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'Top Chef' Judge Serves Up 'Just Desserts'

September 30, 2010 By:
Devra Ferst, The Forward
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Gail Simmons

Every reality competition with judges has a "mean one": Simon Cowell's scathing remarks made plenty of "American Idol" contestants cry.

For the first couple of seasons of "Top Chef," the Emmy Award-winning Bravo TV series now in its seventh season, that judge was Gail Simmons.

But behind the scenes, the vivacious and fast-talking Simmons -- who tap dances for the producers and refers to herself as the little sister of the show -- stands in sharp contrast to her earlier television persona.

And now she has a new role: host and consulting producer of "Just Desserts," a Bravo show that challenges pastry chefs.

While Simmons, 34, a special-projects manager at Food & Wine magazine, is perhaps one of the best-known food critics in the country, at first she said that she had no interest in pursuing a path in the culinary world, let alone on television.

"I kind of joke that I'm not a food critic, but that I play one on TV. It has become a self-fulfilling prophecy," said Simmons, whose sharp tongue has mellowed over the past few seasons of "Top Chef," which pits talented, fame-hungry chefs against one another in grueling challenges.

Simmons grew up with a foodie. Her mother, Renee Simmons, wrote a column for the Globe and Mail, Canada's largest newspaper, in the 1970s and '80s. Later, she opened a cooking school in the family's home in Toronto.

"We had Shabbat dinner every Friday night, without fail," said Simmons. "There was always challah and my mother's outstanding chicken soup."

Asked about her favorite Jewish foods, she replied: brisket and latkes. "They're the standard by which I will forever hold all other briskets and latkes."

Simmons pursued degrees in anthropology and Spanish at McGill University in Montreal. After graduation, feeling a bit lost, she said, she took an internship at Toronto Life magazine.

"I loved it," she said. "I found myself drawn to the food editor. And that's when I realized there could be a job here for me."

Following stints at a couple of publications, Simmons moved to New York to attend the Institute of Culinary Education. After graduation, she cooked at some of the city's most exclusive restaurants; served as an assistant to prominent food critic Jeffrey Steingarten; and worked as events manager for chef Daniel Boulud's dining group before joining Food & Wine in 2004.

In 2006, when Bravo spoke to the magazine about a partnership for a new show called "Top Chef," Simmons was chosen to represent it as a judge. Her incisive remarks about the dishes of "chef-testants," as they are called, earned her the title of the "mean judge" by viewers.

Although she often followed her critiques with positive feedback, the show's producers edited out the latter in their effort to make each judge into a distinctive character, said Simmons.

With the show now well-established, and with its first spinoff, "Top Chef Masters" -- Simmons is a judge on a show that features famous chefs competing against one another -- having wrapped up its second season, Simmons is finding herself on a set for much of the year.

On "Just Desserts," she will be spending more time in front of and behind the camera. She is the host and consulting producer on a show in which pastry chefs will be tested in the art of sugar work, bread- and cake-baking, candy-making and more.

"The most gratifying thing," she said, "is when people tell me that their 5-year-old knows what a chiffonade is" -- a slicing technique for herbs and greens -- "or that they hate to cook but they've started to try at home, and they are trying new things on menus. That's why I'm doing all of this -- to spread the gospel."

Devra Ferst is editor of "The Jew and the Carrot" food blog, a new Forward and Hazon partnership.

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