Culinary expert, “Top Chef” judge, author, cook, and Food & Wine Magazine one-woman hit-squad Gail Simmons joins us again to answer etiquette questions, talk about the modernization of classic New Orleans dining, and tell the guys how being pregnant is kind of like making a sandwich.
Brendan Francis Newnam: Each week, you send in your questions about how to behave, and here to answer them today is culinary expert Gail Simmons. She’s a judge on the cooking competition show “Top Chef”, which is in the midst of its 11th season on Bravo.
Rico Gagliano: Dang.
Gail Simmons: Amazing, right?
Brendan Francis Newnam: It’s pretty amazing.
Gail Simmons: Blows my mind every time someone says that.
Brendan Francis Newnam: She’s also Director of Special Projects at Food and Wine Magazine, so if they need to assassinate someone at Bon Appetit…
Gail Simmons: I’m your girl.
Brendan Francis Newnam: You’re the CIA.
Gail Simmons: That’s it. I’m the sniper.
Brendan Francis Newnam: And, she’s author of the memoir “Talking With My Mouth Full” which came out last February. You stopped by back then. Gail, it’s nice to have you back.
Gail Simmons: I did. I did. Thank you. It’s great to be here.
Brendan Francis Newnam: And, I have to say, you’ve been working on something, since…
Rico Gagliano: New project.
Gail Simmons: I have a couple of things, but one really big thing that’s growing every day.
Brendan Francis Newnam: Yes. You’re building a human.
Gail Simmons: I’m building a human being in my belly, I guess.
Rico Gagliano: It’s like making a sandwich, kind of, but just a cell at a time.
Gail Simmons: It’s similar to making a sandwich. I’m eight months pregnant, yeah.
Brendan Francis Newnam: Well, congratulations.
Rico Gagliano: But, you must, kind of looking forward to seeing this kid taste for the first time.
Gail Simmons: Everything. I mean, I hope to God this child is a good eater.
Brendan Francis Newnam: What about trans-fats?
Gail Simmons: Except trans-fats. Not everything. Fine. Not everything, but a lot of things. The thought that I will have this blank canvas child to…
Rico Gagliano: To just push food into…
Gail Simmons: …is kind of exciting.
Brendan Francis Newnam: I would be more excited about, you have a potential sous chef and garbage remover from the kitchen.
Gail Simmons: Yes. I’m building an assistant. My husband is a pretty good assistant but he can be a little bit…
Brendan Francis Newnam: He can talk, unlike this kid, for the first few years.
Gail Simmons: Right, he talks back.
Rico Gagliano: I was going to say that I was jealous of this child because he’s going to eat very well, but now, I’m not so jealous.
Gail Simmons: Now you’re really happy that you’re not.
Rico Gagliano: Also during the dishes.
Brendan Francis Newnam: So, you’re in the midst of Top Chef season 11, which is taking place in New Orleans and the city’s known for these classic Cajun creole dishes, jambalaya, etc. But, what else has surprised you about the food down there besides the New Orleans hit singles?
Gail Simmons:I have to say, especially post-Katrina, because the city was so devastated, the chefs who remained and the chefs who have come up since then in the last six or seven years, have brought with them this sense of evolution.
Katrina’s almost acted as a catalyst for the new. Young chefs who are taking those classics, the jambalaya and the sazzerac and the gumbo and the red beans and rice, classic New Orleans dishes, and modernizing them and using really local, interesting ingredients, top quality ingredients and making them their own.
Brendan Francis Newnam: How do you update red beans and rice?
Gail Simmons: I don’t know. There’s just cool flavors, cool spices.
Brendan Francis Newnam: Black beans.
Gail Simmons: No way, no. Red beans. Red beans.
Rico Gagliano: They’ll kill you if you don’t use red beans.
Brendan Francis Newnam: A radical question: If you didn’t like Cajun food, because it has a distinct flavor profile, but this is your job, and they ask you “Guess what, we’re going to New Orleans”, you just have to pretend you like it?
Gail Simmons: I don’t know. I like to say I’m sort of a perfect omnivore in that way. It has never crossed my mind. There’s nothing that I’m not excited to try. I don’t know. Quite frankly, you’re an idiot if you don’t like cajun food, so that’s that.
Rico Gagliano: All right, it was that kind of sharp insight that we’re hoping you’ll bring to these ?? questions. We’ve got a few for you. A number of them, you may not be surprised, are food-oriented.
Gail Simmons: Sure.
Well done, please
Rico Gagliano: Here’s something from Melissa in Tampa, Florida. Melissa writes, she starts with a scenario. “You are eating dinner at someone’s house, and you are served undercooked chicken. Do you ask to have it cooked again? Do you eat around the edges? Do you not eat it, or do you eat it and take your chances?”
Gail Simmons: Here’s what I would do. It also depends on whose house you’re at. If you’re at your best friend’s house, you’re at your mom’s house, yeah. You have them cook it again. No problem.
Rico Gagliano: Don’t try to kill me again, Mom.
Gail Simmons: If you’re at a stranger’s house, and you’re trying to be polite, I’d probably eat around the edges.
Brendan Francis Newnam: Yeah, I like that she offered, though.
Gail Simmons: Yeah. I would probably have a few bites.
