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Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Top Chef Judge Krista Simmons on the S.F. Food Scene, and Her Path to the Judging Table

Posted By on Wed, Aug 22, 2012 at 8:00 AM

Krista Simmons peruses the seasonal produce at the farmers market. - FELICIA FRIESEMA/FIG STUDIO
  • Felicia Friesema/Fig Studio
  • Krista Simmons peruses the seasonal produce at the farmers market.

You never know where a passion for food will take you. For food writer Krista Simmons, it was the Top Chef judges table.

It all started back in 2004, when Simmons was a junior at UC Santa Cruz. She took what she refers to as the "obligatory trip" to the Bonny Doon Winery Tasting Room, and was immediately enchanted by the log cabin, then nestled in the Santa Cruz mountains.

"The place was just so strange and amazing," Simmons recalls. "Everyone who worked there was so esoteric and into wine. I was immediately inspired by the innovative approach being taken to wine production and the tasting room itself. I wanted to be part of that team!"

Simmons took that drive straight to the boss and was awarded with the official title of Cellar Door Associate. She began leading the tastings herself, relishing in the opportunity to educate her fellow students and other visitors on the winemaking process. "I was the one who made sure they'd be getting crunk on the good stuff!"

And so Simmons' love affair with agriculture grew, leading her on a journey around the globe with World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF), back home to L.A. to pursue her love of food writing, and most recently to Las Vegas, where she made her network television debut judging Top Chef Masters.

"I've been invited to judge at plenty of food competitions, but nothing has come remotely close to the intimidation factor of being on the show. The first judge's table I was flanked by Ruth Reichl and James Oseland, who have been my culinary idols for years," she says. "I could ramble on about the intricacies of a dish with fellow foodies for hours, but actually having to point out flaws to such well-respected professionals was incredibly difficult."

As a reporter, Simmons says she's used to getting feedback from readers and editors, and she always tries to take even the most biting criticism of deeply personal pieces in stride and use others' input to help her evolve creatively. She believes that competing on Top Chef had a similar influence on the contestants. Similarly, Simmons is grateful to the producers, from whom she learned a lot. "They really pushed me to be as explicit in my descriptions as possible, reminding me that I'm the taste buds of the viewer. I've tried to carry those lessons over to my writing as well," she says.

And her time on organic farms in Australia and Thailand gave her confidence in her opinions. "It is those [agricultural] experiences that have allowed me to sit there on Top Chef Masters and look at an heirloom tomato and really understand what it is, and the process that led it to my plate."

That enthusiasm local ingredients and sustainability has led her to call San Francisco one of her favorite dining destinations in the U.S.

"The ideals of San Francisco really align with my culinary perspective. Everyone in San Francisco is a foodie. It's not about being trendy, it's just what you do!" she says. "Bi-Rite is definitely not just for the upper echelon, and everyone is enjoying sustainable charcuterie and fine local cheeses."

When asked about her favorite spots the enthusiastic blonde pauses a beat (for what might very well may be her only breath the interview). "I really enjoy SPQR and I am in love with Tartine. It's almost a blessing I don't live in San Francisco, because every time I go I spend entirely too much money on morning buns, croissants, tarts and gougers," she says. "And I know it may sound generic but I just love the Ferry Building, I'm a big fan of championing artisanal food producers. I'm like a kid in a candy store in there."

Watch Krista in action tonight on Top Chef Masters, 10 p.m. (9 central) on Bravo.

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