Welcome back to Dirty Work, our new series of dispatches from the MUNCHIES Garden. We’re inviting chefs, bartenders, and personalities in the world of food and drink to explore our edible playground and make whatever the hell inspires them with our rooftop produce. In this installment, Top Chef judge and all-around food queen Gail Simmons stops by to make a simple lunch that quickly turns elaborate.
Picking handfuls of sungold tomatoes, Gail Simmons pauses when she feels her phone vibrate.
She’s just received a photo of her two-year-old daughter Dahlia Rae, grinning and holding a glass with a straw. “Baby’s first chocolate milk,” she says with a sigh that gives way to a chuckle, resigning herself to the inevitability of her child discovering the pleasures of sugar. “We’re fucked.”
The Top Chef judge and food world veteran has dropped by the MUNCHIES Garden to harvest a small boatload of fresh produce and cook up some lunch, taking a break from a schedule so tightly packed that it would send lesser humans fleeing for a remote Nepalese mountaintop. By some miracle, she’s found time between a multitude of TV appearances, hosting the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, mentoring students of social enterprise at Babson College, and serving on the boards of a half-dozen charitable and culinary organizations in New York City to co-found a content company, Bumble Pie Productions, with business partner Samantha Hanks. Their first series, Star Plates, premieres September 27 and puts celebrities like Mindy Kaling and Colin Hanks on the line with top-tier chefs like Susan Feniger and Top Chef alum Michael Voltaggio.
And yet, even with all of those projects swirling about her head, her daughter is still at the top of mind.
“You just realize when you have a child how much sugar there is in the world. And they have an insatiable appetite for it!” Simmons says. Luckily, however, Dahlia Rae is already a worldly eater. “She has really funny tastes for a two-year-old. Her hands-down favorite food is olives, and her absolute favorite thing to do is to go to Sahadi’s and boss the men around.”
After rooting through the garden’s late-summer bounty, Simmons heads back to the kitchen with a sheet pan piled high with heirloom tomatoes, Japanese and fairytale eggplants, snakelike Armenian cucumbers, shishito peppers, and a bouquet of herbs. “I feel like I’m on a gameshow,” Simmons says as she plucks mint and rosemary leaves from their stems before mixing them into a quick marinade with olive oil, lemon, and garlic for some lamb chops destined for the grill.
The eggplants, peppers, and sungolds get coarsely chopped and tossed with olive oil, chile flakes, garlic, salt, and pepper. Simmons spreads them out on a sheet pan and slides them into the oven to slowly roast while she prepares the feast.
She promised a simple lunch, but she’s hardly content with making just one dish.
“You know, the babies of 2016 are eating differently,” Simmons says as she slices and dices, noting that Dahlia Rae regularly requests chia seed pudding for breakfast and enjoys slicing watermelon with a pink toy knife. “I didn’t even have chia until, like, five years ago!”
Simmons believes that exposing her daughter to the wide world of food will continue to broaden her palate and help her to make healthy decisions in the future—chocolate milk notwithstanding. “We take my daughter to the farmers market every Sunday and she totally tastes everything. Hopefully it will serve her, but there’s no guarantees.”
While the meat soaks in the flavors of the herbs and garlic, Simmons unwraps some beautiful jumbo shrimp and douses them with another simple marinade, this time incorporating a bit of smoky paprika.
She places the lamb across the grill with an effortlessness that recalls (but isn’t quite as jaw-dropping) her masterfully pouring 30 perfect shots of whiskey on her episode of Chef’s Night Out. (“I was like, ‘I’m on reality television. You can’t trick me into drinking on camera,’” she said of the video shoot. “And then 30 minutes in, it was like, OK, I’m done for.”)
As soon as the lamb chops come off the grill with an expert sear on each side, the shrimp take their place on the grates.
But the shrimp’s only the garnish for yet another component: a creamy gazpacho that could be mistaken for a loose Romesco sauce. She follows the classic Catalan recipe for the sauce—toasting marcona almonds, cubing slices of rustic bread—but swaps out the nyora peppers for fresh red garden tomatoes. Into the blender it all goes, blitzed to velvety perfection.
After the shrimp has firmed up over the flames, Simmons places it atop a few ladlefuls of the soup, garnished with green onions and diced cucumbers.
At that point, the eggplants and peppers have relented to the oven’s heat and collapsed into tender, caramelized bites. Simmons spreads them out on a platter as a bed for the lamb chops, the bones forming a loose knitting over the roasted vegetables. On top of that goes tangle of grilled onion rings and a squeeze of lemon.
You know, just a simple lunch.
As she seems to be winding down, Simmons is suddenly struck with an idea: grilled bread and tomatoes, leftover from making the gazpacho. Dressing the slices with a bit of oil and a sprinkle of chives, she turns kitchen waste into yet another dish to add to the smorgasbord.
But that’s not all. For her final trick, Simmons decides to whip up a last-minute cocktail with some ground cherries from the garden. Tart and butterscotch-y, they pair perfectly with white rum. She muddles the berries with a bit of simple syrup and basil leaves, adding a sweet herbal note to the drink.
She tops it up with liquor, pours in some ice, and gives it a shake. Presto, drink-o.
As the MUNCHIES crew tears into the spread—picking up the tender lamb chops by the bone, not bothering with pesky things like utensils—Simmons stands back, smiles, and admires a good afternoon’s work.