Gail Simmons is a woman with her own namesake cocktail.
You’ll find the story of the gin drink in the “Top Chef” judge’s first cookbook, which assembles recipes from travels abroad, nearly two decades in New York City and a Canadian childhood.
In “Bringing It Home: Recipes From a Life of Adventurous Eating,” Simmons — who lives in Cobble Hill with her husband and 3-year-old daughter — traces the beverage’s origins to her love of the cucamelon, a grape-sized, citrusy cucumber resembling a miniature watermelon and available at farmers’ markets for only a short window in August.
“I was eating at Eleven Madison Park one night several years ago in the summer time,” she recalled in an interview, “and, somehow, when [bar director] Leo [Robitschek] and I were talking, I brought up how I had just discovered these amazing little vegetables. About 10 minutes later, he appeared at my table with a cucamelon cocktail. He called it The Gail, and he gave me the recipe.”
You can make it for yourself following an adaptation of that blueprint in Simmons’ cookbook, which calls for either cucamelons or English cucumbers, London dry gin, lemon juice, simple syrup and mint leaves. Or — if you’d rather leave the muddling to the professional mixologists — you can head to the NoMad Bar, where The Gail and four dishes from “Bringing It Home” are on the dinner and recently added lunch menus for the month of November.
We spoke to Simmons about not only her eponymous cocktail, but her tips for planning a first Thanksgiving dinner, her favorite new restaurants, the upcoming season of “Top Chef” and the future of her female-focused production company.
Thanksgiving is right around the corner and some New Yorkers are hosting the big holiday for the first time. What advice do you have for them?
If you’re hosting a first Thanksgiving, manage expectations and ask for some help. You don’t need to do 17 things all at once. Farm out desserts, farm out the salad or the soup, or some of the sides. If you’re really want to make your own roast turkey, it’s not hard to do. ... You don’t have to be fancy. Some salt and pepper and butter go a long way.
In terms of sides, there’s a recipe in my book that I know I’m going to make this year, for salt and vinegar smashed potatoes. ... Also, just simple, really flavorful greens like Swiss chard, and obviously something with sweet potatoes or butternut squash, maybe a rich soup.
Speaking of youth, you first came to New York in 1999 to attend what’s now the Institute of Culinary Education. What were your favorite cheap eats back in the day?
I remember eating a lot of falafel at Mamoun’s and this place called Rainbow Falafel on 17th Street. I was living in Murray Hill at the time, and I used to go to Noodles 28 with my roommate. We lived above a pizza parlor, so the hallways of my building always smelled of pizza, which I loved. I also remember eating a lot of bagels and cream cheese from Murray’s Bagels on Sixth Avenue and egg sandwiches, eggs and bacon, that classic diner Greek salad and pancakes at Joe Jr., a diner on Third Avenue.
For your last bit of coursework, you did an apprenticeship at the legendary Le Cirque, which is reportedly set to relocate after it closes at the end of this year. Tell us what it was like working in that kitchen.
That was my first restaurant experience. It kind of blew me away. At that time, it was a four-star restaurant and it was in its previous location, the Palace Hotel, which attracted the who’s-who of New York. I learned a lot of things there. I was at the pasta, risotto and hot appetizer station. I learned to make items on the secret menu. There was a secret potato that wasn’t on the menu that was a potato baked on a bed of salt. The meat inside was all scooped out, mashed up with butter and truffles and put back in like a twice-baked potato, and then they would serve it with a lobe of foie gras on top — so over the top and amazing. We always had to have this very simple tomato sauce with fresh pasta and very simple vegetable soup for the son of the Sultan of Brunei, who would come into eat because the family owned the building.
These days, you’re sitting in the dining room. Which are some of your favorite new restaurants in New York City right now?
I love Nur. It’s so flavorful and fun. And Fairfax, the new place by Gabriel Stulman: I love the style of cooking. It has Mediterranean, Middle Eastern flavors that I think are really great, but it’s very eclectic. Atla is great — it’s creative and different.
There are so many restaurants that I want to go to, that are on my list but I haven’t had a chance to go to yet. I want to go the Aviary. I still haven’t been to The Grill or The Pool. I’m really excited about Celestine, which just opened in my neighborhood. It’s run by the guys behind Mile End.
“Top Chef” returns to Bravo in December. What should we expect for the 15th season?
It’s an amazing season, a beautiful season I think unlike any other. This is the first time we’re outdoors, and the scenery is so majestic. We got to travel all over the state of Colorado. A lot of it was shot outdoors, so the chefs are cooking at altitude, without the luxuries of a professional kitchen some of the time. There were certain challenges that took place in very rugged conditions.
You also co-founded content creation company Bumble Pie Productions, which is committed to giving a platform to new female voices in food media. Your first show premiered on “Food Network” last fall, and you have two new productions in the works. Why is the Bumble Pie mission important right now, with all this discussion around the lack of female chefs heading Michelin-starred restaurants?
I just think there are far too few female voices still in the food space. Number one in professional kitchens — we know that to be true. But there’s still not a single TV show in primetime that is held solely by a woman in the food space. And there’s just room for more interesting voices and a diversity of voices. I want to promote women who do great work and young women who do very interesting things.
The NoMad Bar is serving Simmons’ drink and recipes, including the lakte Reuben and jerk shrimp rolls, at lunch (noon to 2 p.m.), and at dinner (5 p.m. to close). It’s located at 10 W. 28th St.