Top Chef's Gail Simmons Brings Out The Best Of The Fall - Exclusive Interview

The time of year has come to welcome the holiday season with full hearts and empty stomachs. It's about family gatherings, seasonal harvest ingredients, and all the cozy, warming recipes that get us through this chilly time of year. We all start slowing down in the kitchen, home cooks and chefs alike, pouring a glass of red wine or two, and embrace the sleepy dishes that define the season. Chef, cookbook, author, and "Top Chef" host Gail Simmons is no different. She's embracing the changing weather (and enjoying some time at home in between her busy schedule) by shifting her eating and drinking habits to invite all that fall and winter has to offer.

In between it all, she took some time to catch up with Tasting Table. In an exclusive interview, Simmons reflected on the newest season of "Top Chef" and the impact of taking the show international. She also dished on some of the British foods she tried while filming in the U.K. Now that Simmons is back home in the states, she's looking forward to all the flavors of fall and preparing for the season of holiday gatherings. She shared some of her favorite tips and recipes for Halloween, your Thanksgiving table, and beyond.

Gail Simmons says Top Chef's international season was bigger and better than ever

You just wrapped up filming "Top Chef" Season 20, and you've mentioned in the past that you've wanted the show to go more international. What was this experience like and how was it different from previous seasons?

It felt bigger in every way, in the best way. I have been wanting for many years to go abroad, because from a culinary standpoint, getting a global perspective and challenging our contestants in a new and different way is something we try to do every season. The next logical step would be to get them out of the country, seeing other things. and for us, to reinvigorate and re-inspire all the challenges we give them. We're always trying to raise the bar, and the 20th season felt like a perfect opportunity to do things bigger and better than ever.

The other thing that feels extraordinarily different about it is that it wasn't just a new batch of great cooks from America. It was a global season, because it was made up of contestants who are all either winners or runners up from their version of "Top Chef" in 11 of the 29 countries where "Top Chef" exists beyond our show ... We started the series, but every country has taken it and done its own thing. 

The contestants here were all at the top of their season. They all have gone through the "Top Chef" experience before, but never in this way. It leveled the playing field, but also made for a really interesting season ... "Top Chef Middle East," "Top Chef Italy," "Top Chef Poland," "Top Chef Germany" — food culture like you've never seen it before, all coming together.

That coming together of cultures, how is that reflected in the kitchen and on those plates that were presented this time around?

Wherever you're from, your heritage informs the way you cook and the ingredients you use. The climate, the story of your people informs everything you do as a cook. Presenting challenges to them, was amazing to see how they all come at it from different places in a truly global way and how they interpret the tasks we give them. I was stunned and mesmerized every time.

Gail Simmons says the best British food is globally inspired

What was the most unique or exciting British food that you tried?

There was a lot. I ate so well in London. It was really fun, because we ate so well on the show and then I got enough downtime that I could do a lot of going out, exploring the markets, exploring restaurants. I love the beautiful, very stark simplicity of British modern dining. I was even more excited by the cuisines represented there that I don't get to eat a lot here in the U.S. [There was] Sri Lankan food, Malaysian food, really excellent Middle Eastern food, and Nigerian food, and West African food. There were a lot of great examples of cuisines and restaurants doing really exciting things. It was great to be traveling again and falling in love with new things, and tasting and having new experiences.

London feels very Western. It's the seat of colonialism, but the terroir is different. The dairy is different, the milk and the cheese and the butter. I couldn't stop eating British cheese. The oysters, the seafood — you get such a variety of ingredients. Seeing how all these different cultures use very significantly British ingredients in so many different ways — we got to do that on the show and we got to do that experiencing the city.

Gail Simmons says British sweets are the best

Did you bring any British snacks home with you, or have any new favorites?

I certainly spent a lot of time exploring the snack situation. I was there with my children, so they also were really into the snacks. My kids love British chocolate, loved British potato chips. The British cheese, which you can find here to some extent, we're not just talking about cheddar that's orange and bland. [It's] really beautiful aged cheeses from England [that] I was really into.

[I also enjoyed] all the biscuits, all the pastries, the pies. I've always loved a savory pie, and England does a savory pie better than anyone. I was so excited to come home and cook my own version of everything from fish and chips, to Yorkshire pudding to Beef Wellington, because I fell in love with them again. They're not things I have eaten in a long time, so that was exciting.

On your Instagram, you and Tom Colicchio did a British chocolate candy bar tasting. Do you think that British or American candy is better in general?

British all the way. I'm not really into American candy and candy bars. I'm Canadian, and Canada is part of the Commonwealth, so I grew up with more British snack foods in general in my life. In Canada, you get both. You get the American stuff and the British stuff, but I was always drawn to British stuff. My father's from South Africa and lived in England for a long time before he moved to Canada. That's where my sensibilities have always been as a snacker, and I love British chocolate and British candy for sure.

Gail Simmons shares her family's Halloween treats

On the subject of candy, are you guys big Halloween fans in your house?

We are, yeah. I don't dress up that much, but I have two children, so we have embraced the holiday.

Do you have any Halloween food traditions or special treats that you like to make for the holiday?

