than anything that if I wanted to be an authority, and get an edge over the hundreds of other people who thought that they were into food and wanted to work in the food industry, that I really needed to speak the language of the kitchen. I really needed to understand the way a chef’s mind works, and so I went to culinary school and then I worked in restaurants. I was a line cook for a long time, and it was the hardest work. I got my ass handed to me every single day on a really shiny platter. It hurt, and I cried. I also learned so much. It gave me so much strength of character and integrity, and it really did make me understand the world of the kitchen, and informed everything I did from then. From there I went to work at Vogue magazine, which was probably around the time I met you. I worked for the food critic at Vogue for several years as his assistant doing a million things from recipe testing to research. Then from there, I went to work for Daniel, and then Food & Wine, and television was just … Food television was only a thing when I was at Daniel. It became a thing that wasn’t just cooking demonstration shows on television …
Alia: Right, tutorials...
Gail:… or chefs cooking. I wasn’t either of those things, and so when I got to Food & Wine, and Bravo came to Food & Wine and said we have this crazy idea for a show, and Food & Wine put me up for it, I could not even … My first thought was literally, how am I going to explain this to my mother? Because they used the word reality television, and now, reality television is a real thing. I mean, it’s staying and we all … That’s the majority of television so much of us watch in some way or form, but at the time it was, will I be tied to a tree eating maggots in a bikini, and how am I going to justify that? But I knew Bravo was serious. I knew that Tom Collichio who had just signed on to be the top judge was serious, and I knew Food & Wine would never put me up for something they didn’t believe in. it turned out they were right, so thank god, and it changed the course of my life.
Alia: What’s it like behind the scenes? Do you think that’s the glossy side that we all don’t see on camera?
Gail: We’re not so glossy.
Alia: Or the not glossy side. How do you guys develop the challenges, and what does the production look like? How long does it take to film, let’s say, one episode that we’ll see?
Gail: One episode of Top Chef takes 2 to 3 days, a quick fire on one day, then the elimination challenge the next, sometimes one, mostly just one day. Sometimes it takes 2 days depending on how much time we need to cook the challenges. The one thing to know that most people don’t realize, is that we shoot the entire season in one foul swoop, because we need to quarantine the contestants, and we need to do it all at once. They can’t go home and come back, and let them be scattered across the universe …
Alia: Because you’d know who got eliminated.
Gail: Right. You need it to be contained, so we shoot every single day for 6 weeks basically, once a year, for Top Chef proper. There used to be a whole bunch of spin offs, Top Chef Just Deserts, Top Chef Masters, and they were separately shot as well, but Top Chef takes a total of about 6 weeks to shoot. We do the bulk of the season upfront, 5 weeks every single day, meaning we do a quick fire one day, elimination challenge the next, quick fire the next day, elimination challenge the next. We get a few down and dark days in between, but you just do it all in one shop super fast. The chefs also get tired, and it becomes a bit of a mental game as well.
Gail: It really is, but you have to do it that way, so that they are all in the same boat and it’s fair, and they are all experiencing the same thing at the same time, so that’s it’s a level playing field. Then we break for a few months, then we do the finale for one week several months later. We shot this past season in California, and we were all over the state, so the season took a little bit longer because we needed a few days of travel time between cities. We shot for 6 weeks, and every episode is 2 to 3 days, so our days are long. If you think about the setup of a challenge, we have 6 to 8 cameras going at all times. They’re there when the chefs get up in the morning. They’re there to tuck in the chefs at night, and everything in between, so it’s 8 cameras for 15, 18 hours a day sometimes. Plus the jib, which is the big camera that swoops in and does all those fancy shots, so there’s a lot of work. There’s a lot of camera time that gets boiled down to 44 minutes.
Alia: Wow. Top Chef really exposes young talent, unknown talent. I assume that that would be one of the reasons that somebody would be interested in the show, is more exposure, to get their break. What does it take to be a rising chef these days? Do you have to go to culinary school? Do you have to know the right people? In your opinion, how do chefs make it today?
