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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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


“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.


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


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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