In her memoir, "Talking With My Mouth Full," "Top Chef" judge Gil Simmons shares stories about her life and career. In this excerpt, she reminisces about her days learning to cook in New York City.
I arrive at 8:30 a.m. and change into my whites. Someone’s making coffee. I never really drank coffee in college, but now I’m on my feet all day and out all night and can’t believe it hasn’t always been in my life. When morning comes I crave it. I pour in whole milk and a heaping spoonful of sugar. In the kitchen, alongside the day’s mise-en-place, there are French baguettes from the pastry kitchen and a block of Gruyère cheese set out on the rolling racks. We rip off chunks of the baguette and lop off hunks of nutty, buttery Gruyère, with its slightly crystalline texture. With our chef knives, we make rough sandwiches, and happily gnaw on them as we start the day’s lesson.
We were one of the first classes at Peter Kump’s New York Cooking School’s shiny new location on West Twenty-third Street. Our class was fifteen people, representing nine different countries. Welcome to New York.
The first day, I received my knives and tool kit, a briefcase full of all the major items a chef could want. There was an eight-inch chef knife, a boning knife, a paring knife, a serrated bread knife, a tournée knife, spatulas, a lemon zester, wooden spoons, pastry scrapers, a melon baller, a metal spoon, a slotted spoon, and a pair of kitchen shears.
We started with fundamentals: knife skills, food safety, culinary math and equivalences. We learned about seasoning and ingredients. Then we moved on to stocks, soups, and sauces. We learned the five so-called mother sauces, the foundation of French sauce making, like béchamel and hollandaise. Finally, we got to actually cook, to learn about direct heat and indirect heat, dry heat (pan frying, grilling, and roasting) versus wet heat (poaching, braising, stewing, and steaming).
Once we’d been taught the foundations, we moved on to vegetables, grains, and eggs. We did a month-long section on pastry, starting with essentials like dough, bread, custards, fruit-based desserts, and chocolate work. And we learned cake-making, plated desserts, ice cream, and confections.
The theory came easily to me. I loved the academic aspect of it, the why and the how. The hardest lesson for me, which I think is true for many people, was learning timing. Patience was not something that came naturally to me, but in cooking it is the quintessential skill. Consistency was another attribute I discovered needed work on my part. When I diced vegetables, it was painstaking work to make sure that every single piece looked the same: 1⁄4-inch cubed for small, 3⁄4-inch cubed for large. It’s a matter of practice and precision.
My class was a microcosm of politics and opinions. Students from Latvia to Japan. Edward was an ex–postal service employee whose knee injury had taken him off his route. He’d been given a desk job but quit, saying, “I can’t sit here. All I want to do is cook.”
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Anna was from the Philippines, via Hong Kong, a corporate consultant, who took a year sabbatical just to live in New York and learn how to cook. There was a guy from the Dominican Republic and a girl from the Bronx. It was inspiring to learn their backgrounds and reasons for being there, so different from my own.
We started at nine in the morning with a lesson about what we’d be cooking that day. Then we cooked from ten to two, whether it was making bread or pastry or eggs, or learning how to sauté or braise. Between us all, we’d put together a multicourse meal. Then, from two to three, we’d sit down and eat it together.Story: Make Gail Simmons' chickpea, artichoke and spinach stew
I took so much pleasure in finding explanations for things I had never taken the time to learn before, things that made cooking so much easier. The biggest revelation was how little I actually knew about food. I loved the jargon, the language of a kitchen, which was all completely foreign: bouquet garni, mirepoix, fumet, forced meat, consommé, gastrique. But most of all, I loved the logic that I found in the details. I learned what kind of shoes to wear (loose, close-toed, and easily removable, in case anything hot or sharp falls on your foot and you have to kick the shoe off quickly). I learned that there are buttons on both sides of a chef jacket so that a chef can get one shirtfront dirty in the kitchen, then rebutton it to present a clean shirtfront to the dining room.
I reveled in the most basic rules and techniques that are the foundation of professional cooking. For example, it is essential to use a sharp knife: the sharper the knife, the more fluid and precise your work and the less likely you are to get hurt. Dull knives are a danger—they slip far more often. Or this: the first step in cutting up any fruit or vegetable is to create a flat surface on it; split your onion in half and put the flat side down so that it doesn’t roll around on your cutting board. Eureka! A whole world of knowledge became clear, one lesson at a time. Even the simple act of putting a wet paper towel under the cutting board every morning so it would stay in place made me feel like I was part of a special society. I learned to use a hand towel to create a base for my mixing bowl so it didn’t slide around as I whisked sauces, mayonnaise, and vinaigrettes with one hand and poured ingredients in with the other. Cooking, it turned out, was completely rational and scientific! I was in love.Video: Beer and food pairings 101
After lunch, from three to five, there would be a workshop. We’d learn about international cuisine—Chinese, Thai, Italian, Spanish—or wine studies, restaurant management, or menu planning. I would practically skip home each night at six, elated. I adored my teachers. I was using my hands and thinking, too, in a new way. It was a relief to not be in front of a computer. And suddenly, for the first time in my life, I was one of those people who had a calling. I wanted to work with food.