Gail: It’s such a confluence of so many things. Right now, I think, is a great time to be a chef, because there is a respect and an interest in food and cooking, and the world of the kitchen that’s greater than ever before. At the same time there’s so much competition, and I’m not just even talking about New York City where I’m based, around the world. It’s straight up the world of the kitchen and being a chef has always been one of the hardest jobs I can imagine, regardless of where you’re doing it. It doesn’t matter if you’re doing it at a restaurant like this, at a well-respected fine dining establishment, or you’re doing it at a local diner. It is hard, manual labor at all levels. You are on your feet 12 hours a day. You are working with fire and knives and it is …
Gail: Literally, and it is teamwork in a way that even day to day in most jobs people don’t have to work. Then, even if you have the best night of dinner service, the next morning the slate is wiped clean, and you have to do it all over again. You can never rest on your laurels, so becoming a chef and really making it these days is incredibly difficult. Do you have to go to culinary school? Absolutely not. Does it help lay a foundation? These days, yes. It teaches you the technique and foundation that you need. That’s not to say it’s the only way to do it, but it certainly helps and forces you to really get a well-rounded education before you take the next step. But many of the great chefs of the world certainly, including Tom Collichio never went to culinary school. They learned from real practical experience, getting into a kitchen, starting as a dishwasher and working their way up. I think what people don’t realize about being a chef, and so the one thing I want to clarify is the term chef. When I say chef, I don’t mean someone who cooks in a restaurant. The word chef means boss in French, so I when I use the term chef, I really only refer to the head of a kitchen, someone who is leading the team, who is the one making the decisions, creating a menu, and dealing with all those pieces that come together to make the restaurant work.
Alia: See, I think that’s interesting, because I wouldn’t as an outsider have any idea that chef means, like you said, the head …
Alia: … leading a team. A lot of people assume chef means I cook.
Gail: Nope. People love to call me a chef. People are like, oh chef Gail Simmons, and I always correct them, not because I’m not a competent cook. I went to culinary school. I was a line cook. I call myself a culinary expert, a food expert, a food critic, whatever you want to say, but the term chef, because of the way I was trained, is really reserved for people who are working to lead a kitchen every day. The chefs on our show, they’re chefs. They are experts. They are professional chefs who do this every single day. They’re not amateurs who want to be chefs, and they are so talented. They work so hard, getting to their level … That’s what I was getting to before I got distracted by terminology, is a long process. There aren’t any shortcuts, and I think in some ways, shows like ours have glamorized the world of chefs to think, oh I want to be a chef. I can snap my fingers, and go on a TV show, and become a “celebrity chef,” but it takes a long time and a lot of hard work, and keeping your head down, and burning your fingertips. Every cook on our show has been doing it for many years to get to their level, and they are just on the brink of being discovered. At this stage, what I’m so proud about of our show, is that it is all chefs who, 13 seasons in, are all executive chefs. Many of them own their own restaurants, or are the head of restaurants, executive sous chefs and chef du cuisine, 1st and 2nd in command of their posts. None of them are entry level cooks.
Alia: I can imagine if I was in your shoes seeing all of this amazing rock star talent, that people are pulling you for your advice and your ideas along the way, or you just naturally share your expertise with the people that you meet along the way on the show. I read that you also mentor a lot of students that are interested in the culinary world.
Alia: One, how are you not Mother Teresa, just collecting culinary stars around you?
Gail: If only there were 74 hours in a day.
Alia: How did you get involved in the mentorship, and why do you think it’s so important?
Gail: First, when I came to Top Chef, I came as the representative, as the voice of Food & Wine magazine. I’ve been working with Food & Wine for many years in different capacities, but the reason that we at Food & Wine chose to do this show, and took that leap originally back when there weren’t any other food competition shows like it, was that the MO of Food & Wine has always been to discover talent. Everyone covers chefs. Lots of people cover recipes and trends, but Food & Wine has always been about discovering new, young talent, whether it’s chefs, mixologists, sommeliers, artisans, whatever it is. This show, when Bravo pitched it to us, really was aligned to that idea, and it’s always been ingrained in our genetic code that we are trying to find it first, and be the people who can help to spread the gospel of these young talents. Mentorship and discovering has always been at the core of what we do at the magazine. It’s the piece, I think, where I got the idea and the interest in mentorship. I also had a lot of really amazing mentors help me out. There’s no question that I couldn’t have done what I’ve done so far without them. People like Daniel Boulud, and Jeffrey Steingartnen at Vogue, and Dana Cowin, our former editor at Food & Wine as of last Friday, and our publisher there, Christine Grdovic. All these people who trusted me, and helped me, and let me fail, and then helped pick me up. I try to do the same on the show. I think that’s really a piece of my world, to be constructive and not just to take people down, but to help them understand what they’re doing wrong and how they can improve, and then in the rest of my life to do the same.
