Meet and Eat: Gail Simmons

 Photo Credit: Johnny Miller

Photo Credit: Johnny Miller

If you’re a foodie, you most likely know Gail Simmons. For over twelve years she’s contributed her skills and know-how to the powerhouse of talent that is the Top Chef’s judging table. With an natural charisma, approachable kindness and discerning palette, she’s championed some of the biggest chef sensations of the past decade. We’re used to seeing her under bright lights, in exotic locations, and in the context of a pressure-cooked situation. But with her new cookbook, “Bringing It Home: Favorite Recipes from a Life of Adventurous Eating”, she’s taking a step back from the expert lighting of the Top Chef set and inviting us all into her home. Her book reflects on a lifetime of favorite eats, inspired by an equally vast number of influences, through recipes that are heartwarming, soul nurturing, and manageable at any skill level. In the midst of her whirlwind book tour, she sat down with us to talk about the making of her book, her career as well as her outlook for the future.

“I always tell people: when you’re learning how to cook, start by making soup. Soup is very difficult to mess up and the building blocks of soup are the building blocks of all cooking. And it’s almost impossible to screw up.”

I sit in my bedroom, spread out in front of me is a collection of personal electronics that resembles a make shift command center. Two computers (personal and work) and my phone lay out on my comforter, each performing different functions as I fumble through the first few minutes of our phone call, trying to get everything setup and maintain my professional demeanor. Through it all, Gail is nothing be kind and patient.

I first got introduced to Gail through a small, intimate breakfast she hosted to discuss her new cookbook “Bringing It Home: Favorite Recipes from a Life of Adventurous Eating”. We got to try some of her favorite dishes from the book and learn a little more about her, and almost instantly her charm and talent were obvious. Her food was so simple, refreshing and nurturing that I left wanting to talk to her one on one. So that’s what I did (after going through the proper channels and setting up a predetermined time for a phone call). Talking to her over our early morning phone call was just like eating her food: reassuring and comforting.

“I really don’t believe there isn’t a single recipe in my book that every single person isn’t capable of cooking. People second-guess themselves a lot–I know that cooking takes time and effort and patience but that’s all it takes, it’s nothing about aptitude. Anyone can cook; it’s just about taking the time do it.”

Looking through Gail’s recipes is akin to leafing through a scrapbook; each recipe has a story or a person tied back to it in someway. And with the admiration and enthusiasm she speaks about her influences, it’s clear she’s as much a people person as she is a food person. There’s the Spaghetti Pie, inspired by the spontaneous and adventurous cooking of her mother. There’s the schnitzel, reminiscent from her time in Israel as a teen. The beautiful spreads and attention to detail bring come to mind as she tell me about the friday nights in college spent with her Mom’s friend Linda learning about presentation and sophisticated dining. And countless more, inspired by friends, bosses and cohorts such as Top Chef counterpart Tom Colicchio. “Everywhere I go I gather inspiration. Every trip I’ve never been on, every person who has been a major part of my life whether that’s my mom other cooking mentors shows up in my recipes.”

 Photo Credit: Johnny Miller

Photo Credit: Johnny Miller

 X Chrome 7: Gail Simmons

1. What’s your favorite comfort food?

Gooey, buttery grilled cheese

2. The last thing you read?

Besides my social feed and the onslaught of terrible world news? WE SHOULD ALL BE FEMINISTS by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche

3. What do you like to listen to while cooking: music, podcasts, or silence?

All of the above, depends on what I am cooking and my mood. These days on the music front it’s a mix between Chance the Rapper, Arcade Fire, The XX, The War on Drugs, Coeur de Pirate, and Broken Social Scene (with a side of Moana for my daughter)

4. Your current obsession?

Stranger Things and anything the pastry chef at Babbo, Rebecca DeAngelis, bakes.

5.The last gift you gave someone?

A set of ceramic soft boiled egg cups from The Line

6. Describe your perfect Saturday:

Sleep in until 10am, make elaborate breakfast with my family (eggs, bacon, pancakes, etc.), play in Prospect Park in the sunshine for the afternoon, take a Soul Cycle class, bake something fun and a little decadent with my daughter (double chocolate cookies or maybe crispy rice treats with butterscotch chips), have a casual but delicious dinner in my Brooklyn neighborhood with close friends. 

