Photo: Michael Lavine
Much like a great meal, a memory is a mix of sights, smells and tastes. For many, childhood memories are shaped by what comes out of the kitchen.
As a child growing up in Canada, Gail Simmons says most of her early food memories were shaped by her mother, a food writer and cooking school instructor, who was a fixture in the family kitchen. But it was a visit to her father's homeland—South Africa—that set young Gail on a path toward cooking school and Top Chef stardom.
When I was 6 years old, we made our first trip back to South Africa to visit my father's family. One day, we went to a beautiful winery outside of Cape Town. My parents decided to try to teach me how to taste wine. I got my little, 1-ounce pour of wine, and they told me just to stick my tongue in it. They didn't want me swigging back wine, but of course, I wasn't listening. I started swigging back all this wine, and apparently, I don't have a memory of this completely, but I giggled and laughed for about two hours. Then, I passed out for about eight hours.
But, when I woke up, I asked my parents for more wine. That probably scared them to death—they thought they'd created a monster. It definitely made me realize wine was the way to go…and food is too, certainly.
Years later, I started writing restaurant reviews for my college paper, never knowing it was an actual career. I really did it because I thought it was fun, and I loved to cook. Plus, it was an excuse to eat out and discover restaurants in the town where I went to school.
I remember one Peruvian restaurant I ate at…I had never eaten Peruvian food. The first time I tasted what I later realized was a ceviche, I was pretty blown away. I thought: "Wow. This is a pretty good gig. There are people who do this for a living. Maybe I should look into that."
Sometimes I have to pinch myself and remind myself that I figured out a way to make that work.
Published on August 26, 2009