One day our teacher suggested we each prepare a dish that represented our heritage. One person made tres leches cake. The guy from Japan made tempura. My friend Anna taught us about dim sum. My teacher, a New York Jew, suggested I make something reflecting my East European ancestry. She gave me a book of recipes and I decided to make beet borscht with flanken (pronounced “flunken”), a strip of beef from the chuck end of the short rib.
When I was growing up, my mother made cold borscht with dill and crème fraîche, but this borscht was hot, with turnips, parsnips, and carrots, and far more substantial. I peeled so many beets that I was stained bright pink from head to toe by the end of class. It was hearty and delicious. I made so much that my roommate and I lived on it for days.
I thought I would be in New York for six to eight months for my classes and then return, triumphant, to Canada. I could not have imagined how easily I would fall in love with the city. Perhaps that in itself was a sign of my naiveté.
I have a theory about Canadians. They’re great world travelers, but they don’t tend to move around a lot inside their own country compared to Americans. That’s mostly because there are only a certain number of cities in Canada, only a handful of urban centers worth living in when you are young, and therefore fewer options for something new. In the United States, there are countless major cities, endless choices for university or job opportunities.
Like many of my friends, I went away to college but returned after graduation. This is understandable: if you are going to leave a city like Toronto for school, you’re probably going to go back when school is done, as the city provides the most opportunity. Of all my friends from home, I’m one of about five who aren’t still there.
I also imagined I would go back to Toronto because my family was still in a bit of turmoil, mostly connected to Alan’s struggles. Everyone’s proud of me and they are all very supportive, but because I left, I’ve missed a lot of what has happened with my brother. Leaving has come with its share of guilt, mostly self-imposed, although my mother has chipped in, whether she has meant to or not.
I guess I don’t blame her. For a while, I’m sure she thought I would move back to Toronto and become a lawyer and live next door to her. All my girlfriends in the last several years have had children and moved back to the neighborhood we grew up in. Maybe she believes if I hadn’t left, that’s what I would have done.
My first apartment in New York was in Murray Hill, on Third Avenue and Thirty-third Street, above La Pizzeria. A friend from summer camp, Jamie, an equities trader, had this tiny apartment with a second room. You could barely call it a bedroom; it was off the living room, roughly eight by nine feet, with one small alley-facing window, through which I would lie in bed spying on the neighbors.
He had been using it as his office, but he was never home. He started work at six in the morning and was asleep by ten each night, five, or sometimes six, days a week. He barely saw anyone. He told me to just pay him a few hundred bucks a month until I found something better. I stayed almost two years.
When I finished my course work, I had to pick an externship, a job in the food industry, to complete my degree. I was convinced I would naturally get a job in the test kitchen for Gourmet. My dreams of being a food writer would be realized, as easy as that.
I went to the career services director at school, Steve, to talk about my plan, telling him proudly, “Now I’d like to work at the test kitchen for the Food Network or Gourmet magazine.”
“That’s nice, Gail,” he said, “but my advice to you is, don’t do it. You’ve only ever made every dish once. No offense, but you still don’t know how to cook. The only way to truly solidify your skills is to work in a restaurant and cook on the line. You just can’t get that experience at culinary school.”
He was right. Real-world experience is something I lacked. It’s the same with any schooling, really. Completing law school isn’t the same as working in a law office. Just because you’ve taken a course in obstetrics as a medical student doesn’t mean you know how to deliver a baby. No one is a chef after culinary school. You’re barely a cook. You need practical experience. Begrudgingly, I took his advice.
I am a strong, smart woman! I told myself. I refused to fit the stereotype of the girl who can’t handle a high-pressure kitchen. I thought I wanted to stick with French food, and when Steve listed restaurant choices, I stopped him at Le Cirque 2000. The name to me was mythical. At the time, it was one of only a handful of restaurants in New York awarded four stars by the New York Times. It was an institution. Sirio Maccioni, the owner, is still one of the most renowned front-of-house men in existence.
I went for an interview and handed chef Sottha Khun my résumé. He had been the restaurant’s sous chef under Daniel Boulud in its original location at the Mayfair Hotel and had taken over as chef when Daniel left in 1992 to open his eponymous restaurant. He barely glanced at my résumé, but he hired me on the spot.
I would go on to work in two kitchens: Le Cirque for only six weeks and Vong for a few months. In that whole time, I was the only woman in both. It was amazing and disappointing, but not unusual. And I would soon learn why.
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