There aren’t many Anna Wintours out there in the world. In fact, most magazine editors generally prefer to stay hidden from the glare of media exposure. Glued to recorders and notepads, they are the ones who conduct interviews, the ones who bury themselves in research, the ones who feel awestruck by celebrities, the ones who keep their opinions to themselves. Gail Simmons is a rare exception.
Her culinary expertise and sophisticated palate make her one of the most respected and talked about minds in food media. This season, viewers watched as Simmons judged Top Chef Texas in the scorching summer days of San Antonio, Dallas, and Austin. Simmons returns to Texas this weekend for the Austin Food & Wine Festival to cook up her version of cowgirl cuisine and devour her way through the festival and its city. Simmons talked with TEXAS MONTHLY about the festival, her experiences while filming Top Chef Texas, and how Austin compares to New York.
What’s going on in Austin right now that makes it worthy of its own festival?
Just to be fair, I wasn’t the sole person responsible for bringing Food & Wine to Austin. I certainly spent some time there this past summer and, simultaneously, Food & Wine was working with people in Austin to see if they could make the festival happen, and I’m so glad they did. I don’t think it could be at a better time. For a long time now, Austin has been rumbling and starting to buzz, and the buzz has been getting bigger and bigger, and I think it’s just a perfect moment to bring a big food festival of this caliber down to Austin. I was there for the first time ever this summer when we were filming Top Chef, and, having spent time in Dallas and San Antonio and lots of other places, I certainly felt the second I got to Austin that there was this amazing, young energy of all different kinds of things: music, art, and food, of course. [There are] a lot of great young chefs doing fun, exciting food. Food that really pays attention to the history and traditions of Texas, of barbecue, and Tex-Mex. But at the same time, they are elevating it, refining it, twisting it, making it modern, and making it their own. It’s a great time to show that off to the world.
What was your filming experience like in Texas? You guys have been all over on Top Chef. What was the highlight of the Top Chef Texas filming?
We had a lot of fun in Texas, and I had never been to the state of Texas before. I didn’t know what to expect, and I was very nervous about the fact that we were filming for the full summer. July was the hottest month on the record in like sixty years, if you recall, so that made for a pretty daunting introduction to Texas. But, I have to say, we had a blast. It was the first season we did where we moved within a season from city to city, so that brought a huge element to the season. I learned so much because there was a lot that I didn’t know about [Texas] in terms of learning about barbecue, learning about Tex-Mex, learning about the history of that part of America that I really had no exposure to until then. The food was great, too. We specifically had a blast in Austin. We went out and saw live music almost every single night when we weren’t working. We ate at a lot of food trucks. We would get off at eleven at night and go sit at a little food truck park and get a six-pack of Shiner Bock, drink cold beer, and sit outside underneath the hanging lights. It was a blast. And there are some amazing restaurants there.
Who are you looking forward to seeing at the festival?
I’m very excited to see Paul [Qui], the winner of Top Chef Texas. I’m excited that now that the show is over he and I can just be friends and I can actually just hang out with him, have a cocktail, and get to know him a little better. When I was there in July last summer, I visited Barley Swine and absolutely adored it. I was just so completely enamored with the space, and I had known the chef a little bit because Bryce [Gilmore] is a Food & Wine Best New Chef, so I had gotten to know him a little bit the year before, but it was great to see him in his own setting and finally eat his food. I’ll definitely be visiting him, too. There are places I still want to check out. I never got a chance to go to Foreign & Domestic, and I’ve heard such amazing things about them. I’m really looking forward to the Rock Your Taco event on Saturday night that I’ll be judging. I think that’ll be really fun because there are some Texas chefs and chefs from out of the state. It’ll be fun to see them go head-to-head with their best tacos.
You’re doing a demo, right?
I’m doing a cooking demo. When I was in Texas, I was inspired by the food, and I’m doing a demo that pays an ode to cowboy food. Chefs like Tim Love are going to be there doing cooking demos with big pieces of meat, grilling, and all that stuff. I’m doing what we named Cowgirl Cookin’. I’m cooking with all those really great flavors that I was inspired by in Texas, but that are made in a feminine way. I’m actually not cooking with any meat, but there is some meat flavoring. I mean, you got add bacon in! Just a little bit. I’m cooking mussels steamed in Shiner Bock and I’m doing cheddar, bacon, and chive biscuits. I’m also doing a peach skillet pudding. This stuff is inspired by my time in Texas, but is a little lighter, very refreshing, and perfect for the summer.
You live and work in New York. How would you compare its dining culture to Austin’s?
The culinary world takes tips from each other all the time. Chefs travel. The word travels. Trends travel, and I’m seeing a lot of trends in New York that I think are really influenced by Austin and vice-versa. The food truck culture that has been going on in Austin for so long has really only been in New York for the last two years. I think that no one does it better than Austin. They’re inexpensive, but have great, flawless food. I love that there can be three or four of them right by each other, but each of them will have really different cuisine. The creativity is really high in Austin. I see a lot of similarities between New York, in that way. In New York right now there are also a ton of Southern restaurants opening. Not necessarily Texan restaurants, specifically, but there has been a huge amount of barbecue places that are opening all over New York. Hill Country Barbecue, certainly, and others. A lot of the same aesthetic that young, hyper-creative Austin chefs are bringing to their food can be said the same of New York: young chefs who have exceptional formal culinary training who want to do something different and who are starting small. Barley Swine is a great example. [Bryce] is starting small and doing something very focused that is casual and comfortable. There is no pretense, but the food is pushing us forward.
Are you doing another season of Top Chef Desserts anytime soon?
We are doing another season of Top Chef proper, first. That’s all I know. One series at a time. It takes up so much time to shoot, so when we start shooting that later on this year, we’ll go from there.