I have a role at Babson College, which is an entrepreneurial college, and it’s a very academic college. It’s an incredible school, and their school of entrepreneurship, because of the world we live in, has a lot of young students who are starting businesses in the food space. I’m an Entrepreneur-in-Residence there, and I help them with their food projects. I do it for a lot of food incubators as well, and then of course, for young chefs that I work with on the show and otherwise. You can’t force that relationship. I think that chemistry is so much about the mentorship process, but I do think that … My advice to anyone who wants to work in the food industry is to find someone to emulate, and to find someone who inspires them, and then to just follow them around like a puppy dog and keep their mouth shut so they can listen, but open so that they can taste.
Alia: Let’s talk about food trends.
Alia: Is there a zeitgeist in the food scene? Like for example, I’m obsessed with Mozart in the Jungle right now.
Gail: Yeah, I think you’re not alone.
Alia: But, I like to say I was watching it before the Golden Globes!
Alia: He drinks yerba mate. It’s a big part of the show, I Googled it. I’m now listening to Rachmaninoff, classical music in the morning. I’ve transformed my life, but are there cultural events and things that happen that influence cooking styles that are popular and trends in food?
Gail: There’s no question. People ask chefs all the time, where do you get your inspiration, and so many chefs that I work with … and I do the same. I think we all do. You can’t help it because we are sentient beings. You take inspiration from everywhere, from art, from … and that could be a museum. It can be street art. It can be everything around you. It can be obviously fashion and style, color, photography. There’s so many influences that assault your senses every day, that for sure come out …
Alia: I like that, assault your sense.
Gail: They do, especially living in New York City. As soon as I step out my door every morning, there are 10,000 things coming at me from all 5 senses. I think what’s interesting about food, more than any other craft or any other art, is that it uses all 5 senses. You can’t say that necessarily about music, or about art. To cook and eat, you need to hear the food sizzling in the pan. You need to see it. You need to touch it. You need to taste it. You need to hear it. You need to be aware of it in such a all-encompassing and holistic way, and so you can’t help but bring in influences from everywhere. I’m always amazed at, whenever I go to events, or awards, or even stuff on the street of artists in other genres, how drawn they are to food, mostly because a lot of artists travel a lot and have to eat out a lot. Whenever I’m with a musician, or an artist, or an actor, they, to me, have some of the strongest and most interesting opinions about food, because they’re so aware, hyper aware of their senses. They also have to spend so much time on the road, and so they can’t help it, pay a lot of attention to what’s going in their mouth.
Alia: It’s so interesting.
Gail: I think the same happens with food. I mean, you look at, I don’t know, film …
Alia: The hashtag food porn.
Gail: Yeah, food porn. I mean, food porn was a thing for us, for people in the food world forever, but now it’s everywhere. There’s a massive percentage of every bit of social media that’s just about food, doesn’t matter if you don’t know any. I love when people tell me that they're not a foodie. People tell me all the time, "Oh, I don't know about that. I'm not a foodie," but you're alive. You breathe, so you eat. You have to eat 3 times a day, so you might as well make it good. I don't care if you don't love eating fancy, complicated things. As a human, you need to eat every single day, many times to survive, so you have an opinion.
Alia: It’s so funny. I say the exact same thing when somebody says to me, “Well, I don’t have any style.” It’s no, you have a closet. You have clothes in that.
Gail: You make decisions every day.
Alia: You get dressed every day, and whether or not you choose to be active in that role, you still are getting dressed and putting things on, so why not think about it?
Gail: Even that’s not active. You might fall into your comfort zone. We all do, or you might … You’re absolutely right. It’s the exact same thing. Personal style, where … There’s an out of left personal style in every genre, and food is part of that, 100%.
