Gail Simmons on Being a Top Chef Judge


Gail Simmons has worn many hats in the culinary world, having begun her career as a cook and journalist before working her way to Food & Wine, a position that nabbed her a role as a regular judge on the hit television show Top Chef and as the host of its spin-off, Top Chef: Just Desserts. Well, now she can add author to that list. Her memoir, Talking With My Mouth Full: My Life as a Professional Eater, hits bookstores next week. We called her up to learn more about her career and to see if she’s really besties with Tom and Padma.

You grew up in a fairly foodie family. What are some of your earliest food memories?

My mom ran a cooking school and wrote about food for The Globe and Mail so that set the stage for eating adventures. My mom was ahead of her time. We ate all sorts of food, and she was a great cook and that worked for and against us. I appreciated food from all over world. But my friends ate mac and cheese, and we weren’t able to have that. My mom insisted on putting beef tongue in my lunch sandwiches. And no one wants to trade with you when you have beef tongue! I have a memory of dumping pea soup on my head because my parents wouldn’t take it away from me. And I’ve been doing it ever since! [Laughs.]

What was the exact moment you knew you wanted a career in food?

It’s hard to say the exact moment. It was sort of a gradual realization. I fought it for a while, mostly because my mother did it, and I didn’t want to become my mother. It was in college that I started thinking about cooking more and not just making stir-frys and burgers. I went to McGill, and there were so many great restaurants in Montreal, so I started writing reviews for the paper. That said, I had no idea [that it would turn into a career]. I was never told that it was an OK thing to do, so it was only when I got home and I had a conversation with a family friend who said to make a list of what I love. And I wrote that I love food, writing, cooking, and travel.

I found the part where you talk about working in restaurants interesting. Why do you think kitchens are macho places?

I think it’s more than just a macho atmosphere. Historically and biologically, there were more men in the world of cooking for the same reason that there are more men who are plumbers or are partners at law firms. It’s all sort of the same. Restaurant jobs are very physical and until you’re a sous chef, you’re on your feet seven days a week for 12 hours a day, and that doesn’t allow for the ideal family life because you work nights and weekends. It’s not that women can’t do it, and we’ve come a long way. But at its base, until men can nurture and care for children, it’s difficult. It takes a solid 10 years to be a chef and say you start when you’re 20, when you’re 30, women have an expiration date for having children. … The kitchen is meritocracy; there are just fewer women because of the setup.

Part of the book also discusses your working relationship with Vogue writer Jeffrey Steingarten. What was the most ridiculous task you ever had to do while working for him?

Looking back, I think he knew all along what he was doing. He was very calculated even when he made me go on a goose chase. Literally, looking for goose. I did all kinds of things. Buying roosters — male chickens — every day when he was making coq au vin. Trying to age porterhouse steaks in his kitchen. We did a lot of crazy running around and testing pizza oven temperatures with a laser gun. One of my favorite articles I worked on with him was about peaches. We had shipments daily of 20 different varieties and we’d taste them and test their sugar content for sweetness.

OK, so how did the Top Chef gig arise?

So I came to Food & Wine from Daniel and had been working in PR there, so I knew a lot about working behind the camera. When I came to Food & Wine, the person I replaced had done a lot of PR for the magazine, doing small news segments on television. When they needed a cooking demo he’d rep the magazine. I started doing media training, then a year into the job, Bravo came to the magazine and said be our partner and teach us about the role of cooking and chefs.

What is the hardest thing about being on television?

I would say the long hours. There’s a lot of waiting. It takes so much longer to film a show than what you see. There’s a lot of down time. We don’t shoot in New York usually. So for me, the hardest thing is being away for long periods. We’ll work 14 to 16 hour days on set starting at 4 in the morning and finish at midnight. It’s a bit of a roller coaster. Otherwise, the job is challenging because we are faced with hard decisions. But I love the work so it doesn’t seem like a hard job.

What’s the atmosphere like on set? Are you all friends?

We do joke around. We’ve now shot nine seasons plus a spin-off. We’re an amazing family. That’s the bonus. It’s been six years since we started shooting, and that’s a big part of my adult life and it created and made this family of people put together. It’s the same production company and assistant director and audio guys and people that you come to know really well. Tom and Padma have become big parts of my life. Six years has seen marriage, children, Emmys, family crises, and illness, and that’s for all of us. I always say that we’re a traveling band. I don’t know what I’ll do when the show ends because I’ve had such a great time.

Did you think the show would be as popular as it became?

I had no idea. And I mean no idea. Six years ago, reality television was so different. There were no serious food competitions, and there was a lot of bad food television. It was actually a big concern of mine. I remember the first day, Tom and I were nervous. Not that the show would fail, but that we’d become the laughingstock of our peers — chefs and writers — and we had no idea what we were getting into. But we trusted the production company and Bravo and they promised to make a show that was serious about food and their vision. Tom felt strongly about being a chef’s chef and advocating for that. And now the funny thing is that all our peers want to be on the show!

Check back in tomorrow, when Gail reveals — gasp! — the foods she just can’t stand.