When culinary expert Gail Simmons agreed to speak to us, needless to say, we were ecstatic. The Toronto native is a noted author, trained food connoisseur, and TV personality.
A graduate of McGill University and the Institute of Culinary Education in New York, Simmons has been a regular contributor to Food & Wine magazine since 2004. She is not only a dynamic judge on BRAVO’s Emmy-winning series Top Chef, but has been a part of Top Chef Duels, Top Chef Just Desserts, and The Feed.
Of course, that’s not all. She has also contributed to numerous cookbooks and most recently released her own memoir: Talking with My Mouth Full.
Simmons is incredibly busy juggling her responsibilities as a TV personality, food writer, mother, and wife, so we appreciated the time she took out of her day to speak with us.
Find out everything from what it’s like to be on TV to the strangest thing Gail Simmons has ever eaten in this Q&A.
Spoon University: What is your favorite snack?
Gail Simmons: Salt and vinegar potato chips.
SU: Which do you like better, cooking or baking?
SU: What is your favorite kitchen appliance?
Simmons: In terms of large appliances, I would choose my stove. As far as small appliances go, I’d probably choose my immersion blender.
SU: You were born in Toronto, Canada. Do you have any favorite Canadian dishes?
Simmons: Absolutely. I love poutine, pudding chomeur, which is basically a maple syrup sticky toffee cake. I also love tarte au sucre, which is basically a sugar pie.
SU: What was your college dining experience like?
Simmons: The dorm food was really dismal. I drank a lot of chocolate milk and made a lot of mac and cheese in my dorm room crock-pot. When I moved to my own apartment I learned how to make actual food, like good pasta and different types of soups.
But I also made a lot of disgusting late night food like potato gratin and broccoli and cheese. Oh, I also did a lot of take out. There was a lot of good and cheap Chinese, Vietnamese, Lebanese, and Greek food.
SU: What prompted you to major in Anthropology and Spanish? Is there anything you didn’t take in college that you wish you had?
Simmons: I guess I wish I had taken a few more chemistry classes because it applies to cooking so much. It may not seem it, but cooking has so much to do with biology, chemistry, and physics.
SU: I read that after college you felt lost and were unsure of what you wanted to pursue. What sparked your interest in going to culinary school?
Simmons: I was always interested in food, but I didn’t realize it could be a full-time job. What I did know was that I didn’t want to be a chef.
I had been working for a magazine & the editor at the magazine said if you want to write about food then you need to know about food.
You need to study the craft and be an authority on it. So I went to culinary school to understand everything so I would be able to write about it authentically.
SU: I read that your mother was a food columnist for The Globe and Mail and conducted cooking classes at home, while your dad made his own wine. Did this influence you at all in writing for Food & Wine?
Simmons: Of course it did. When I was younger, it was very hard to see that I clearly was impacted. Now, looking back at it, it was absolutely because of them that I have such a passion for food.
SU: What is the coolest place you have traveled to for Food & Wine and Top Chef?
Simmons: Wow, there have been so many places.
Probably New Orleans and Hawaii. The most exotic place was Singapore.
SU: What is the strangest thing you have ever eaten while traveling in a different country?
Simmons: In Japan I ate cod sperm… I didn’t know what it was until the next day. It was actually good.
SU: You seem to travel constantly. Does it ever get tiring? Do your husband and daughter ever travel with you?
Simmons: It’s the best and worst thing. I get to see a lot of cool places, but it does get tiring and I miss my family. They travel with me as much as they can.
My daughter is such a great traveller. Recently, they came to Turks and Caicos with me for the weekend. It was so fun
SU: I read that you made most of your daughter’s baby food. What types of baby food did you make?
Simmons: Everything. I pureed every vegetable & fruit we could think of. I wanted to expose her to as much food as I could.
She actually loves fresh grilled fish. Recently, I gave her a breaded fresh fish stick while we were at a restaurant & she didn’t like it at all. All she wanted was the fresh grilled fish.
SU: Do you consider her a picky or adventurous eater?
Simmons: She is very particular, but she will eat almost anything.
SU: You have a new season of Top Chef coming premiering on December 2nd. Can you tell me a little about it and what is it like judging a cooking competition?
Simmons: Our new season is awesome. It’s Season 13 and it takes place all over California. It’s sort of a mini road trip because we get to go to 5 different cities.
It’s a great group of chefs. They’re all very diverse in their cooking styles. The quality of the cooking is so high too, which makes it fun to taste their food.
They’re all going to be successful chefs someday.
SU: What is the best thing you have ever tasted during Top Chef?
Simmons: I couldn’t even begin to think… Every season there’s at least 5 things that are amazing.
SU: What do you do if you don’t like some of the food a contestant makes on Top Chef?
Simmons: We kick them off the show. That’s how the show works.
But, I never use the phrase “I don’t like it.” It’s not about whether I physically like the dish; it’s about whether it was properly made.
SU: Do judges typically agree on the season finale winner? What happens when you guys don’t agree?
Simmons: We talk and talk and talk until we come to a unanimous decision. Sometimes it goes through the night. We have actually seen the sunrise while talking before.
We talked forever during the Season 3 finale and the Season 4 finale. We ate the meal until 10 and then talked until 6 am.
We take it seriously because our decision will alter someone’s life dramatically.
SU: What is the hardest part about being a judge?
Simmons: I guess that we want to be fair and we want to honor the chef and do them justice because they work so hard. We never want to make a decision without thinking it through thoroughly.
Also, there’s just a lot of travel.
SU: If you could give any advice to your college self, what would it be?
Simmons: Not to be afraid to make mistakes because you learn from them & there’s always a lesson.
Also, that nothing is written in stone. If you don’t like what you’re doing you can always change paths.