Alia: I think a lot of people, when you make the natural connection, personal style and food, but style’s a holistic lifestyle.
Gail: It absolutely is. Food is such a outcropping of self, it’s such a show of self. How you cook says so much about who you are. What you cook, what your tastes are, where you eat, who you eat with, it all says so much about self. Even if it’s that you choose to eat a can of beans every night for dinner, or you choose to just make plain pasta with butter, that is such a piece of who you are, and says so much about who you are.
Alia: Yeah, or put hot sauce on everything.
Gail: Right. I like that person! I want to know that person!
Alia: Come over. Top food trends for 2016, what’s on other’s minds? What are chef’s loving? What can we expect to see this year?
Gail: There’s a lot. There’s so many things. Let’s get specific. Everyone is thinking about … Everyone’s always asking me, “What’s the next kale?”
Alia: That’s the next question. What’s the next brussels sprout?
Gail: Right. What’s the next special … What’s the next kale? I would say seaweed. I’d say seaweed’s real big right now in a lot of ways.
Gail: Yeah, you’re going to see it more and more, and sometimes you might not even know that it’s seaweed. Seaweed actually shows itself in a lot of ways chemically, things like seaweed has a lot of amazing properties, not to mention a lot of naturally occurring minerals and vitamins that are amazing for you in your health. It’s applicable for beauty, but it’s absolutely applicable for ingestion. I think the salty savoriness and the vegetal aspects of seaweed are going to be big this year.
Alia: All right, let’s do a little 60 Second Style with Gail Simmons...
Alia: Super Bowl dish that anyone can make, and will win over the party.
Gail: I always say chicken wings. If you don’t want chicken wings during Super Bowl, I don’t want to hang out with you. I have always been a sucker for a spicy chicken wing. They never go out of style for me, and people get intimidated by them, but they’re really easy to make. The hotter the better, and anyone can make them.
Alia: Best answer ever. Okay, the best menu you can serve at a casual dinner party. What’s your foolproof go to?
Gail: My foolproof go to for a casual dinner, to me, is something that can be made in advance, so that when the guests are there, you can just be chilled out and look like it ain’t no thing. That to me right now, especially in these chilly winter days, is a soup or a stew, or some sort of braised meat that the day before, you put on a stove, and you put a bunch of veggies and herbs in it, and you let it go for a few hours. Then you cool it and you put it in the fridge. The next day, friends come over. You warm it up and it’s totally done, and it even tastes better than it would have the day before.
Alia: I love that because I’m always the last minute one in the kitchen, and everyone’s asking “Can I help?” That just totally stresses me.
Gail: We all are because it’s hard to plan in advance, and no one has time to dedicate 2 days to a dinner party, but if you have 2 hours that day, you can do something else with those hours. You can take those 2 hours, do it the night before, make a stew, and you’re done. Crusty bread, some red wine, nothing else.
Alia: Okay, top three restaurants if you’re coming in New York City. Let’s do a mix of fancy and casual. Where do I need to eat in New York City right now?
Gail: Right, but I would say other places that I’m obsessed with right now, I really love … It’s been around for a couple of years, but every time I go there, it gets better and better, Pig & Khao on the Lower East Side. It’s south east Asian, really strong Filipino influence, and I love it I love Vic’s, which is a casual but bright and modern Italian restaurant in NoHo. If you really want to go glam, I love fancy cocktails and raw bar at ZZ’s Clam Bar, and I love …
Alia: We just talked about how food brings people together. Dead or alive, if you could have the ultimate dinner party, three people, who would you invite?
Gail: So hard. You want people who will keep conversation going, and who really appreciate great, simple food. I would want Michael Palin, who is an incredible voice and thought leader in the food space right now, understanding why we eat, and how to eat better, and how the decisions we make with our wallet every day affect the bigger world of agriculture around us, and food waste, and so he inspires me. I want someone like Pink at my dinner table, because I happen to know she loves food. She’s badass and fun, and she’ll make everyone just a little bit uncomfortable, but also she will never turn down a great meal. In a good way, uncomfortable. She’ll get you out of your comfort zone.
Alia: That was an unexpected guest. I did not see her coming to the table.
