For more than 10 years, Gail Simmons has decided the fate of hopeful chefs from all over the country as a judge on the show, Top Chef. She's also the author of the new cookbook, Bringing It Home. We asked Simmons to be part of our Key 3 series, in which we ask chefs, food writers, and celebrities to tell us about their three most go-to dishes. She told us about two of her favorites, chicken wings and butterscotch pudding. Then she invited Francis Lam into the kitchen to make her Ultimate Breakfast Sandwich. In addition, Simmons shared her recipes for two unique desserts: Banana-Cardamom Upside-Down Cake with Salty Caramel and Black-Licorice Chocolate Bundt Cake.
Francis Lam: You have eaten everywhere. Chefs fall over themselves to impress you on a daily basis. The question is what do you cook at home for yourself?
Gail Simmons: I get this question a lot. The question usually starts as, “Do you cook at home?” Because people who specifically watch me on Top Chef always see me in a certain way. It is me, but it’s a curated and edited version of me. I'm often in full hair and makeup and a cocktail dress, so they don't know if I actually cook or if I just sit and eat and judge people.
What people don't know is my career and love of food began by cooking, not just eating at fancy restaurants. I spend a lot of time cooking at home. Now that I have a job that requires me to travel and eat out a lot, I find – especially as I get older and now that I have a child – that my food at home is much simpler. There's not a lot of time at the end of the day. And when I've also been working and eating a lot of heavy food during the week, I want to come home and eat simple, delicious, fresh food.
FL: Lots of things you don't have to think too hard about.
GS: That's it.
Gail Simmons (Photo: Shay Paresh)
FL: Tell us about some of those. Let's say, three of them.
GS: I've been thinking a lot about this; there are many. But there are three things that, in my head, are my go-to, that deeply satisfy me, that I love to make. They are chicken wings --
FL: You are my best friend.
GS: Thank you. I've always loved a chicken wing. Also, butterscotch pudding. And a perfect fried egg sandwich.
FL: These are solid choices.
GS: They are not necessarily everyday recipes; you're not going to eat butterscotch pudding and chicken wings every day of the week. But they are great things to know how to make for entertaining or for pleasing yourself. They’re three of my favorite things to cook.
FL: Talk to me about the chicken wings.
Gail Simmons: Growing up in Toronto, there was a place from as far back as I can remember, probably middle school, where my friends and I always went for chicken wings. It was a little hole-in-the-wall dive bar, but they made the best, spiciest chicken wings. Crispy fried wings, with an incredible, dilly, ranchy sauce to go alongside it. I've never been able to replicate those wings, but it has been a quest for me to do so ever since. In the process, I have found other ways to make wings that I love; they're certainly not that classic Buffalo-style. To me, there's nothing more satisfying, decadent, silly and tasty, because it hits all the points. There's the fat, salt, and the heat.
FL: Can I confess something to you?
FL: There is a microphone on me right now, but it's our private moment.
GS: Understood. Just between us.
FL: I don't know what butterscotch is. What is butterscotch?
GS: It is a funny thing because this is the road I went down. I've always loved butterscotch pudding. When anyone would ask me in an interview, “What would be your final meal?” I always say butterscotch pudding would be the dessert. It is the most luxurious, texturally perfect, rich, creamy, caramel-y dessert ever. You don't see it that often, but all of a sudden it's starting to make a comeback in fancier forms like the budino or the pots de creme. Butterscotch pudding, in its simplest sort of childhood lunch memory, is what I love the most.
I decided when I wrote this cookbook that I needed to have a butterscotch pudding, but realized I had never made butterscotch pudding. So, I set about to do so. The first thing was exactly that – realizing what the hell is butterscotch? Where does it come from? My original belief was that it is probably two things: butter and scotch. It would make sense that it would be in the recipe. I had to go down a deep rabbit hole. There's very little on the internet about this, surprisingly – or just not enough – and it's very gray about what butterscotch is.
Apparently, the scotch part of it comes from what possibly could be a word for scorch, because you scorch the butter a bit; you brown the butter with sugar in the process of making it – to caramelize it. That's the best I could find for what butterscotch is. Butterscotch pudding is a traditional custard made from caramelized butter and sugar. I like to use brown sugar because it has such a deep flavor, tempered with milk and cream. Then I decided, “I'm definitely putting in scotch!” Some recipes do that. I'm an adult. And I like scotch. So, I'm going to add scotch! My version has scotch, but if you want to make it kid-friendly, you could certainly leave the scotch out. As long as you get a deep enough brown butter caramel, it's still going to taste fantastic.
FL: Mystery solved.
GS: There you go.
Francis Lam and Gail Simmons in the kitchen preparing Gail's Ultimate Breakfast Sandwich. (Photo: Shay Paresh)
FL: The third thing you said is a killer breakfast sandwich.
GS: Yes. Let's go make one.
FL: Let's go to the kitchen.
Francis and Gail step into the kitchen complete with a full spread of ingredients for the fried egg sandwich: eggs, tomato, lettuce, mustard, and more.
FL: We’re down in the kitchen, and we're going to make your ultimate breakfast sandwich.
GS: I'm excited about it. The first thing about a breakfast sandwich is the egg has to be cooked well. By “well” I don't mean “well done.” I mean so that the yolk is still runny but not raw; the white is firm. Most people don't know how to cook a fried egg very well.
