It's hard to imagine a life in front of the cameras, but if anyone can make it look manageable, it's Gail Simmons. For someone with as harried a schedule as this author and food expert, Gail makes juggling shoots in far-flung places, any number of fun side projects, and a growing family life (she's currently expecting her second child) seem downright easy—and all while maintaining her down-to-earth sensibility.
You might know the Canadian native most readily from her years on the popular television show Top Chef, where she and her fellow judges suss out the nation's finest culinary talent with a hyper-analytical eye and palate, but her real-life persona is so much more than that. What you might not see is the warm-hearted soul and cooking talent who lives behind all that glam hair and makeup, long after the last scene's been shot. And let's put it out here right now: Yes, this gal can cook―her first cookbook, Bringing It Home, is a delicious compilation of her personal favorites and the type of food you just want to roll up your sleeves to enjoy (see the incredible tart below, for starters).
There's no better time to really see Gail in her element than when she's settled in at home. When she had us over the Brooklyn apartment she shares with her husband Jeremy and daughter Dahlia Rae, we had too much fun chatting about the everyday things (like how to keep weeknight meals exciting—she's just like us!) and seeing how her love for good design and travel reveal themselves through the decor she chooses, as well as in the food she makes. We may or may not have peeked inside her fridge as well (#goals). Bonus: a bet-you-never-knew fun fact about this Torontonian that still has us gobsmacked.
Read on to unearth more little gems about Gail, and to see what makes her beautiful house a loving home.
HANA ASBRINK: Tell us who you are in a nutshell.
GAIL SIMMONS: I never know what to call myself exactly (food critic? author? food expert?), but I have been the Special Projects Director at Food & Wine for 13 years and a judge on Bravo’s Top Chef for 12. I’m an eater, a writer, a traveler, and a cook.
How I got here is a long-winded story and one I could have never imagined when I set out to do it 20 years ago. (I wrote a whole book about it in 2012 called Talking with My Mouth Full). In a nutshell, I was born and raised in Toronto, Canada, and I wanted to write about food since I graduated college from McGill University in Montreal. I worked at magazines and newspapers, went to culinary school, was a line cook, then worked as assistant to Vogue’s Food Critic Jeffrey Steingarten. He introduced me to Chef Daniel Boulud, whom I then worked for as an event and PR manager for three years. It was through Daniel that I met the editor and publisher of Food & Wine in 2004, and went to work there. Towards the end of 2005, Bravo and Food & Wine collaborated on a new kind of cooking competition show and called it Top Chef. I was sent to be a judge as the representative of the magazine, and have been doing it ever since. I also founded a food TV production company in 2013, and became a mom that same year to my daughter Dahlia.
HA: How would you describe your personal style, especially as it relates to your home? How is it influenced by your Canadian upbringing?
GS: Minimal but warm with clean, neutral colors, thoughtful personal touches, and lots of natural surfaces and fabrics. We spent a lot of time researching and selecting elements for our home that were meaningful to us and gave us a sense of sanctuary. Coming from Canada, New York City was an adjustment in terms of access to the wilderness and to nature. It’s what I miss the most about my homeland. We try to reflect and foster that sense of calm in our home when we can.
HA: I understand your husband Jeremy has minimalist leanings. Tell us about the pros and cons of this arrangement?
GS: Jeremy is DEFINITELY more minimalist than me, but he also has a very strong and clear sense of design. I love that he goes to lengths to make our house beautiful and is involved in the way it looks and feels. But it’s exasperating as he also has a self-admitted fear of color and is constantly purging things I want to keep and/or putting them away where I can’t find them to get things out of sight. It’s a daily battle between us but I think our house lands somewhere in the middle because of it, which is perfect...
HA: What are your favorite design pieces in your home?
GS: So many: the oversized lamp in our living room, our deep blue living room couch, the copper ladder in our family room, the light fixture over our dining room, the kitchen cabinets.
HA: I know you worked a bit with an interior designer. What was that process like? How did she help you hone your style?
GS: She was amazing and really understood the way we lived. We had to do a lot of renovations to our house before we moved in (electrical, plumbing, etc.) and she helped facilitate it all. She also was amazing at bringing us options for everything from cabinet colors to fabrics, smaller furniture designers, etc., that we wouldn’t otherwise know to find. And she never shied away from all the little design problems we needed to solve along the way. We ordered a lot of custom pieces and that can be very tricky if the artisan making it hasn’t seen the space and doesn't know exactly what you want. She helped with that, too!
HA: What are your favorite kitchen tools?
GS: There is actually a full list in my book. Here are just a few from that list: Vitamix, KitchenAid stand mixer, SodaStream, tiny silicone spatulas, oversized spoons, tongs, flexible fish spatula, small offset pastry spatula, Microplane, measuring cups, wooden spoons, mise en place bowls, sharp knives!
