Gail Simmons on food writing and Top Chef S15: 'My job is of a cheerleader, a champion for chefs'
More than any eager chef, serving up their best creations, it’s the role of the food critic that appears to hold everyone’s attention today.
With or without the suspenseful background score on reality food shows, the slow twirling of the food critic’s fork, the pensive mulling over a loving spoonful, and the deliberate approvals of flavours, textures, balance of taste and so on... that’s the new dream of so many youngsters looking to make a mark in the food industry today.
Fortunately, we have someone like Gail Simmons to look up to — who began championing food long before the days of Insta gourmands and cordon bleus on YouTube, and has quite literally, made food criticism an art form that one can aspire to, as much as whipping up new dishes to pack off to celebrity diners around the world.
But first, she insists, you must, imperatively, learn how to cook. Here’s a chat with one of the world’s leading masters of food criticism...
The idea of food journalism has never been as glamorous as it is today — from TV shows and OTT specials to cookbooks and bloggers. How do you see yourself as an ambassador for food journalism in the new world — a trendsetter for people to seek the pleasures of food, be it as a chef, as a gourmand, a critic, or even as a food photographer?
When I started out, I knew I wanted to be in food media, and it really just meant one thing — it meant magazines, newspapers and cookbooks. It really meant the print media, and that was what I set out to do.
Over the last 20 years, food media and food writing has changed so much, and I feel great that I’ve been able to adapt and change with it.
What I love about today is that you can do so many things in the food world that weren’t available to me. You can be a food blogger, you can make videos, you can write online, and you can be a food stylist — there are so many jobs out there, that came to be only in the last 20 years.
And, I love that now, the food world is so wide and that the food world has so many opportunities. For me, what I tell young people who want to be food writers, or who want to work in the food world is that, it’s still the most important thing if you want to differentiate yourself, to be the best at what you do, and make a mark in the industry — you still need to learn how to cook, and you still need to take time to learn your craft.
It’s easy for anyone to set up an Instagram account and say they’re a food blogger, but to rise in the industry, and to prove that you have the knowledge and the expertise takes many, many years of work and understanding of the restaurant industry. There are no shortcuts to that, just like there are no shortcuts to being a great chef.
Great chefs aren’t born, they are trained. It takes many years, and the same applies here. I’m proud that I had amazing mentors, and amazing readers who gave me time, and allowed me to learn from them.
That’s always a part of the process, and I’m always happy to do the same. Yes, I need a title — so, I’m called a ‘food expert’ or a ‘food critic’ or a ‘food writer’.
But really, what I think of what I do — my job in the food world is that of a cheerleader, and a champion for chefs and food industry professionals. To use my platform to share the best of the world of food for as many people as I can.
How did food meet with travel, to expand on your existing culinary interests? How did you go from being a food critic and ‘professional eater’ to a travelling foodie and even a culinary anthropologist? How do the cultures of the world come together for you, with food?
I studied anthropology in college, and I loved studying culture. Food, to me, is a window into culture, and food is the perfect way to understand every culture in the world — not just in the present, but in the past, and the future as well.
When I graduated from college and realised that food is where I was headed, that’s what I wanted to do — I wanted to cook. I wanted to study and write about food as an exchange of culture and human interaction.
I realised that food is the perfect metaphor for bringing people together; to understand how cultures work, and how people communicate. Coming around the table and sharing a meal is one thing that we all have in common, in every culture in the world.
It creates a sense of community, and says so much about who we are. The way we eat says so much about where we’re from, the soil we grew up on, the climate, the way we run our families, the way we celebrate... and so, for me to do that well, I had to learn to cook. There was no way for me to understand and fully appreciate the world of food until I understood how to work in a kitchen.
So then, I went to culinary school and learnt how to cook, and that opened up a world to me, where I could travel. And, the more I travelled, the more I could understand every different culture that I came upon.
The more cultures I’d learn about, through the lens of food and eating, and sharing meals and understanding food traditions, the bigger my world became — and the more I learnt about the underlying things about the world.
Learning tolerance, patience, all of these lessons... learning things about raising a family. All these things are inherent in learning how to cook and taste the food of the world. That has been my goal — to share in those things, and understand those things, because there’s always more to learn.
Have you ever had any visions about how your line of work could evolve in the future? Allow us to think aloud — but let’s say, food in outer space? Or how about, personalised food experiences on a virtual platform?
The world is changing very quickly, and the food is becoming more and more accessible in terms of being able to try different food from around the world, in different places.
I also think that the world of fine dining is changing, even as fine dining is so inaccessible to so many people in the world.
But now, the top chefs of the world are learning that the best way to share what they do is to do it at a more accessible level, whether it’s with fast food or more casual food — I think, that’s what people want to eat.
As a food critic, my goal is to be a food champion. I want to bring good food to the most number of people that I possibly can.
And so, for me, it’s about being positive, writing about and sharing and championing great casual food that reaches the most people it can in the world, and making it as accessible, and as appreciated as possible.
Whether that is sharing the story of a young chef who’s doing something creatively or introducing a new cuisine to a place that has never tasted it before.
Also, I do think that virtual dining will become something important, as it will take people who can’t travel on a journey, and that’s what going to a restaurant does.
I’m lucky to travel a lot, but there are a lot of places I’ve never been to before. I’ve never been to India, but I’ve been to some amazing Indian restaurants. Not fancy ones, but simple, beautiful restaurants that just take me away, they transport me.
Catch Gail on Top Chef Season 15 on AXN.
— Jaideep Sen