FL: It's tough.
GS: They overcook it or they undercook it. That's the most important part of an egg sandwich. But there are other components that make it delicious. Like sharp cheddar cheese. I'll take American cheese once in a while because we all have our dirty little secrets. And a beautiful ripe tomato.
There are a few other things that I love on my sandwich that I think make it a little bit different and even more delicious. I always put pickles on my fried egg sandwich; that acid is just so killer. I like to use chilies. In this case, I'm using peppadews, which are a South African pepper. They're mildly spicy and pickled. And mustard, which is my number-one favorite condiment of all time. I put mustard on almost everything that it is not embarrassing to have mustard on, and even some things that are embarrassing to put mustard on. I believe mustard makes most things taste better, so there's always mustard on my egg sandwich. Altogether, you have acid, acid, heat, fatty cheese, beautiful juicy tomato – also with a little bit of acid to it – and the perfect egg. And some lettuce.
FL: I have to say, you come from the hamburger school of breakfast sandwiches.
GS: The exact same method would make a great hamburger.
The first thing I'm going to do is put mayonnaise on four pieces of rye bread. I like rye because it adds a little flavor. You want every element to have a purpose. I put it on one side, but this is actually going to be the outside of the sandwich. This is the expert grilled cheese school as well, because mayonnaise will help it get golden and tasty.
I'm going to put a little butter in the pan. I'm using a nonstick skillet here. I don't recommend nonstick skillets for all cooking, but for cooking eggs it really does help. I'm using a big nonstick skillet. That's another important thing. You never want a pan that's too small. Then things get crowded and they start to steam. Move that butter around a little bit, melt it, make sure that it's evenly distributed. Now, make your egg. This might come as a surprise to people, but how I like to make my sandwich is that I make my egg separately, put it aside, make the sandwich, and then I put the egg in the middle right before serving it.
Now that's a perfect fried egg sandwhich! (Photo: Shay Paresh)
FL: You like to put the cover on the pan?
GS: I don't always put a lid over my pan when I'm cooking eggs, but when you do put the lid on, it tends to trap the heat in and steam it a little more. It'll cook things more quickly, but don't blast the heat. You have to be gentle with your eggs.
I do believe this is the perfect hangover food. The inspiration for this particular recipe – with mustard and pickles – comes from my college years. I went to school in Montreal at McGill University, and I was vegetarian for a few years – I don’t tell a lot of people that. There was a burger place in Montreal, I think it's still around but I'm not sure. They made the most amazing burgers. But, because I didn't eat meat, I could never enjoy them. However, they had an egg sandwich on the menu that, once I ordered it, I craved all the time because it had pickles in it. That was the first time I'd had an egg sandwich with pickles, and have been eating it that way ever since.
I'm just taking my eggs gingerly out of the pan. You don't want to break that yolk.
FL: It's a high wire act.
GS: I'm setting those buttery eggs aside.
FL: They are beautiful. Very buttery looking.
GS: Use a little salt.
FL: You season after they're done?
GS: Yes. Then I'm going to add the rest of the butter into the pan, start toasting up my bread, and put the sandwich together. I’m toasting the bread in the butter, mayonnaise-side down. Once this starts to toast, I'm going to spread mustard on the inside of the bread while it’s inside the pan.
FL: This is a mustard lover's amount of mustard.
GS: I mean, look, you can moderate, but I'm giving you the best version of myself, Francis! [laughs] I'm turning down this flame just a hair. And then I'm going to add peppadews.
FL: These are beautiful, dainty, ripe red peppers.
GS: And they have so much flavor. For one sandwich, I use about five peppadews cut in half.
FL: If you don’t have peppadews, any kind of pickled pepper will do?
GS: Absolutely. Obviously, this is all optional, but I'm telling you what would make it the best.
Now, I'm putting in that cheddar, and I'm going to moderate it to the size of the bread. Let that start to melt a little bit. When it just starts to warm up the cheese, I'm going to add pickles, tomato, and a bit of hot sauce.
FL: I love it. Now, you flip the sandwiches, so the new mayonnaise-sided bread goes on the downside.
GS: Exactly. At the very end, you put on your lettuce and egg. There we go; I'm pulling them off.
FL: Very nice.
GS: The side without cheese will be easier to open so you can carefully put in your eggs. Top with a piece of lettuce. Don't squish it down too much, although the egg may pop when I slice in. You want to be a careful when you slice, but get in there.
FL: That is a pretty sandwich. And it’s good! I 100-percent feel the pickles in this. Thank you so much for the sandwich that's now running down my face.
GS: That's the point. It wouldn't be the ultimate breakfast sandwich if it wasn't.
Someone's ready to eat! (Photo: Shay Paresh)
Each week, The Splendid Table brings you stories that expand your world view, inspire you to try something new, and show how food brings us together. We rely on you to do this. You have the power to keep us cooking, sharing these stories, and helping you in the kitchen.
Donate today for as little as $5.00 a month. Your gift only takes a few minutes and has a lasting impact on The Splendid Table.
Francis Lam is the host of The Splendid Table. He is the former Eat columnist for The New York Times Magazine and is Editor-at-Large at Clarkson Potter. He graduated first in his class at the Culinary Institute of America and has written for numerous publications. Lam lives with his family in New York City.