As the host of Bravo’s Just Deserts and a judge on Top Chef, Gail Simmons has come a long way from her undergraduate days at McGill. Simmons, BA ‘98 majoring in anthropology, became interested in food journalism during her undergrad, when she began writing restaurant reviews for the Tribune. Since then, she has branched out into different media as a television personality, the Special Projects Director of Food & Wine magazine, and the author of a new book, Talking with My Mouth Full: My Life as a Professional Eater. On Monday, April 9, Simmons spoke with the McGill Tribune about how her experiences at McGill shaped her career.
McGill Tribune: What made you want to review restaurants for the Tribune?
Gail Simmons: In my last year at McGill I started cooking a lot more for myself, really paying attention to what I ate, and exploring new recipes. I really loved exploring the city, and I realized that Montreal is such an incredible city and there are so many great restaurants that [students] never get to experience, because we students didn’t take time to explore other neighbourhoods. And when I went to look for that information, I found that there wasn’t really a McGill outlet that could help me find all of those new restaurants that I wanted to know about. So I suggested to the Tribune that I write some restaurant reviews so that I could help people understand the city more, get out more, and taste new food that was available to us.
MT: How did writing restaurant reviews help you on your career path?
GS: Writing for the Tribune gave me great writing experience and also gave me experience writing specifically in the genre of food—understanding how to use words to describe food, what it takes to make a well-rounded review, to be objective, and to describe the food in a way that makes people want to eat it or not, depending on your experience at the restaurant. It also really helped me understand what goes into making a great restaurant and what diners are looking for when they go to eat out. The value of a restaurant reviewer is really explaining to readers if their money is well spent at this restaurant or not. Writing for the Tribune really made me aware of all of those things.
MT: What are the best and worst parts of your job?
GS: I think the best and worst part of my job is actually the same thing—the amount that I get to travel. On the one hand, I love that my job allows me to travel. I travel five, maybe six months of the year at this point. I really get to see exciting cities, explore exciting restaurants, and meet amazing people from coast to coast, but it also is a downside to my job. I spend so much time travelling that sometimes it gets really exhausting and I want to spend more time at home. It’s hard to be away from my family and friends and especially my husband when I’m travelling so much. It definitely makes life a little bit more chaotic.
MT: Did you face any particular challenges writing your book, Talking with My Mouth Full: My Life as a Professional Eater?
GS: Writing a book was a huge challenge unlike anything I’ve ever done before. Up until now, most of the writing I’ve ever done has been a few hundred words or even a few thousand words at the most. Even the biggest essay that I ever wrote at college was nothing compared to writing a 300-page book. Keeping focused, chronological, and in order was such a huge undertaking that it really took me a full year to do it.
MT: So did you draw on what you learned at university in those respects?
GS: Sure. Even if you can’t see how if will directly affect you in the moment, in hindsight it’s really easy to look back and see how the skills I learned at McGill have helped me to become who I am—learning how to write, how to think, how to analyze [and] learning how to think critically. I think my arts degree really did prepare me for that, even though when I first graduated it seemed so general. I now realize that all those lessons really did help me get to where I am today.
MT: What advice can you give to students about pursuing careers in general or about pursuing a career in the food industry?
GS: The best advice if you want to be in the food industry is to learn your topic. You need to learn about food, you need to know how to cook, you need to do a lot of reading, and you need to be able to speak the language fluently so that you can be an expert. And the only way to do that is to practice. That means practicing eating, practicing cooking, practicing all angles of the industry so that you understand it thoroughly, and then you’ll become an asset in any job in the industry.
No matter what you want to do, find a mentor. It’s really important that you are inspired by people who have done it before you. If you can work under or be inspired by someone who is a leader in the industry you want to work in, that will help you so much, open so many doors, and be a guiding force. And the truth is, no matter what you want to do there are no shortcuts, but if you’re willing to put in the hard work for the experience, I really believe you can do anything you set your heart to.
—This interview was edited and condensed by Erica Friesen.