Rico Gagliano: But, aren’t you digging a deeper hole for yourself? Then it’s like, hey, why aren’t you finishing your meal?
Gail Simmons: No, because you eat other things.
Brendan Francis Newnam: Yeah, but what if you’re the expert. This is different from Melissa, but if you eat around the edges, everyone else is “This must be good. They eat the whole thing”. They all get sick.
Gail Simmons: Here’s the thing about undercooked chicken. Certainly you want to be careful and salmonella and other food-borne illnesses exist, for sure. But, it’s still rare, and if it’s really undercooked, that’s an issue and you should absolutely tell the person, in a nice way that is not “Your food is terrible” but is, “This is a little undercooked. I think it’s kind of pink. Cook it a little longer”.
I actually think that, when cooking chicken at home, the opposite tends to happen because people are so petrified that it’s always overcooked, and then it’s hard to swallow because it’s so dry and terrible. And, you don’t need to do that, either.
Rico Gagliano: All right, so Melissa, be careful, but don’t get so paranoid that your host has to destroy the meal for you.
Wine and Dine, or save for another time?
Brendan Francis Newnam: So, our next question comes from Roseanne. She sent it via Twitter. Roseanne writes: “When a guest brings wine, are they expected us to serve it at that dinner? Husband and I disagree on the subject.” A classic, and I don’t know the answer to it.
Gail Simmons: That’s a great question. I don’t think that there’s a set rule. I think you should always go expecting either to happen. If you’re going to bring a wine and you know that that’s been your role, they’ve told you to bring the wine or whatever it is, or you get there and they don’t have a ton of wine, yes. Absolutely. Open it. Drink it. But,I’ve been in plenty of cases where I’ve brought wine hoping we would drink it. I kind of wanted to drink it myself.
Brendan Francis Newnam: Yeah, I just sprung for the nice wine.
Rico Gagliano: Yeah, this isn’t a gift. This is for me.
Gail Simmons: Right, and then they have tons of wine and they put it away, and that’s fine, too. My husband and I sometimes disagree on this, because we’ll bring a really special bottle of wine somewhere and they don’t open it and, not that it’s up to us, that we want it, but you think “Oh, we brought this to share with everyone”. But, I think you have to just go in with no expectations and let the host lead, depending on what they’ve planned.
Brendan Francis Newnam: So, there’s no real rule of thumb.
Gail Simmons: I don’t think there is, and if there is, I haven’t heard one. Because, here’s what can also happen: you can get somewhere and bring wine, just as a gift, without being asked to bring it, but the person has prepared special pairings.
Rico Gagliano: I’ve got a suggestion, though. If you brought in something that you really think people just have to try and you want to experience that with them, can’t you, maybe, pre-dinner, say “listen, this may not go with dinner, but you guys have to try this.”
Gail Simmons: Yes. Absolutely. I’ve had so many times where someone’s come over with a great bottle and said “This is so great. We really have to open this during dinner. I really want everyone to have a taste”. And, that’s great.
Brendan Francis Newnam: I think that’s actually the dividing line. It’s what happens before. If they tell you to bring a wine, expect to drink it. But, if you’re just bringing a bottle of wine to be nice, because that’s kind of customary, you’re on the fence, so don’t spend more than $13. Who knows?
Gail Simmons: I think that if you’re just bringing a wine because it’s your gift, have no expectations either way, and I think it’s in the host’s hands.
Brendan Francis Newnam: Don’t expect to drink it. Yeah. Or, you could just keep guzzling all the wine until they get to your wine.
Gail Simmons: Exactly. Which I’ve also done… not pregnant, but I have often done it.
Own your kitchen failures
Rico Gagliano: Here’s the last question. It comes from Beebs in Los Angeles.
Gail Simmons: Hi, Beebs.
Rico Gagliano: I don’t know, maybe she works at the BBC. Beebs asks: “If you cook something for guests, and it is a fail, is it better to acknowledge, or pull a Julia Child and try to pass it off as fine?”
Gail Simmons: If it’s a real fail, I say, acknowledge it. Make light of it.
Brendan Francis Newnam: Own it, right?
Gail Simmons: And then you all can get back in the kitchen together and do something else. Oh yeah, own your mistakes. I’ve certainly had dinner parties where I’ve made something and it wasn’t as planned. Now, generally, we all tend to be harder on ourselves than our guests are going to be.You know, how many times have I also been to a dinner party and someone is serving something and apologizing for it and I’m like “I don’t care, this is perfectly great. I’m happy just to be invited to your house. What do I care?”
Rico Gagliano: That’s also because you’re Gail, though, right? They really want to impress you.
Gail Simmons: True enough, but I think it is very personal and people put a lot of pressure on themselves.
Brendan Francis Newnam: That’s a good point. It’s the community. The idea of a dinner party, there’s two parts. There’s the food, okay, but it’s really about community and having people over.
Gail Simmons: Absolutely!
Brendan Francis Newnam: Now that I know your answer, expect a dinner party invitation soon, because I can just burn something.
Gail Simmons: Thanks. I’ll be nice about it.
Brendan Francis Newnam: You’ll be nice about it. Great to know.
Rico Gagliano: Gail Simmons, thanks so much for telling our audience how to behave.
Gail Simmons: Thanks, guys!