Gail Simmons walks into our meeting wearing a crisp white-and-navy top, matchstick jeans and violet suede pumps—it's one of those extremely put-together looks you'd expect from the woman who spends much of her life on camera as a polished, eloquent judge of hit TV show Top Chef.
But she will be the first to assure you that what we see on Top Chef—or even in interviews like this one—is far from a depiction of her everyday self. "We spend a lot of time in cocktail dresses," she says of the show. "The side of me that people know [on TV] is very edited and curated—a one-dimensional piece of what I do. You never see me cooking." The truth is that Simmons is more than comfortable in the kitchen. "I spent 20 years cooking and in the food world, and that's how I got Top Chef. It wasn't the reverse. For me, it's about the food first."
A desire to share her deep passion for cooking is the impetus behind Bringing It Home, the first cookbook for Simmons (she wrote a memoir, Talking with My Mouth Full, in 2012). "I have amassed all these messy notebooks of ideas from my travels and experiences," from hanging out with chefs to visiting local dives in Hanoi to observing the contestants on Top Chef. "Flavor combinations, tips and tricks, pieces of equipment I've learned about—it's all helped me to become a better cook."
You could say that Simmons's career—and, ultimately, this cookbook—was her destiny from the very beginning. Her mom ran a cooking school out of their Toronto home, and her parents were ambitious travelers, taking her from South Africa (where her dad was born) to Costa Rica to Israel and all over the rest of the world.
When she decided to pursue a profession in food, then, she says, "It was just this inevitable pull. It felt like it was out of my control." She went to culinary school at the Institute of Culinary Education, worked for food luminary and Vogue food critic Jeffrey Steingarten, and eventually went over to Food & Wine as a special projects manager, where she landed her life-changing gig on Top Chef.
Simmons brings all of this—her career, her travels, her learnings—to Bringing It Home, turning real-life experiences into accessible recipes, like spaghetti pie (see the recipe), for the home cook as well as playful but refined takes on international flavors: za'atar chicken schnitzel, latke Reubens and Christmas brisket fried rice. "There are these recipes that have stuck with me," she says. "It's the essence of the meal, the integrity of those flavors that I want to capture."
Like her jerk shrimp rolls, which are doubly inspired by lobster rolls, the treat she enjoys most when she spends summers on the coast of New England, and the jerk seafood she remembers savoring from a beach shack during regular family trips to Jamaica. She changes the jerk lobster to jerk shrimp for the accessibility factor, and stuffs the mixture into a roll with jerk-infused mayo. It's totally ingenious.
But it's not every night that Simmons gets the chance to whip up a new, travel-inspired dish. As a working parent who does the majority of the cooking, Simmons deals with the same problems the rest of us do trying to figure out how much food to make and how to regularly put a home-cooked meal on the table without standing over the stove all night. She makes bulk batches of zucchini muffins and soups on the weekend, and eats and serves a lot of leftovers ("I am happy to eat leftovers every day. I don't think that people who don't like leftovers know what they are talking about.")
And even in her home kitchen, as well as the book, Simmons stands by the lessons (salt as you go; make sure a dish has acid; be conscious of mise en place) she doles out to the contestants on Top Chef, which just wrapped its 15th(!) season. Premiering in December, the show was shot entirely in Colorado—a place the intrepid traveler had yet to explore prior to filming. "We all went there knowing its physical beauty but not knowing from a culinary standpoint what we would find." It ended up being one of her favorite shoot locations to date—"by far the most gorgeous place we have shot a full season. And the food was just so surprising." Expect to see vistas as stunning as the contestants' plated dishes.
Simmons is also hard at work behind the camera on her production outfit, Bumble Pie Productions, which she recently launched in partnership with entertainment industry vet Samantha Hanks. The female-focused company saw its first show, Star Plates, premiere on the Food Network last year, with hopefully many more to come. So how does Simmons feel about finally being on the other side.
"It's really exciting to get to use my brain in a different way," she says. "And I don't have to wear cocktail dresses."
Priya Krishna is a New York-based food writer by way of Texas. Follow her on Instagram for embarrassing family vacation photos at @pkgourmet.
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