Because “Top Chef” judge Gail Simmons will be in town this weekend to speak at “Chai in the Hub,” an annual event honoring young people who are shaking things up in Greater Boston’s Jewish community, we took a few minutes to talk to her about food.
Q. How would you describe the Boston food scene? Are there places you have to go to when you’re in town?
A. Tons. There are so many chefs and restaurants in Boston that I love. Every time I go there’s a list of new places to visit. Lobster, oysters, clams, and fish, Boston does those better than anyone. There’s also a great fine dining history. I love Barbara Lynch and her restaurants. I love Michael Scelfo and his new place, Waypoint. I adore Tiffani Faison . I could go on and on.
Q. How does one get into the cooking-show game? What was your path?
A. [Laughs] I didn’t know it was a game until I got into it! It happened by happy accident. A lot of hard work and then serendipitous timing. I never set out to be a judge on TV. It just wasn’t a thing when I started. When I graduated, food [media] was a limited space, and I knew the only way for me to find a place in it as a young person was to really understand food and make that my expertise. I worked my butt off as lowly line cook. No one will take a 20-year-old seriously if they say, ‘Oh, I like to eat so I want to be a food writer.’ From there I went back to writing. I worked for Jeffrey Steingarten [at Vogue], then [acclaimed chef] Daniel Boulud , and then to Food & Wine Magazine. That was the final pinnacle of being able to combine my love of writing with my food knowledge and experience. After a year, Bravo came and said they had an idea for a show, and they needed [the magazine’s] help with the food part. In return, if they liked one of the editors, they might take them on to the judge’s table. In that first season, I had no idea what I was getting into. What if everyone laughs at us? I was so grateful that the community of chefs in this country embraced it and saw its value.
Q. “Top Chef” is reality TV, and if there’s one thing reality TV needs, it’s drama. Did you guys ever have to work to manufacture that drama?
A. Honestly, no, it’s kind of amazing. The nature of the kitchen is very high stress, and there’s usually one chef for a reason. The way kitchens are structured, you need one leader. When you put four leaders on a team, there’s inevitable drama.
Q. I have to ask: How do you think you would fare if you got tossed into a season of “Top Chef”?
A. I would never be tossed into a season of “Top Chef” because I’m not a professional chef. So that’s the first thing. [Laughs] But every challenge we do, we always talk about what we would do if we were competing. I would say I could fare pretty well at certain challenges. I know the kitchen and I understand the game having watched it for so many years. Now, if I had never set foot in [“Top Chef,”] I think I could get something on the plate. But I can’t guarantee what shape it would be in.
Q. I know you’ve tasted a lot of dishes and can’t remember them all. But is there one dish that you remember that was just terrible? A dish that was truly and memorably god-awful?
A. There have been plenty, but it’s kind of like childbirth, you only remember the good parts. The really bad [dishes] fade into your memory. There was a challenge in Season 6, though, in Las Vegas, where we were in the middle of the desert and the chefs had to cook over an open fire. It was 106 [degrees] and there was sand in everything. The food had been sitting out in the sun, and so when Tom [Colicchio] took a bite of shrimp, he spit it right out and said “Do not eat that.” Grateful he let me dodge a bullet.
Q. On the early “American Idol,” Simon Cowell was the tough judge, Paula Abdul was the kind one, and Randy Jackson was the funny one. Did you try to work out roles like that on “Top Chef”?
A. We never try to fit into molds. We just do our job honestly. In editing in the first season, though, I think Bravo originally had a belief that judges had to fall into those stereotypical categories. At the beginning, they edited us that way. They edited me to be a lot more severe than I am. The best thing to do is let us be our own people. The way I see it, Padma [Lakshmi] is the ultimate dinner party host, and Tom is the precise and expert pro chef.
Q. Some of your focus in recent years has been on promoting and enhancing a female presence in the culinary world. When did you realize that that was an area that needed to be addressed?
A. It’s always been on my mind. My first job in a real kitchen, I was the only woman. I don’t think it’s a conspiracy or misogynistic. The fact is that the world of kitchens requires someone’s evenings, weekends, holidays, and a lot of manual labor, and if you as a woman want to have a family, that’s hard. It’s the same reason you don’t see many plumbers who are women. We’re making progress, but there’s still a long way to go. If I did it, I know other women can too.