Tossed Salads and Scrambled Eggs

Dessert party with Gail Simmons at Palace Ballroom – Downtown, Seattle

Posted on: Monday 05 March 2012

Presented by Book Larder, the dessert party with Gail Simmons was held at the Palace Ballroom and coincided with the Top Chef season 9 finale on leap day. I love MasterChef Australia but I haven’t watched Top Chef so I was curious about Gail‘s memoir, Talking with My Mouth Full.

Banners of each chapter in cursive font and a symbolic illustration decorated the space.

The dessert menu was three chalkboards tied together with string.

Clockwise from top: schnecken, apple cake, derby tartlet, and chocolate meringue pie. The recipe of Tom Douglas’ grandmother, the schnecken was sticky sweet rolled and glazed pastry sprinkled with chopped nuts. Gail’s plum cake made with apple was scented and light. Chewy and nutty, the derby tartlet was a bite size treat. A pillowy twirl of burnished meringue rested on a chocolate filled crust, the mini pie was the highlight of the dessert party.

Rhubarb dump with crème Anglaise in a ramekin.

Tom Douglas welcomed us to the desert party, and introduced Amy Pennington and Gail Simmons. Amy is the host of Check, Please! Northwest which premieres this Thursday 8 March at 7pm on KCTS 9.

Both ladies listened to each other with intent and were animated in conversation. Gail’s mantra of ‘the harder you work, the luckier with are’ resonated with me.

Gail cited Survivor and Fear Factor as the stigma of the reality television genre when she filmed her first episode of the inaugural season of Top Chef in 2005. Many hours of footage from many cameras were edited for each show. Instead of applying a formula to the judging panel, their styles developed as a team.

Gail’s father was born in South Africa. He moved to Canada in the 60s and met her mother in Montreal on a blind date. Gail’s mother operated a cooking school out of her home kitchen and wrote a regular column for Canada’s national newspaper, The Global and Mail.

Gail graduated with a liberal arts degree with majors in anthropology (she ‘really likes monkeys’!) and Spanish (the language of kitchens). Gail wrote reviews of ‘ghetto’ restaurants for her university newspaper.

Her mother’s best friend, Linda, inspired Gail to enrol in culinary school to learn the science of cooking. Linda encouraged Gail to write down what she loves, and on the piece of paper was ‘eat, write, travel, cook’. Culinary school is a modern construct, and to speak and write ‘with authority’, she needed to know the subject.

In New York Gail worked for the esteemed Vogue food critic, Jeffrey Steingarten. Gail described her former boss as an extraordinary mind, a meticulous researcher and self-deprecating. It was ‘an education’ to be Steingarten’s assistant, a difficult job that has ‘opened doors’.

Gail recalled a dry aged meat experiment for an article where Steingarten left the meat on the counter to rot. Dry aging of meat is a calibrated process in a precise environment and Gail cleaned up the putrid meat with maggots before Steingarten returned from overseas!

Gail noted that physical strength is an attribute required in kitchens, it is gruelling manual labour to ‘execute a chef’s vision’. A key to success to knowing ‘when to keep mouth shut’! Gail emphasised the importance of goals and to be flexible with the path to achieve them.

As a judge she uses descriptive words (‘oozy’!) and assesses each dish objectively. She recommends Stephanie Izard‘s Girl and the Goat in Chicago, Spike Mendelsohn‘s Good Stuff Eatery in Washington DC and Harold Dieterle‘s Perilla in New York of the Top Chef contestants.

An audience question about Gail’s health was controversial. Amy stated that the question would not have been posed to a man. Gail responded that it is an ‘occupational hazard’. She tastes food in two or three bites, is attentive of her diet off camera, is active and while she is not American, she walks like a New Yorker!

Gail was gregarious and energetic, and I intend on reading chapter eight, ‘Alone with rotten meat: the Vogue years’, first!


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