20 Questions: Gail Simmons

Eat. Write. Travel. Cook. Four little words, an amuse-bouche in the great feast that is food for thought, if you will, that would lead Gail Simmons to her prestigious roles with Food & Wine Magazine, Top Chef and Top Chef: Just Desserts.

Talking with My Mouth Full: My Life as a Professional Eater

Publisher: Hyperion
Price: $26.99
Author: Gail Simmons
Length: 288 pages
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2012-02

Eat. Write. Travel. Cook. Four little words, an amuse-bouche in the great feast that is food for thought, if you will, that would lead Gail Simmons to her prestigious roles with Food & Wine Magazine, Top Chef and Top Chef: Just Desserts. Indeed, she has embraced these words and all their delicious meaning and set her creative appetite loose upon the world, serving not only as an icon in the popular realm of food culture to those who can dine at the best restaurants, but also as an advocate for those who don't get the cloth napkins; bringing delicious, nutritious food to people who need it most.

Her most recent offering to the ravenous realm that is pop culture is her memoir, Talking with My Mouth Full: My Life as a Professional Eater (Hyperion, February 2012). Gail shares with PopMatters 20 Questions those four words and other key influences in her life. One wonders if, as college student, Gail pondered those words while gazing upon her poster of Captain Jean Luc Picard, and she heard him say to her, "Make it so." And she did.

1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close – both the book and the movie.

2. The fictional character most like you?

A cross between Cookie Monster and Dora the Explorer – perhaps obviously, because I have an insatiable appetite for cookies and am always up for an adventure with friends.

3. The greatest album, ever?

Urgh – way too hard to choose just one. My personal top few in no particular order:

The Beatles: Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band

Pearl Jam: Ten

Led Zeppelin: Led Zeppelin IV

Elton John: Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy

4. Star Trek or Star Wars?

That’s like choosing between parents. I was weaned on Star Wars but Star Trek (Next Generation!) basically got me through my teens. Seriously, I had a Star Wars: Return of the Jedi-themed comforter on my bed until I was 12, and a life-size blow up of Captain Jean Luc Picard in my dorm room. Now you know all my secrets.

5. Your ideal brain food?

The works of Gabriel García Márquez.

6. You're proud of this accomplishment, but why?

Actually finishing my first book – Talking With My Mouth Full: My Life as a Professional Eater (out February 21st!). If you had told me two years ago that I could do it, I wouldn’t have believed you. It seemed so completely daunting to sit down and write my life story in a way that anyone would want to read, and in a voice that felt authentic and true to myself. But I think I achieved it.

7. You want to be remembered for ...?

As the girl with the highest hot sauce tolerance.

And as the head cheerleader and advocate for an industry that works tirelessly, and often thanklessly, every day to feed the hungry people of world. (See Common and Food & Wine's Grow for Good program, for example.)

8. Of those who've come before, the most inspirational are?

Jacques Pepin, Julia Child, MFK Fischer, and Sheila Lukins.

9. The creative masterpiece you wish bore your signature?

The immersion blender.

10. Your hidden talents ...?

I can tap dance. True story.

11. The best piece of advice you actually followed?

When I was 22 and had no idea what to do with my life, a close family friend told me to write down what I loved most in the world. I scribbled these four words: “Eat. Write. Travel. Cook.”

Within a year I had moved to New York and was attending culinary school. She changed my life.

12. The best thing you ever bought, stole, or borrowed?

Most recently, borrowed: Season One of Friday Night Lights, from my friend Glen. Obsessed.

13. You feel best in Armani or Levis or ...?

Contrary to popular belief, Levis. And black Chuck Taylor All-Stars.

14. Your dinner guest at the Ritz would be?

Michelle Obama and Melinda Gates. With Beyonce thrown in for good measure.

15. Time travel: where, when and why?

France, 1770, the court of Marie Antoinette – the clothes, the Champagne, the cake…

Photo (partial) by © Melanie Dunea

16. Stress management: hit man, spa vacation or Prozac?

None of the above. Rather, a beach vacation with a mountain of magazines, a mojito and my iPod.

17. Essential to life: coffee, vodka, cigarettes, chocolate, or ...?

Dark chocolate – preferably 70 percent cacao or above.

18. Environ of choice: city or country, and where on the map?

Country: The island of Bali (Indonesia), in an infinity pool overlooking the surf. It really lives up to every ridiculous, beautiful stereotype.

19. What do you want to say to the leader of your country?

Keep hustling. Those dimwits have nothing on you.

20. Last but certainly not least, what are you working on, now?

Book tour! Coming soon to a city near you – check my Facebook Page for updates and please come say hi!


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Two recently translated works -- Lydie Salvayre's Cry, Mother Spain and Joan Sales' Uncertain Glory -- bring to life the profound complexity of an early struggle against fascism, the Spanish Civil War.

There are several ways to write about the Spanish Civil War, that sorry three-year prelude to World War II which saw a struggling leftist democracy challenged and ultimately defeated by a fascist military coup.

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Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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