Culinary expert, food critic, Top Chef judge and special projects director at Food & Wine magazine, Gail Simmons describes how her life is connected by a deep appreciation for food in her new memoir, Talking with My Mouth Full: My Life As a Professional Eater.
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Why this book now?
When I first started thinking about a book, I didn’t know…maybe I’d write a cookbook? But then I asked myself, do I really have 100 recipes in me that have never been done before, that the world really needs to have?
Maybe someday I’ll write that cookbook, but I felt that right now, that’s not what the world needs from me. But what the world didn’t have was a take on all that’s happening on the current cooking scene, something from the professional perspective of a young woman.
I get asked a lot of questions, from “how do you judge the food, isn’t it subjective?” to “how do I order off a menu?” So I started answering those questions by explaining how I got to where I am, telling my story.
Writing a memoir must be quite different from other writing you’ve done.
This was totally different. I have helped others write books before, but here I am writing from personal experience, about my life. It’s not easy to do, these are personal conversations. And I needed to be very disciplined about it. I have another job. I needed to do it very quickly. I had six months to write the first draft, and two of those months I was traveling for the show [Top Chef] and shooting every day. So three days a week, from about 1 to 4 or 5 in the afternoon, I sat at my kitchen table with my laptop and pounded it out.
You begin each chapter with a food memory. Did you find these sensual descriptions serve as memory prompts?
Yes, they helped me bring it all back. We started the chapters with those sense memories, and they offer a glimpse of what’s to come.
So these paragraphs of food-sense memories are sort of like an appetizer, invoking the flavor of the chapter?
Yes, an appetizer! Exactly.
You’ve include such wonderfully vivid details—photographs too—that I wondered if you might be a journal keeper.
I am not a journal keeper, but my father is a devoted scrapbooker. He’s kept us each a scrapbook, not in a cutesy way, though. They are very matter of fact and organized. I’ve come to realize how lucky we are that he kept those for us. Report cards, camp photographs and postcards, he kept it all so organized…right up to the present! He still collects my articles. There are volumes for me and for my brothers, too. At a family birthday party recently, I spent hours reading them with him, realizing how extraordinary they were. That also helped me a lot.
What’s a neglected ingredient that we should all cook with more?
Well, my current favorites depend on my mood…I get obsessed with them. Over the last year, it was maple syrup…in savory or sweet, on toast. I glazed veggies with it. Now, I am into fish sauce. Also, harissa and sambal oelek, a chili-based Malaysian condiment.
What’s the grubbiest, most splattered cookbook you own?
It’s probably my first cookbook, from college, by Mollie Katzen. Vegetable Heaven. I opened it up recently, and the pages were stuck together! But there are a lot…I use Alice Waters’ cookbooks, I use Seven Fires by an Argentinean chef [Francis Mallmann] cooking meat on open flame. There’s an underrated basic cookbook that’s very inclusive, Mitchell Davis’ Kitchen Sense. He has a Ph.D. in food studies. It’s such a great resource when I have questions in my kitchen. It also has a lot of interesting ethnic recipes. But there are so many more.
How do you fit all these in a New York City kitchen?
Well, it is a little kitchen, but I redesigned it. So it’s very functional.
So you have a functional little kitchen with a lot of books?
We were lucky. Our apartment has floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, so we have lots of bookshelf space. Not closets! But plenty of space for my cookbooks. For me, that’s more important.