HA: What was your last great food experience?
GS: This summer, my family spent a weekend in Upstate New York and went on a tour of Roxbury Farm in Kinderhook, New York, with my friend who runs the Local Roots NYC, a network of CSAs. We all trekked out into the fields and picked peppers, eggplant, tomatoes, and tons of fresh sweet corn. We ate it all right there in the field together, then brought some back to a makeshift table and kitchen outside the farm house and made the most beautiful simple lunch with our haul as well, adding just some fresh herbs, cheese, hard-boiled eggs and bread. It was heavenly. I loved that my daughter got to explore the farm this way and see where all the veggies come from. She loved eating the raw corn right off the cob in the field with us. Magic.
HA: Can you tell us how you “normally” eat in any given week?
GS: Every week is different for me, depending on my schedule for work and travel.
When I am home:
- I usually eat out at restaurants or have to go to events about twice a week. The other nights I generally cook in some capacity at home, even if it's just making a salad and a simple main course or warming leftovers.
- When I am not shooting and can cook at home, I generally like to eat simply: lots of vegetables and fruit, not a ton of meat or rich foods. We try to cook lots of veggies, hard-boiled eggs, and whole grains like quinoa and farro or brown rice, in large quantities when we can (weekends!), so we have them at the ready to eat throughout the week for quick breakfasts and dinners. During the fall, I start making a lot of veggie soups and stews, roast chicken, and always big crunchy salads.
When I'm shooting:
- We shoot Top Chef all over the country so when I am shooting I am generally on the road, living in hotels, which can be really trying and difficult when you want eat healthfully. I always eat a healthy breakfast to start the day: eggs, greens, yogurt with fruit or oatmeal.
- On nights when we don’t shoot late, I want to explore the city we are in so usually go out for dinner with Tom [Colicchio], our guest judges, producers, and members of the crew. We get to know each location through its food, which I find so exciting.
- I don’t finish each plate during Top Chef challenges, as you only need to eat a few bites to understand and judge it. You can’t possibly eat all of it or you wouldn’t last long.
- Staying hydrated when I am traveling is really important, too.
HA: How did you eat growing up?
GS: My mom was an amazing cook and ran a cooking school out of our home when I was growing up, so I ate really well. When I was young, I didn’t appreciate it as all I wanted was to eat what all my friends ate (hot dogs and noodles, etc.). My mom cooked us lots of fresh fish and vegetables like zucchini and broccoli rabe. We also traveled a lot, which influenced how we ate. My father is from South Africa and I loved eating foods from his homeland like biltong (a type of dried cured meat), dried fruit, and mealie pap, a corn-based hot cereal.
HA: What’s your favorite way to wind down after a hard week?
GS: A good work out, then a glass of wine, and lots of popcorn on the couch. [Editor's note: Yes, girl!]
HA: How has parenthood changed the way you eat at home? What are some of the joys and challenges of feeding a toddler? What does Dahlia love to eat?
GS: Having a child has changed my eating habits a lot. I stopped worrying about food so much and started enjoying it more, like whole milk and butter, eggs, etc. I am also home WAY more than I was before I was a mom, so I cook more in general and spend more time in the kitchen prepping all meals for my family. I am lucky because Dahlia’s eating habits have always been pretty great for a toddler, but they change daily and it's hard to keep up. When she was under two I could feed her anything―tons of green veggies and beets!―now she is definitely more assertive as to what she wants to eat or won’t eat. She loves olives, pickles, asparagus, cheese, green beans, pasta, and bacon. Of course she also can eat her weight in any fruit, ice cream, and Jelly Belly beans! She loves making smoothies and pancakes and berry-banana muffins with me, and also loves when I make her eggs of all kinds. She calls over-easy eggs “flip eggies” and calls hard-boiled eggs “knock eggies.” She recently discovered braised short ribs and went nuts for them!
HA: What's your favorite Food52 recipe?
GS: There are lots! My dad became a vegan about five years ago and has challenges finding things to eat because he is not an experienced cook. I recently bought him the Food52 Vegan cookbook and we cook from it together all the time.
HA: What is one thing people might not know about you?
GS: I tap dance! Also, I am a real cook. Most people only see me on TV judging food but in real life, I am a food cheerleader and love nothing more than getting may hands dirty in the kitchen.
We're giving 5 lucky readers a chance to win a SIGNED copy of Gail's first cookbook, Bringing It Home. Let us know your favorite part of our visit in the comments below. Winners will be chosen at random at the end of day (New York time) Friday, January 12. Open to North American residents only. This giveaway has ended and winners will be notified, thank you for reading along!