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A Considerable Town

Gail Simmons: From Fact-Checker to Top Chef to a Book Party at Red Medicine

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Thu, Mar 22, 2012 at 7:30 AM
click to enlarge Gail Simmons, getting ready - PHOTO BY TIBBY ROTHMAN
  • Photo by Tibby Rothman
  • Gail Simmons, getting ready

There's a thicket of limo drivers waiting for passengers at LAX's Terminal 3 on the first day of March, their suits as anonymous as uniforms. Alone, "Passenger Simmons' " ride stands out.

The sole woman, she has positioned herself a cool 10 feet from her colleagues, her height -- she's tall -- made taller by patent-leather heels. And she has eschewed her peers' tired garb for a pair of narrow-cut black slacks and a cropped black trench coat. Finishing the look is a sleek ponytail.

Even Gail Simmons' driver is chic these days.

Culinary expert Simmons, introduced to mainstream America via Bravo's hit Top Chef and then given her own show, Just Desserts, is in Los Angeles to promote her newly released memoir, Talking With My Mouth Full. From the airport she'll be driven to a tony Beverly Hills hotel, where the lounge is afloat in screenplays, and matzo ball soup will run you $12.

Today, Simmons navigates the high life.

Yet in an era in which diva-mean is respected, Simmons is seen as nice. It's not that she's not driven -- she is -- but everyone seems to have a story that involves her wrapping her radiating smile around them. In the all-about-me generation, Simmons is all about them.

Everyone likes Gail.

I am alone in not wanting to.

She is my cousin. The achiever. Writer, chef, television star -- each attainment delivered via a stream of emails from my aunt.

Then, in 2008, the ultimate blow. There she was, younger, getting married. Me, the don't-have-an-agenda girl, still bereft of a ring.

Family intervention got me on a plane to New York.

The in-flight entertainment featured Top Chef. I watched CNN.

Which is how, halfway across the continent, I learned New York was under a tornado watch.

More than 11 hours of holding patterns and reroutes later, I lurched into the hotel. It was past midnight. Simmons stood in the lobby. There was that smile. It was an awesome weekend. The best.

"I imagine that she's got a million things going on in her life. But there's always a moment where she personally reaches out to me," says the goateed chef Roy Choi at a packed party at the restaurant Red Medicine -- the book bash that brought Simmons to L.A.

It's why he's here tonight when he would rather be hidden in his kitchen at A-Frame or Chego.

"This whole thing is weird for me," he notes of a party full of perfectly done hair and a buzz so loud it's hard to hear.

Choi is not the only chef in attendance. A virtual quorum is in the kitchen, pulled from the front-of-house madness by Red Medicine's chef, Jordan Kahn.

Animal's Vinny Dotolo, in his blue wool cap, scarfs appetizers over a trash can rather than a plate so their juice just drops. Next to him, Umamicatessen's Chris Cosentino is kicking it in a corduroy parka.

They knock back beers and eat appetizers delivered personally by chef Kahn. His wind sweep of hair is so insanely cool, Johnny Depp could not hallucinate it.

Ask Simmons why Red Medicine was picked as the party locale, and she'll point to Kahn's talent, their mutual interest in Southeast Asian cooking and their "love" of fish sauce, a street-food staple in Vietnam and Thailand.

Alone, earlier in the evening, finding the chefs amidst the chaos had not been easy for me. A helpful press person was devoured in the churn of attendees; another, effusive toward Simmons when she arrived, shrugs at me -- chefs aren't his portfolio.

It's Simmons herself who stops what she's doing to find them, pulling me through the thick crowd in her black-and-white-print dress and precarious red cigarette heels to deposit me with Dotolo.

When passenger Simmons meets her driver at LAX, five hours before the party, she has been on the road for the last 10 days: Florida for the South Beach Wine and Food Festival, then to the West Coast for the book tour. The day started in Seattle.

"It's so cold there," she says. "Like, colder than New York."

Her carry-on is full of food from the trip, which she empties in the car at my request like other girls dump out their makeup.

There's a glass jar of duck liver paté from a deli in Seattle, a Ziploc bag of leftover chocolate chip cookies from a friend, and another bag of chocolate-stuffed figs for her husband, "Jer."

She explains that, on the plane, she ate a Cuban sandwich so big that she couldn't hold it in her hands and had to knife-and-fork it. Then scans her BlackBerry to identify the restaurant it came from. "I want to make sure you have what you need," she says.

Simmons began her career as a fact-checker for a Canadian publication. An ugly, tedious job -- any journalist will tell you. And though her family lived comfortably, it was in an ordinary Toronto suburb. My aunt and uncle valued the arts -- my aunt was herself a food writer for the daily newspaper -- but had a conventional lifestyle.

Simmons' car pulls up to her Beverly Hills hotel, a doorman opens the door, her bags disappear. Check-in is seamless, as a metallic-evening-gowned actress trailed by a film-shoot entourage passes by. Then Simmons steps into a Russian jewel box of an elevator. Inside is a skinny-jeaned stranger with a teacup dog under his arm.

Simmons stands quietly by the elevator panel until he exits.

"You can't make this stuff up," she says.

And the elevator keeps rising.

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