To say that Gail Simmons has a dream career would be a terrible understatement. Who wouldn’t want to travel the world, eat great food, be a judge on the Emmy-winning Top Chef, work alongside some of the most famous chefs in the world and, even more importantly, have input on propelling local chefs around the country into an international stars? Talk about power. Since this season of the show was filmed in New Orleans, I was delighted and honored to be given the opportunity to interview Simmons about her career path, being part of Top Chef and her experiences in the Crescent City.
Simmons graduated from Institute of Culinary Education (ICE) when it was called the Peter Kumfp’s Cooking School with a unique goal at the time. “I went to culinary school knowing I wanted to write. I never went to culinary school to become a chef. I wanted to learn how to cook professionally, work in professional kitchens, learn the language and rhythm of the kitchen, so I could write about it with authority and differentiate myself from every other person who wanted to be a food writer,” explained Simmons who also admits the world of food publishing was much smaller 15 years ago. “There weren’t many people who wanted to be food writers because there was no such thing as blogs and social media was in its infancy. The world of food publishing was in New York, which is why I moved here in the first place and chose to go to culinary school here so that I could get right back into publishing. The smartest thing I did before that was to go work in professional kitchens, so that when I came to write about food and understand how the media of food works, I had a background that allowed me to talk fluently to chefs in their language.”
Top Chef’s first season debuted on Bravo in 2006 and Simmons is proud of how it has evolved as well as of its longevity and popularity. “If you had told me when I first sat down at the judge’s table that first day on set in San Francisco and still be doing it going into 2014, I would have never believed you,” said Simmons. “At the time, when Top Chef started, it was really groundbreaking television. Sure, there was Iron Chef but that was kind of one-off episodes, challenge to challenge in this very elaborate stadium. But that really was the only type of food competition that existed. The only other food television that was out there were travel shows about where to go and eat, or what the industry kind of calls ‘dump and stir’—the traditional cooking demo shows with someone standing in a kitchen teaching you how to cook.”
After Simmons was approached by Bravo to represent Food and Wine to participate on Top Chef, the concept of the program evolved into reality food television that drew viewers in by droves. The interest was driven not just by competitions but the stories of the chefs’ lives—their personal stories, the thought process during challenges, and interactions with other contestants. “What we wanted to do is swing open that door to the kitchen and show what it’s like to be a professional, working chef, not a big, huge, celebrity chef, and not anything that is staged for camera,” explained Simmons. “We wanted to show the versatility, passion and the complex technique involved in being a working chef today—all the challenges that encompasses, and how can we do that in a way that’s entertaining, fun, and teaches people about food, but that also gives them kind of investment in character and story. Because that’s what television is, entertainment, right? We’re not claiming to be purely educational; we want to have a lot of fun along the way, and I have to say, we’ve had more fun than I ever imagined.“
Along with the fun comes the seriousness of who is told to “pack their knives and go” and although it appears to be an almost instantaneous decision during the broadcast, it’s not. Simmons admits that she’s never regretted the choice that the panel—whom she considers her extended family—has made on winners and losers on Top Chef. “There’s always a thought process behind it, and we all have to be comfortable with it before we can move on and do the job. I’ve never, ever thought a chef should have stayed when a chef went. That doesn’t mean that I don’t think many of our chefs have left before their time. There have been plenty of chefs who I know are capable of better than they did that day, and who I was sad to see go because I know that they are incredible talents,” explained Simmons. “All it takes is one mistake on the show, that’s how the game is played. It’s the same as going to a restaurant. If you go to a restaurant and have a terrible meal, you can have every one of your friends tell you that when they went, it was an amazing meal, but you’re not going to go back to that restaurant. You’re not going to care that the chef happened to have a bad day, and you know, his wife left him that day or his sous chef called in sick. That doesn’t matter to you…you will not only not go back, but you’re going to tell your friends about your experience. If you have a great experience, you’re going to spread the word, and that’s sort of how we work on Top Chef.”
She welcomes the balance and objectivity that the guest judges bring to the show since she, Tom and Padma are more familiar with the contestants, their abilities and their culinary style. The guest judge is not. However, that doesn’t make the final decision any easier or faster. Simmons shared an interesting story about the final decision in Aspen. “We were in Aspen for our finale, and that was the year that we did a live reveal of the winner. So we shot the meal and deliberation in Aspen at top of the mountain…but that last moment of the show where we announced the winner was shot a month or so later in Chicago, live,” recalled Simmons. “When deliberating, we could not come to an agreement. Ted Allen was the fourth person at that time on the panel and we ended up talking until about 6 am. The sun rose and it was 22 degrees at the top of the mountain even though it was August, and we all hit this stalemate because we came to this moment of ‘well, what’s more important: that the highs are higher in a meal? Or that there’s consistency and experience?' In the end we all decided that consistency, presentation and experience were more important in terms of a winner and so we chose Hung. We all realized that as much as it's a small decision for a reality television show, it was about to change someone’s life. We don’t take that lightly because we know that that will have major implications for them either way.”
Some of her favorite locations are Aspen, Singapore and now, New Orleans. “There was something so incredibly soulful and inspiring about living and eating in New Orleans. The food from our fascinating chefs was great and then we had so much time to explore the city and people in New Orleans were so generous with their time. They would just come up to us and thank us for being there and welcome us into their homes, kitchens and restaurants,” said Simmons. “New Orleans is almost a foreign country… I didn’t feel like I was in America because it’s so different. Similar to Singapore, it has been inhabited by so many different cultures that have created a special tradition and cuisine of its own that is unlike anywhere else. Nothing else exists like it. You can see inspiration come out of places like Africa, Vietnam, other parts of the south, French, Canadian. It’s just really creative and special; there were so many discoveries.” Surprisingly, Simmons actually lost weight because she was five months pregnant at the time and had to abstain from drinking, which she—and mostly everyone else—considers somewhat of a “sport” here in the city.
In addition to her packed work schedule, Simmons finds time to work with two of her favorite charitable organizations, City Harvest in Manhattan and Common Threads in Chicago. At the moment, she’s excited about becoming a mother and would like to write a cookbook. For someone who is so successful in media, I was somewhat surprised that she didn’t have a really solid plan to back up her achievements. “My M.O. is sort of just to spread the good word about quality food, about the hard work of chefs and purveyors and to get more people eating great stuff, cooking, and going out to restaurants. So if I can do that through any medium, I’m happy to use my voice to do so,” said Simmons. “I hope that there will be more television, books, more in the magazine. Kind of broad, but I think what I love about my career is that I’ve had a general goals, but you have to not be too committed to walking through one certain door or else you’ll miss all the windows that are opening on other sides, right? “
Sounds like a recipe for success to me. The premiere of Top Chef New Orleans is October 2 at 9 pm central on Bravo.