There's a couple things we do. I'm staring at a jack-o-lantern that I carved the other day. My children love decorating our outdoor space, which I'm staring out the window at. It's covered in cotton cobwebs with little spiders all over them, and eyeballs we made out of ping pong balls and stuck on sticks and put them in the planters.

We love carving pumpkins because everyone in my family loves pumpkin seeds. We like roasting pumpkin seeds, and it's become something my daughter asks for every year.

When my daughter was very little, I would go to her classroom at Halloween and make little pumpkins out of mandarin oranges. You peel the orange and you take a piece of celery and stick it in the top and it looks like a pumpkin. She still asks for that in her lunch, so we do that as our little Halloween snack.

Gail Simmons says wine is her fall drink of choice

Speaking of the fall season and those gatherings, do you have any favorite fall cocktails or drinks?

Being New York-based, there's a real weather switch that happens right around now. I love October, because you get some days that are 70 degrees and some days that are 54 degrees. You get to put on a sweater and shift the way you cook. That also means shifting the way I drink. Generally, I drink a lot of cocktails, and if I'm going to drink a cocktail, it will change at this time of year to those warmer spices, perhaps, and brown spirits.

It's more of a shift in the way I drink wine than it is the way I drink cocktails. It's putting away the rosés and the whites, but not forever, because I drink white wine all year round. It's putting away the spritzes, for example, and the really light, crisp wines that I want to drink by the beach, and going towards warmer reds that are going to match the food that I'm cooking. That's where I'm headed.

I've partnered with Diora Wines for a second year now, which is a wine brand that I really love for a lot of reasons. I create a lot of recipes for them. Their pinot noir is that perfect fall wine shift. It's medium bodied, it's warm, it's got a little spice, but it's accessible. It's great with food, the Le Petit Grace Pinot Noir

It is easily my favorite house drinking wine at this time of year, because it's still great a little bit chilled, but it's warm and spicy and has those deep berry notes that I want to drink with the food that I'm starting to cook at this time of year: the roasted vegetables, the braised meats or the roasted meat, the food that goes into the holidays. It's the perfect Thanksgiving wine. It's great with your turkey, and it's also delicious with all those veggie sides that are a little bit heartier. It's not going to weigh you down and put you to sleep.

Gail Simmons' tips for pairing wine with your Thanksgiving spread

At Thanksgiving, you have red wine on the table, but a lot of people struggle to know how best to pair wines with these big heavy dishes on the table.

I'm not always, these days, a big heavy red wine drinker. I don't want it to blow out everything that I'm eating. I want a wine that compliments and that I can drink easily and pair easily, so that it never feels too weighty but it still has a foundation, still has some structure. That's why that medium body range is perfect ... It's perfect with heavier meats, but it's also great with turkey. It's great with some of those cheesy, mushroomy fall flavors that I start to create at the holidays, too.

Do you think a white wine can do well on a Thanksgiving dinner table?

I do, absolutely. As there are ranges of red, there's huge ranges of white. When I'm looking for a white wine for Thanksgiving, I'm looking for a wine that has a little more body, not that super light white that will get lost with the traditional flavors of Thanksgiving.

It depends on what you're eating too. People express Thanksgiving in different ways. A turkey is not standard. It depends on the culture and the flavors and the spices that you're using. You can do one of each, but around the table, if you're eating that fall cozy meal, and if you're incorporating a lot of slightly richer ingredients, then look for wine that's going to stand up to them. That can absolutely be white. It can be a great chardonnay that has those nutty, slightly oakier notes that will hold up to heavier wine or heavier food. That doesn't mean by any means that it needs to be over-oaked and super heavy either.

The perfect fall spices, flavors, and ingredients

What are some of your favorite fall flavors that maybe are underrated, or unique ingredients that you really turn to during the season?

I like a lot of those spices, because they're warming spices. I don't necessarily like them all at once, on everything all together. Take them out individually and I love them in a more savory way. I love things like ginger and cardamom, and smoky flavors that really mean fall to me, like smoked paprika or a smokey urfa pepper, like a smoky chili, a sumac to give a little bit of brightness, for example. It offsets and brings out the more umami-ness of what you're cooking, as opposed to feeling like it's very sweet and ubiquitous.

What are some of your favorite savory ingredients or flavors?

I love, at this time of year, cooking with mushrooms. I'm cooking with a lot of eggplants at this time of year. I love fall squash and winter squashes. I love things like honey nut or butternut squash. I like to make dishes with savory application as opposed to sweeter ways of presenting them, roasting them with the spices I mentioned, or using them with tahini or a more savory spice combination. I'll then add brightness, because that allows the sweetness to be balanced a little bit.

You mentioned eggplant. That can be such a tricky main ingredient, texturally speaking. Do you have any advice for our readers when they're cooking and preparing eggplant to be the star of a dish?

Eggplant can feel intimidating, but it really isn't. It depends on how you're using it. Eggplant has a lot of water content, similar to mushrooms. The best way to use it is to make sure to take out some of that water, whether you're roasting it whole in the oven until it collapses, and then opening it up and scraping out the insides, you need to get some of that water out.