7. Your favorite emoji:

Female Facebomb! And the kitty cat with hearts for eyes!

Check out Gail's Cookbook

Bringing It Home: Favorite Recipes from a Life of Adventurous Eating

For Gail, it seems, her work operates at the intersection of food and culture. It’s not enough for her to make good food, it must serve and remind her of the people and palaces she loves. When I first met her, she spoke to the small crowd and shared with us her wish for this cookbook: that each copy winds up coated and splattered from use. Warped pages, cracked spines–those are the signs of a well worn, well loved cookbook. And in a time when consumers are often removed from the food making process and recipes are minimized to fit the appetites of shrinking social media attention spans, this deep, unyielding love for food and culture is an undervalued thing.

“To me, food is everything in terms of who you are. It touches every aspect of our lives: socially, economically, politically, environmentally. I get very upset knowing there are so many people who fear food because, why? They might get fat? Especially in the country, there is an enormous chasm between people who have food and people who are food insecure. There are so many people living in food deserts, I think to not celebrate and appreciate food – good food, balanced food, healthy food– is a massive tragedy.”

It’s a passion she’s taken with her out of the Top Chef spotlight and behind the scenes into her own venture. Simmons, along with business partner Samantha Hanks, started Bumble Pie productions in 2014 with a mission to find and foster women-focused content in the food space. Last year, they partnered with The Food Network and The Travel Channel to make a show called Star Plates, where celebrities learned how to make their favorite restaurant dishes. The show has featured celebrities such as Mindy Kaling, Busy Phillips and Erin Andrews as well as noted chefs like Marcus Samuelsson, Dakota Weiss and Susan Feniger. When asked about the importance of Bumble Pie’s mission, Simmons says, “If I want something to happen, and it doesn’t matter if I’m a woman, no one's going to do it but me. So anyway I can help other people get a leg up–especially women because we have to work a little bit harder, and scream a little bit louder to make our voices heard–I’ll do so.”

Star Plates is just the start of Gail’s female-focused programming. Bumble Pie is currently working on two projects for the coming year, with details soon forthcoming. An in an industry notoriously dominated by boys clubs, Bumble Pie feels like a breath of fresh air. With so much news around #MeToo, #TimesUp and sexist practices in the entertainment industry, it’s honestly kind of a surprise that the food industry has remained, in comparison, relatively quiet on the predator-outing front. Gail’s work, and her mere presence, feels like an act of rebellion and strength in its own right.

“We’ve all experienced [prejudice] in some ways and I just think that you need to be stronger than it. It doesn’t matter. There will always be ignorance and there will always be people who don’t want to see you succeed because it threatens their own success.You can’t let the voices of ignorant people get in the way.”

By bringing women to the foreground of food programming, rather than limit them to the limited accessory roles, and continually making spaces where they previously didn’t exist, she’s creating opportunity for her peers and predecessors to step into the spotlight. And with 12 years (and counting) in front of the camera, the role of producer is one Gail is happy to take.

“I was just talking to someone a few weeks ago and sharing this quote I love so much: “The presence of someone else’s beauty does not detract from your own”. I think our culture sometimes tries to pit women against each other in the weirdest ways and I think that’s ridiculous. The only way to get anything accomplished is to work together.”

 Photo Credit: Johnny Miller

Photo Credit: Johnny Miller

Gail Simmons is a trained culinary expert, food writer, and dynamic television personality. Since the show’s inception in 2006, she has lent her extensive expertise as a permanent judge on BRAVO’s Emmy-winning series Top Chef. Heading into its 15th successful season, Top Chef is rated the #1 food show on cable television. Gail was previously head critic on Top Chef Masters and host of Top Chef Just Desserts, Bravo’s pastry-focused spinoff of the Top Chef franchise. She appears as a guest judge on Universal Kids new Top Chef Jr. and was co-host of The Feed, which aired in 2014 on FYI.

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