Oddly, I don't know if I've ever seen Ms. Simmons' show, Top Chef: Just Desserts … in fact, I've not been able to come up with a mental image of the Top Chef show at all, which is strange, as the cooking shows are one of those “fall back” options when nothing else is on, and I've watched a lot of Iron Chef and Chopped, etc. over the years. Maybe we don't get Bravo, or it's off in one of those backwaters not an easy up/down channel from the other stuff I watch (I just discovered that we did still get Fox News a few weeks ago, after assuming our TV provider dropped it a couple of years ago from the cheap/free package we have – yes, I do find the on-screen menu thing totally unworkable, thank you). Anyway, this led me to come to Talking with My Mouth Full with a reasonably blank slate as I didn't know either the author or her show (although I was quite familiar with Food & Wine magazine, but the names I would have known there probably preceded her by a decade or so).
When I picked this up, I wasn't expecting that it was going to be so much of an actual autobiography, and sort of thought it was going to be more generally about the industry, but this is tightly connected to Simmons' life/career, so while there are bits that are generalized out of those experiences, the book closely follows the specifics of where she was and what she was doing. I suspect that it was this that led to there being almost none of my little bookmarks in here for interesting stuff to stick in this review … meaning that you're going to be getting more “broad strokes” in this than I probably would have preferred.
The book starts, as one might expect in an autobiography, with her family and childhood. One of the on-going threads here is her Jewish heritage, with her father being a South African immigrant to Canada, and her mother hailing from Montreal, and how they met in Toronto. Aside from the Jewish milieu she grew up in, the whole Canadian thing is a major part of the story, especially when it came to visas, etc. necessary to stay/work in the U.S.
Her exit from college sounded very familiar to me:
Fortunately for her, a friend of the family came by while she was sulking in her parent's basement following graduation, and told her to “Make a list of what you like to do. Not jobs. Just anything that comes into your mind.” … what she ended up with was the rather non-specific: “Eat. Write. Travel. Cook.” (my list from the same stage in my life might have read quite similarly, likely with “drink” replacing “cook”). Needless to say, those four words eventually came to embody her career path.Was I the only person without a clue about the next step? It sure felt that way. My parents and my friends' parents expected great things from their children, and great things usually involved postgraduate degrees. Graduate school is great if you know what you want to do. But I didn't have the foggiest idea. None of the things my friends were doing interested me. … I felt at the time like the only one in my crowd – full of so many bright, strong young women – who really didn't know what she wanted to be. So where did that leave me?
She attended McGill University and began to write restaurant reviews for the school paper, which eventually led to an internship with Toronto Life, then to the National Post, where she was a bit at loose ends, and was told “If you want to write about food, you need to speak the language. … Go learn how to cook and how to eat.”, which led her to New York, and Peter Kump's cooking school (I'd had some contact with Mr. Kump, who died in '95, via the Beard Foundation back in the day – nice guy).
Now, the chronological arc in the preceding leaves out a lot of material … a good deal of the book involves places she ate, places she traveled to, what she ate when she was there, the culinary interests of her family (there's a recipe for her father's pickles), etc., but it's all so enmeshed in the matrix of the telling, that it seems pointless to try to extract any of the individual elements here.
She details her experience in cooking school, which she anticipated would lead to working at a top-tier test kitchen, but she was told by the career services head at Kump: “... you still don't know how to cook … the only way to truly solidify your skills is to work in a restaurant and cook on the line” they were able to place her in some amazing restaurants, however:
The stories she tells of life in the kitchen are quite interesting, especially as I've not read a lot (such as Anthony Bourdain's notorious Kitchen Confidential) in that area. What is more amazing is the tale of her time working as fabled Vogue food critic Jeffrey Steingarten's assistant. The author had read his The Man Who Ate Everything, and was fascinated by his descriptions of his assistant – the things that she was doing was exactly what Simmons wanted to do – and went back to the culinary school to see if they knew of any jobs like that … remarkably, the placement guy had just seen Steingarten the week before and he'd said he was looking for a new assistant, and, somewhat implausibly, she got the gig (she notes her timing ended up being perfect, as Steingarten was at the point of getting desperate to have a new person in place). If you're not familiar with some of the “bigger than life” characters in the food industry, you may find the stories of her working with him hard to believe, but they're something to see (read) … for example, while working on a story about espresso machines, they had eighteen ordered in, and, after testing these for weeks “Jeffrey decided that it was basically impossible to make a good espresso unless you had a $10,000 professional upright Italian espresso maker with a brass eagle on top”.I would go on to work in two kitchens: Le Cirque for only six weeks and Vong for a few months. In that whole time, I was the only woman in both.”
After two years of working for Steingarten, she felt she had to move on. She'd contacted restauranteur Daniel Boulud for advice (Steingarten dined at his place frequently so she'd become a friend) on a new position, and his marketing gal expressed interest, but couldn't afford the hire at the time. Simmons then went on a vacation, where she contracted Epstein-Barr, and had to return to Canada (and back in her parents' basement) to recover … leaving her boyfriend in New York. Towards the end of her convalescence, she heard from him that she'd had a call from the marketing gal, who was asking if she was available … so she returned to New York for that job. Again “the stars were aligned” for her, because their restaurant group had numerous foreign-born staff members, and kept an immigration lawyer on retainer, so her needing a visa (which had been a problem at other job options) was easily taken care of.
The stories of the years she worked at Daniels are also informative, as she breaks down a lot of the “technical workings” of the restaurant biz … including an amazing 2-page diagram of all the positions, and how they fit into the organizational chart. At the restaurant she did most of the special event work, and some other marketing functions, but there was only one marketing director (the gal who had hired her), and she wasn't going anywhere, so Simmons had to consider her next move. This came along via another serendipitous connection, a marketing guy from Food & Wine had become a friend, and when he was getting ready to leave his gig there, he outright asked her “do you want my job?”! She also had good timing because not long after she was on staff, the organizer of the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen went on maternity leave, and she got to step in. One of the features of the Classic was a head-to-head competition between two chefs, which set her up for the eventual TV gig at Top Chef.
The rest of Talking with My Mouth Full is stories from the TV show, talking about her wedding, and the development of the Just Desserts spin-off … lots of name dropping here, lots of insider insight into the TV cooking biz, and a lot of food and travel mentioned (like serendipitously getting to go to the tuna auction in Tokyo's Tsukiji Fish Market when on her honeymoon). The last dozen pages are an interesting concept … her taking a look at a day's food, in recipes that track bits of the book – from eggs she learned to make during a summer in Israel to the Welsh Rarebit that was a feature of her proposal “picnic” – and, as noted above, the recipe for her dad's pickles.
This is one of those dollar store finds that's still evidently in print, and selling well enough that the on-line big boys have it at just a normal discount (so should be available in the surviving brick & mortar book vendors). It is, however (as is often the case when they've hit the dollar store), available for cheap via the new/used guys … with “like new” copies of the hardcover going for as little as 1¢ (plus $3.99 shipping, natch).
If you're interested in these areas of the food biz, but aren't already in it, this would be a very interesting read, given that Ms. Simmons' career takes her through so much of it. It's also very rich with food memories (again, I barely touched on that aspect here), making it one of those literally mouth-watering reads. This isn't a ground-breaking “must read”, but it's well worth the effort if you have a hankering for this stuff.