Gail: I’m telling you she knows how to eat, that girl.
Alia: Very interesting...
Gail: Then she does some acrobatics overhead, and sing some awesome ballad that you really wanted to bring spring class to. Then my 3rd guest should be someone dead. You know what? Just because of the month we’re in, let’s say David Bowie, because he was an icon in all things, I don’t know 5, 4 decades of our lives, and he …
Alia: And you know he’d wear something amazing...
Gail: Wear something amazing, have beautiful opinions. He was smart, and eloquent, and brilliant, and I think the world’s going to miss him.
Alia: Yeah, I agree. I love that dinner party.
Gail: A lot of music, and I think David Bowie and Michael Palin, that’s the craziest dinner party, but I’m into it.
Alia: You’re a huge fan of the at home chef. Let’s talk a little bit about … You obviously judge dishes every day. What makes an outstanding dish? What are the elements that you look
Alia: You’re not hard judging their meal?
Gail: I really don’t judge food. I just want … I mean the fact, if anyone wants to take the time to cook for me, I will eat it ravenously and happily, and be honored to just sit at someone else’s table. It’s hard to get dinner invites sometimes, because people are scared I’m going to judge their food, and I really don’t. In the context of my work, when I’m judging people’s food, it’s all about balance. You want food to hit different parts of your palate, balanced not only in flavor but in texture. That doesn’t mean everything has to have everything all at once, but there needs to be a balance and an interest, so you want savory and spicy. You want salty and sweet. You want a little crunch or smoothness, but if you’re going to give a crunch, it needs to be a real crunch.
If you’re going to give smoothness, I don’t want grainy. Then looking at a plate, and tasting a plate, understanding intention and technique. Why did a chef put something there? Why did they pair anchovies and chili? Why did they choose to cook the meat to rare instead of medium rare? There’s that, the intention, but then also the technique. If they did something a certain way, was it warranted? Does it make sense, and is that the best preparation to honor the food that they’re making?
Alia: As an at home chef, how can I think about … I’m not a huge fan of recipes. To me, it’s too constructive. I feel like I’m in a little prison. I like to take a recipe and twist it, and try something new. What are the foundations or the basics that I should know as an at home chef, before I can get to that place where I can start my own …
Gail: I love that question because I tend to think to think of home cooks in 2 camps, the recipe readers, and the improvisers. They’re very different types of people, and you’re usually one or the other. The reason being, exactly as you just said, recipe people are too nervous, don’t feel the self-confidence to just wing it, but people who wing it often can’t sit down and follow, don’t want to because it feels like following a recipe is constraining, but I think you need a little bit of both. Reading a recipe is an interesting exercise, and I always challenge people to sit and read a recipe when you’re not trying to cook it. Sit down and read a few recipes the way you would read pages of a book, a novel, because when you start reading a lot of recipes, and are really familiar with the way recipes are written, a lot of patterns emerge. Those patterns are there for a reason. There is one way to sauté a piece of meat. There is one way to braise food. When you say pan fry or roast, all of these techniques are hundreds of years old, tried, tested and true in every culture in the world. if you understand that technique behind it, you’ll gain confidence, and you’ll understand then how to deviate from them, and when to deviate from them. The time to deviate from a recipe is not to try and braise something …
Alia: Like with a blow torch!
Gail: With a blow torch, correct, because that’s not what braising is. There’s a definition to braising, and if you do it well, and you understand the technique, it will work every time. That’s when you can start experimenting, because you know that technique of braising. You can start improvising with temperature and then flavor, and if a recipe says to add thyme and … thyme the herb and lemon, you can instead try to do it with Thai basil and lime and see where that takes you, or fish sauce and ginger, or whatever it is. You’ll start to understand that technique, improvising technique is not a thing. Improvising flavor and texture and nuance, that’s where things get really exciting in the kitchen.
Alia: Let’s talk about stocking a pantry. I’m open to cooking lots of different types of food. Let’s talk dinner. Are there certain ingredients that I should always have stocked in my pantry? What’s my basic?
Gail: Sure. I mean, so many, I could go forever, but if I think about 5 things that are always in my pantry …
Alia: But are super versatile.