If you're putting it in something like a ratatouille or a lasagna, slicing it and salting it and letting it sit for a few minutes to extract some of the water from it, also can take out a little bit of bitterness. When you cook it, it melts, and that's what you want. There's also many varieties of eggplant that are easy to use, all different shapes and sizes, and smaller eggplants sometimes are a little more manageable and easier to cook.

Do you have a favorite eggplant recipe?

I love using eggplant in so many different ways. Two days ago, I had two big globe eggplants in my fridge. I pricked them with a fork and roasted them whole in the oven for about 30 minutes, turning them until they collapsed. I split them open, took out all the meat inside that was completely soft and mushy, and extracted the water, mixed in some yogurt and tahini, lemon and garlic, lots of fresh herbs, and made a really simple baba ganoush. My whole family ate lots of it at every meal. We put it on crackers, and we put it in a grain bowl that I had made for lunch. My kids would eat it with a spoon.

Gail Simmons shares her favorite ways to entertain at the holidays

This time of year is when everyone starts gathering and entertaining a lot and thinking about that. Are you more of a fan of a themed spread or a potluck situation for this time of year?

It depends on the occasion. The key is the gathering and the enjoyment of being able to be together again more so than anything else. It's whatever makes your life easiest in the kitchen. I love a potluck because it relieves a lot of stress, and I like the idea of everyone contributing and that means that there's a diversity of food. You also sometimes want to own it and be the host and entertainer, and be hospitable and have people come over where they don't have to do a thing. They can come and enjoy your company. For that, I'm definitely into the spread, the board if that's something that is easy to do for you.

The changing of seasons, this is the beginning of what I call soup season. I'll be making soups and stews for the next six months, until March, because that's the easiest way for me to entertain. That's the stuff I love the most: cooking something either the day before or the morning of, and then all you have to do is reheat it. It can be anything from a really hearty vegetable soup to a beautiful braised lamb dish, or it can be a simple chicken dish. 

I always make, around this time of year, this barley and chicken stew with tons of leeks and carrots and lemon and lots of herbs. That's an easy, cozy way to entertain and make the most of all the produce that's in the market right now.

Do you have a go-to potluck dish that you always make?

Not really. I cook for a living, so I'm always happy to make new things. I definitely want to always make something that's the most transportable, easy to cut and divide and eat. Soup isn't always great for a potluck.

I went to a friend's house the other day and made a big quinoa salad. I made it like a Greek salad but with quinoa. I had olives, and feta, and roasted peppers and roasted tomatoes. I could make it all in advance, toss it up, bring the dressing and pour it on, let it marinate for a few minutes before, and it was the easiest thing.

Maple and pears are the stars of fall desserts for Gail Simmons

This is also a big dessert season. Are there any underrated fall desserts that you love?

I'm not a huge pumpkin pie person for the reasons that we have already discussed. I like apple pie, but those are such traditional things, and I'm always looking for ways to do something a little different. I like to go a little left of center. I love using pears instead of apples when I can, because I love a pear more than anything.

Coming from Canada, where I grew up, I have an addiction to maple syrups. Maple is an ingredient that, at this time of year when the weather gets cooler, I start to incorporate it into every dessert. I make a maple sugar tart almost every Thanksgiving instead of a [pumpkin pie]. It's like a pecan pie without the pecans, but maple flavored. It's that caramelized, crystallized delicious maple custard set in a tart, and it's one of the most delicious desserts in the world.

What are the most important tips or techniques to keep in mind when making tarts and pies at home?

Make sure you use cold butter. You can't stress enough: temperature matters. I like to ease the stress when I make pies. I make the dough a day or two in advance, sometimes even a week or two in advance and freeze it. Dough freezes really well, and then it's done. The rest becomes easy. Instead of trying to take it all on in one day and worry about it, I'll make three times a pie dough recipe, freeze it, and then the day of, it's really easy to finish the rest.

I also am a bit of an untraditional pie maker. I don't do a lot of traditional pie dough. I love making a shortbread crust, sometimes I make a hazelnut crust, or other simple crusts that you can make and press in and bake as opposed to having to roll out dough, and worry about the lattice top. Make things easy and have a little fun with it.

Gail Simmons shares her hot take on TikTok hacks

As someone who is such a professional and longstanding chef, in general, do you think TikTok is a useful place to learn about cooking?

Yeah, absolutely. I use TikTok and Instagram, but to me, it's more like inspiration — flavors, or a dish that looks delicious as it's finished, and then I like to figure out my own version of it. I get tons of inspiration. I'm not ever looking for hacks or trying to hack something. My mind doesn't work that way, but I love it as a resource to inspire me.

I get swayed by trends. All of a sudden, I'm craving a butter board. I don't know why. It's insane. It doesn't make any sense. You put room temperature butter in a bowl and swipe your bread through it ... but it infiltrates everything. [TikTok] certainly inspires the way I cook. The other day I was scrolling and I saw a delicious looking spinach and butternut squash pasta bake. I instantly needed to buy all the ingredients and make it for my kids.

Was it a hit?

Yeah, it was beautiful. It was great.

For the latest from Gail Simmons, follow her on Instagram. Find recipes and more on her website.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.