Talking with My Mouth Full: My Life as a Professional Eater

Image of Talking with My Mouth Full: My Life as a Professional Eater
Release Date: 
February 20, 2012
Hachette Books
Reviewed by: 

“The joy of Ms. Simmons’ book is in its passionate love of food, a love that transcended everything that got in its way, like a pole-vaulter leaping over the bar. . . . The other great joy in Talking with My Mouth Full lies in the writing itself. For those who know Ms. Simmons only from her television appearances, the skill that she shows for placing words on the page will come as a pleasant surprise.”

Soon after beginning to read Talking With My Mouth Full: My Life as a Professional Eater by Gail Simmons, who is known as the always-pleasant judge on TV’s “Top Chef,” and the host of Bravo’s new spin-off, “Top Chef: Just Desserts” pastry competition, the reader begins to understand something. He begins to see that this book, set as it is in the food industry, among the best-of-the-best chefs, kitchens, menus, and fresh ingredients is not a book about food at all.

No. It’s a book about coming to know your heart’s desire, and, in knowing it, learning how to get it.

Talking with My Mouth Full is nothing more than a modern, plainclothes, modern-dress production of The Wizard of Oz, wherein Jeffrey Steingarten, author of The Man Who Ate Everything and Vogue’s food critic for over 30 years is cast as the Scarecrow; famed chef Daniel Boulud, owner of Manhattan’s Daniel restaurant is the big-hearted Tin Man; and Sottha Khun, chef at Le Cirque 2000, where Ms. Simmons worked making hot appetizers on the line for six weeks, is the Cowardly Lion. (Tom Colicchio, owner of Craft and the Gramercy Tavern—both in New York City—and head judge on “Top Chef” is perfectly cast as the Wizard himself.)

Dorothy, of course, is Ms. Simmons, who enters the madcap world of Oz—New York City again, where else?—from her native Canada, home of Montreal bagels, poutine, and courteous behavior, with the hope of, well, something good happening.

As Ms. Simmons tells it, by way of background:

“I LOVE to eat. Not in a gluttonous way. Not in a pack-it-in-as-much-as-you-can-as-fast-as-you-can sort of way. I love the ritual of eating. How the way you hold your knife and fork (or chopsticks or fingers), and what you choose to put between them, determines so much about who you are, where you are from, how you came to be eating this very meal.

“I love how everyone in the world has a different palate, different likes and dislikes, nuanced phobias or aversions, obsessions or cravings which shape the way we nourish ourselves. I love how, like a thumbprint, no two people’s noses and tongues perceive smell and taste the same way.”

Certainly, she comes by this love naturally, having grown up in an adventuresome, much-traveled family with a mother who loves cooking and eating as much as she does. But how does this translate into work, into a career? Having dreamed about food from childhood through college, she took her degree and returned to her parents’ house to live in the basement:

“I was lost. I couldn’t believe that not one professor or advisor, in four years of attending one of the best colleges in the country, ever said, ‘Let’s start planning for when you leave here.’ I couldn’t believe I’d never thought about it myself. Then one day at the family dinner, my mother, who was starting to worry, made me sit down with the accomplished daughter of one of her closest friends. She was about ten years my senior. She listened to my dilemma.

“Then she handed me a pen and said, ‘Make a list of what you like to do. Not jobs. Just anything that comes into your mind.

‘On a random piece of paper, I wrote: ‘Eat. Write. Travel. Cook.”

“Like an eerie fortune cookie, that scrap became the trajectory of my life.

“What do I do for a living? I eat endlessly as a judge on ‘Top Chef,’ write and talk as a food authority in the media, travel the country and beyond for Food & Wine, and regularly cook at events, online, and on television. Without a map, I’ve managed to turn my curiosity, enthusiasm, and passion into the life of my dreams. Fifteen years ago, I never could have imagined all that could add up to such a satisfying life.”

But back in the basement, 15 years ago, the same family friend had a bit more to say:

“She also gave me more concrete advice, suggesting I try writing for lifestyle magazines. That made sense, but I had no idea how to go about getting such a job.”