Gail: Pantry slash fridge, there’s always citrus, lemons, limes, grapefruit, oranges, one kind or another because they have acid and sweetness, and they can pump up the flavor of any dish always. Parmesan cheese can be put on anything, real Parmesan, not grated in a container, real block of Parmesan …
Alia: That you grate?
Gail: That you grate yourself. It’ll be fresher. It’ll last longer. It’ll have way more flavor. It’ll keep forever if it’s stored properly in wax paper and then in plastic wrap. You can use it on everything from toast to eggs to pasta to roasted vegetables, and when you get down to the rind at the very end, you take that rind and you throw it in that soup that you’re making …
Alia: No way.
Gail: … and let it sit in the soup for a couple of hours, and then pull it out right before serving the soup. It’ll add just a touch of savory sweetness to your soup or your stew.
Alia: That's amazing.
Gail: It’s very versatile. Dried beans, chickpeas, black eyed peas, kidney beans, whatever they are, quinoa, a bottle of champagne never hurts in your fridge at all times.
Alia: In case you have an unexpected dinner party.
Gail: Right, and there it is, and eggs. Eggs, to me, are the single most versatile food ever.
Gail: For sure. Eggs are a meal on themselves, breakfast, lunch, or dinner. They can be made on their own in 50 different ways. They can be added to a million different dishes to enhance the dish. If you throw an egg on top of roasted asparagus, a fried egg, and you have the perfect breakfast or lunch. You throw some parmesan cheese on that and it’s even better with a squeeze of lemon, and there you are.
Alia: With a mimosa.
Gail: With a mimosa. I’m telling you, you’ve got it all.
Alia: I love it. you should do a whole cookbook just on those 5 ingredients. You should write that cook book.
Gail: I know. You could, and I will perhaps.
Alia: Who’s doing amazing things in cookbooks right now? Who do you love, and what chefs do you think break down complicated technique in a way that the at home chef can really understand and appreciate?
Gail: There’s so many good cookbooks. I hoard them, and use them in so many ways, obviously for inspiration, for dinner ideas. I read them because they’re beautiful, and I’m always interested in them in terms of style. Some chefs I think that have recently written really great books are Hugh Acheson. He wrote a book last year called The Broad Fork, which is a vegetable based cookbook, but he’s not vegetarian, and the book’s not vegetarian. It encapsulates the way we all should be and could be eating right now if we understood vegetables, and could really make them the center of our plate. That’s really inspiring to me.
Alia: I love Food52.
Gail: They’re amazing girls, and I’m sure there’s men who work there too, but I’m talking about the founders Marilyn and Amanda. They had such a good idea that they have built up in so many ways, but to me, the core of what they do and makes it different is the community that they’ve created, and the way that they amass recipes from their readers, and help them feel empowered by their recipes. Then they’ve created books from them. My father became a vegan 3 years ago, and at the age of 75. I have a vegan father, and it’s amazing. He inspires me and infuriates me for a lot of reasons because of it. I bought him the Food52 vegan cookbook for Christmas, and it was, to him, incredible because sure there’s other vegan cookbooks out there, but it made him feel like he can cook stylishly and beautifully, and that he wasn’t overlooked and given side dishes.
Alia: Who do you follow on Instagram?
Gail: I have so many. I have like 750 people or something. I don’t know. It’s like I’m looking...I’m always finding gorgeous food photography in unexpected ways. You go down the hole of Instagram. I love following things like Spoon University, which is probably meant for people younger than me, but they make food ridiculously pornographic, and that’s what makes people want to see it, and it never gets old. I follow Crunchy Radish on Instagram. I follow A Cozy Kitchen. I follow a lot of chefs who I think are really obviously good at taking picture. I follow … God, there’s just a million. I’m trying to look and think of my favorite food stuff.
Alia: I’m totally putting you on the spot here, but is there anyone beyond the photography that you follow for good ideas?
Gail: Oh yeah. All of them. A lot of them are bloggers who do a lot of great recipes, bakeries. I have a small dessert obsession, so I follow a lot of bakers. Dominique Ansel, and Mr. Holmes Bakehouse in San Francisco are two. Lune Croissanterie, which is a French bakery.