It took four simple words for Gail Simmons to turn food into a lifelong career. She wrote those words — Eat Write Travel Cook — on a scrap of paper and they became a simplified vocation manual. “Like an eerie fortune cookie, that scrap became the trajectory of my life,” Simmons writes in her memoir, Talking with my Mouth Full: My Life as a Professional Eater (Hyperion, 2012, $26.99). With the drive to act upon those four words, she became what can only be described collectively as a professional eater, with illustrious forays as chef, food critic, magazine editor, and Food Network TV star.
These people known as professional eaters do actually exist. How can the rest of us not be jealous of someone who is paid to eat the best food the world has to offer? We all have to eat, some of us get better meals than others on a consistent basis, some of us go to fancy restaurants more frequently, but professional eaters earn their salary by eating top-notch food. Quite a gig.
Simmons’ childhood memories come from growing up in a Jewish family in Toronto, with elaborate holiday feasts, her father’s yearly pickle making, and her mother holding neighbourhood cooking classes from her kitchen. When her mother was pregnant with her, Simmons writes that “she would wake up in the middle of the night demanding chocolate éclairs. I feel like that explains a lot.” Family vacations introduced her to exotic food and the first time she got drunk, complete with resulting hangover, was on a winery tour while visiting her father’s home country of South Africa. She was six at the time — that could explain a lot, as well.
Out of college, Simmons worked as a journalist, writing about food for Toronto Life and National Post. She decided to differentiate herself from the crowd by enrolling in cooking school to learn some practical and theoretical culinary skills. Simmons writes: “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.” These language lessons in the kitchen, along with experiences as a line cook, became invaluable to her as a food writer. She has an incredibly eclectic career in the food industry — writing college newspaper restaurant reviews, line cook at Le Cirque, managing special events for Daniel Boulud’s restaurants (the famed chef who years later cooked Simmons’ wedding meal, an exquisite menu that read like a Top Chef meal itself). Her greatest on-the-job education was working on eccentric assignments as assistant to Vogue magazine’s food editor, Jeffery Steingarten. This involved feverish testing of any food whims that Steingarten had, like tasting 20 kinds of caviar, or making espresso from 17 different coffee machines. This has all led to what she calls the best job in the world, as Special Projects Director at Food & Wine magazine, attending food festivals around the world.
Then reality TV came along and Simmons became a recurring judge on Top Chef, and host of the spin-off, Top Chef: Just Desserts. As a professional eater, her decisions as a food judge, based on her astute taste buds, can change the lives of young chefs. “Actually food is far easier to judge than, say, visual art, music, or dance, because there are very strict rules to cooking,” Simmons writes. “I would argue that judging food is based 80 percent on science and technique, and 20 percent on instinct and artistic flair. Taste may appear totally subjective, but there are scientific forces at work determining how food should be cooked and prepared. It’s chemistry more than anything. Non-professionals tend to judge food based on their biases more than on science and proper technique.”
This memoir depicts a laundry list of exquisite dishes that most readers will only ever enjoy in their imaginations, but we can’t begrudge her having such an enviable position. Us non-professionals may eat just as much, but our credentials and training do not match what Simmons has accomplished. She followed a dream and put in time to become an authority by eating, cooking, and assessing a lot of food.
Darin Cook is a regular contributor to eatdrink who works and plays in Chatham-Kent, and keeps himself well-read and well-fed by visiting the bookstores and restaurants of London.