The solution, when it comes to her, is to jump on board Canada’s new “national paper,” the National Post as an editorial intern. Then, after getting more advice, this time from the Post’s food editor (“If you want to write about food, you need to learn about food,” the unnamed editor told her.), she hurried off to NYC and Peter Kump’s New York Cooking School.

From there came Le Cirque, where she cooked in a kitchen open to the restaurant dining room, and from there (to mix another metaphor), she played Elaine Benes to Jeffrey Steingarten’s Mr. Pitt before moving off to work for Daniel Boulud at his restaurant Daniel, where she went worked in marketing and special projects.

And very quickly upon her arrival, her marketing skills were put to the test:

“In January, 2003, the New York restaurant community went to war and—for better or worse—I was on the front lines. I was one of the first to learn Daniel would be adding fresh black truffles to his already famous $29 DB burger and charging an unprecedented $50 for it.

“This may not sound like a reason to get out the battle armor, but this was no ordinary burger. It was filled with short ribs braised in red wine, plus foie gras, black truffles, and root vegetables. Its homemade bun was topped with toasted Parmesan and layered with fresh horseradish mayonnaise, tomato comfit, fresh tomato, and frisee.

“The extra layer of black truffles sliced and placed on top of the patty not only doubled its cost, but also its cachet. He called it the DB Burger Royale.

“Within hours of the Burger Royale having been added to the menu, the New York Post published an article about it. What followed was a literal feeding frenzy.”

A frenzy of the sort that, in short order, Ms. Simmons herself had to jump behind the grill to make some Burgers Royale for David Letterman and the cast of the “Today Show,” among the many, many other notables who found the concept of the burger too over-the-top to resist. And so Gail Simmons, simple girl from Toronto, found her home among the elite of the New York Restaurant Scene.

Talking with My Mouth Full is one of those books in which Gail Simmons, as a young girl, dreams of one day attending the famed Classic in Aspen, an annual celebration of food and fine dining, only to one day run the festival as part of her job for Food & Wine magazine. It is a book in which the right advice is always given and received. In which people are loving and supportive. In which even apparent mistakes turn out all for the best in the end—thus the analogy to The Wizard of Oz and to all other books in which dreams come true and wishes indeed become horses that are thoroughbreds.

But lack of angst alone does not an inferior book make. The joy of Ms. Simmons’ book is in its passionate love of food, a love that transcended everything that got in its way, like a pole-vaulter leaping over the bar.

Her adoration of the egg is infectious. Her joy of discovery when she learns that “COA” written by a patron’s name on the reservation chart at Daniel means, “Champagne on arrival,” is endearing. Her recipes tucked in the back of the book are particularly nice, given that each is linked to an anecdote in the memoir.

In fact, only her love of biltong, a South African air-dried, salted meat made from beef, chicken, ostrich, kudu or buffalo, fails to convince and the reader grows ever more nauseated as Ms. Simmons and her father stuff the glove compartment with the stuff, only to slice off a bit at a time and gnaw on it as they drive out of Cape Town.

The other great joy in Talking with My Mouth Full lies in the writing itself. For those who know Ms. Simmons only from her television appearances, the skill that she shows for placing words on the page will come as a pleasant surprise. Not surprisingly, however, her best skills are saved for writing about food itself, as here, in this brief passage that opens the book, which would serve, were this a tasting menu of the book, as the final course, the petits fours:

“My Mother’s Kitchen Counter

“My mother bakes plum tarts every year in late August. The smell fills the house. As they bake, the juicy plums sink into the vanilla cake base. I’m smitten by the smell, the vanillaness of it. My mother’s kitchen counter overflows with bowls and vessels. So many that it is often hard to find room to cook. There are ten different kinds of vinegars and oils. A smattering of porcelain teapots. A giant wooden bowl shaped like a carrot, always filled with peanuts in their shells. A little glass cloche contains soft runny cheese. A bowl of dried fruit—pears, apples, prunes, and apricots. A beige ceramic butter dish with soft butter, one of hundreds of ceramic pieces my parents have collected over the years. Clementines in winter. Peaches in summer. Wasabi peas. Spiced pumpkin seeds. Whole walnuts, hazelnuts, and almonds alongside an ornate silver nutcracker. A loaf of zucchini bread with flecks of green.”