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One On One With Gail Simmons - Part 1

A few weeks ago PartySugar and I were supposed to meet Top Chef's resident ice queen — yes, the one from Food & Wine magazine — only she never showed up. Instead we met the wonderfully sweet, surprisingly goofy Gail Simmons. So how does someone so nice get such a bad-a** reputation? Turns out it's all due to editing, but we'll get to that later.

We met Simmons, who was in town for a wine festival in Sonoma, at Boulettes Larder for a picturesque breakfast at the Ferry Building. And while she wouldn't divulge any Top Chef secrets — except to say that a lot of the blogs have been wrong, something that was obvious last week — she did offer up a few behind the scene tidbits, as well as the rundown of her career — and yes, she is perfectly qualified to be a judge.

If you've ever wanted to know more about this Top Chef judge, check out part one of our interview with her. And be sure to come back next week for part two!

We started the morning off with a little bit of random chit-chat — she was miraculously given a convertible at the rental car agency and was picking up Season 2 winner Ilan Hall at the airport — but quickly moved on to how she got her start. Believe it or not, her mother ran a small cooking school and wrote a food column, I guess you could say a culinary career was in her genes.

"My mother had a food column. — I'm from Canada. I'll confess, that's my dirty little secret. I grew up in Toronto. — She was writing for the Globe and Mail [Canada's largest national paper] and had a small cooking school out of our home. That being said, I never wanted to be anything like my mom. Not for any reason, as she's extraordinary, but at the age of 18, you don't want to be told you're just like your mom."

Although her future was right in front of her nose, Gail Simmons had to go out and do something for herself. First stop was McGill University in Montreal where she majored in anthropology and Spanish language. While there she cooked for herself and her friends and eventually started writing restaurant reviews for the school paper.

"Even though my mother was in the food industry, for most of my life, it never occurred to me that that could be a career. When I graduated all of my friends were literally going to law school, medical school, or doing their MBAs. When you'd go around the table and get to Gail it was like, 'Well, I really like to eat.'"

Unsure of what was next, she moved back to Toronto and received an internship at a monthly magazine called Toronto Life. While there she found herself being drawn to the food department. After a few small pieces and reviews, she realized that she couldn't deny it any longer, she was following her mom's footsteps. With a short stint at the magazine on her resumé, she transferred to a new national newspaper where it became evident that in order to move up in this newly-found profession, she would have to learn more about food. So she packed her bags — or should I say knives — and moved to New York to attend an impacted culinary school program.

"I loved it, it was like food camp. All of a sudden I realized I knew nothing about food, and I don't know how I thought I did before. You realize that the language of food and the language of chefs is so different. But it definitely solidified that I was in the right place. I figured it out, I found out what I wanted to do."

However, it wasn't enough to have a culinary school education under her belt. In order to be bonafide, she had to serve some time in a real kitchen. She first cooked at Le Cirque 2000 and later at Jean-Georges's Vong.

"It was the hardest job I've ever had in my life. The only time I've ever lost weight was when I worked in a kitchen. It was a lot of hardwork, you're on your feet all day. It was super demanding on my body and on my mind. The first few years of being a cook is really manual labor. Tons and tons of carrots, or the perfect dice."

After a while she realized that she wanted to use the writing side of her brain more and by a stroke of good luck and a lot of serendipity, she ended up landing a gig as Jeffrey Steingarten's assistant.

"I was talking with the school's career services director and he asked me what my dream job was. I had just finished The Man Who Ate Everything and said that my dream job was to be Jeffery Steingarten's assistant. He looked at me and said, 'That's so funny, he's looking for an assistant.' I swear to you, that was exactly how the conversation went. That was a Friday, I got my resume in on Monday, I interviewed Wednesday and got the job the following Friday... Alone in a house with him for two years, making goose, after goose, after pizza, after goose, was a crazy adventure."

After two years with Steingarten, she became the special events manager for Daniel Boulud's The Dinex Group and is currently the Special Projects Manager for Food & Wine Magazine.

See folks? I told you that she was qualified to judge! And now that you know a little bit more about her, wait until you discover what she thinks about reality TV, food trends, and what she'd be doing if she wasn't in the food world. Be sure to come back next week for part two of our chat with Gail!

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