An Evening with Top Chef Judge & Food + Wine Writer, Gail Simmons

Emma Jane-Doody Stetson

The life of a Top Chef judge, Food + Wine writer, author, and culinary personality is exciting.  Gail Simmons regularly travels- and around the world at that!- to film television shows, headline events, find inspiration, and uncover new recipes.  At the same time, Simmons is a wife and a mother of two.  Sometimes she just wants to go home.  Her new cookbook, Bringing It Home, bridges the gap between her personal and professional lives.   Drawing from all of her experiences, she’s created dishes that instill feelings of comfort and belonging.

Terrain Garden Café in Westport served as the perfect backdrop to bring Simmons’s vision to life.  Wooden tables, candles, twinkle lights, and trees in the dining room captured the elegant coziness that Bringing It Home embodies.  The small size of the group made for an intimate affair; Simmons came to every single table and spoke to us as if we were friends.  (Granted she did this all in sky high heels to remind us of the esteemed culinary critic and savvy Top Chef judge that she is.)

Upon arrival, we were treated to two cocktails from Simmons’s cookbook: an Apple Ginger Soda with Spiced Rum and a Charred Grapefruit Mezcalita.  Guests looking for non-alcoholic options could sip on water infused with cucumbers and fruit as well as coffee and tea.  While both cocktails tasted delicious, the Mexcalita was my favorite.  Made with grapefruit juice, mezcal, triple sec, and simple syrup, then adorned with charred grapefruit quarters, cilantro, and sea salt, it had a beautiful smokiness that complemented the brighter citrus notes.  Though boozy, it still honored fresh ingredients of the season.  

Terrain’s Executive Chef Jessica Bengston executed Simmons’s recipes beautifully.  Terrain specializes in farm-to-table dining, so it was fitting that Simmons teamed up with Bengston to showcase her dishes.  Everything was simply, yet expertly prepared with an emphasis on food for a communal dining experience.

On the table in the center of the room, guests could help themselves to a spread of dips, vegetables, fruit, and cheeses.  Simmons presented her Red Pepper Walnut Dip, Chickpea Hummus, and Creamy Herbed Goat Cheese.  The three dips were equally delicious, but different in flavor profiles.  Crunchy fruit and vegetables sprinkled with chili powder, sumac, and citrus made for perfect munching.   She also served her grilled radishes over anchovy butter.

“The flavors come from travels, childhood, and chefs I’ve worked for,” she explained to me.  “There are flavors from around the world… Jamaica, Israel, Egypt, Vietnam.”

The team at Terrain also walked around with passed hors d'oeuvres from the cookbook.  Crispy Chickpeas with Pistachio Dukkah arrived in small terracotta bowls reminiscent of miniature flower pots.  We also sampled toast with ricotta, fig, toasted pistachios, black pepper, and honey drizzle- a bite-sized gem with a distinctly Mediterranean flair.  Beat cured salmon and a lamb meatball were delivered on bamboo skewers.

My favorite offering though was the Latke Rueben.  The latke served as the base, paying homage to Simmons’s Jewish roots.  It was topped with an apple-dill slaw, a horseradish dressing, and a slice of pastrami.  All of the textures combined to make each bite beautiful and the seemingly contrasting flavors came together harmoniously.  The Latke Rueben illustrates how Simmons can artfully take a classic dish and elevate it by incorporating her own personal story. 

The evening culminated with a s’mores party over the fire pit on Terrain’s patio.  All of the traditional fixins’ were there, but Bengston also had gourmet ingredients so that we could make Simmons’s “Campfire Sundaes.”  Once we roasted our marshmallows over the flame, we had the opportunity to put them in a glass cup and top them with pound cake croutons, toasted hazelnuts, chocolate sauce, berries, and ice cream.  The adventurous could also reach for Bourbon Marshmallows, another recipe from Bringing It Home.

Over our own decadent versions of Campfire Sundaes, I had the chance to ask Gail Simmons for the inside scoop on the newest season of Top Chef.  Due out in December 2018, this season will see the chef-testants compete in Kentucky.

“I don’t really know first-hand because I gave birth a week into shooting!” Simmons revealed.  “From what I hear, the season was great with a really great cast.”

And is there any chance for another season of Top Chef All Stars?

“Not that I know of, but we’re probably due for it,” she answered.

With Thanksgiving right around the corner, I also wondered how a culinary expert celebrates the holiday.

“I’m Canadian, so American Thanksgiving is not something I grew up with,” Simmons explained to me.  “Sometimes I cook.  Some years we don’t do it at all.”

She continued, “I definitely love it, I just don’t have strings attached to it.”

The evening continued with mingling, conversation, and bites on the patio.  As the sun dropped behind the trees and we tried to see with light from the fire, I realized that it was probably time for me to start “bringing it home” myself.  With a full belly, a signed copy of Simmons’s cookbook under my arm, and newfound inspiration, I headed back to my car and started the return journey… home.