Create a free profile to get unlimited access to exclusive videos, sweepstakes, and more!
Gail Simmons Reveals What Makes Her the “Most Proud” of Top Chef After 20 Seasons
The Top Chef judge, food writer, and producer opened up about her career journey in an exclusive interview with BravoTV.com.
Gail Simmons is an accomplished food writer who has worked at Food & Wine magazine, written a memoir called Talking with My Mouth Full: My Life as a Professional Eater, authored the cookbook Bringing It Home: Favorite Recipes from a Life of Adventurous Eating — and she’s been a judge on all 20 seasons of Bravo’s Top Chef.
She’s tried thousands of dishes, she’s been there when hundreds of cheftestants have packed their knives to go home, and she’s seen when a select few have won the competition. Long before Gail took a seat at the judges’ table, she was simply a “good eater” growing up in Canada “in a home that really centered food in an incredible way.” She didn’t always plan to make a career out of her passions for food and travel, but once she did, she never looked back.
Gail spoke to BravoTV.com about the road to figuring out that she wanted to write about food and how she eventually landed a spot on Top Chef.
Her food roots
The Top Chef judge was raised in Toronto, Canada, in the ’80s, during a time, she says, when many parents were using their microwaves for “shortcut” meals in order to “spend less time in the kitchen.” Gail said her mom, Renee Simmons, who had a column about cooking and food in Canada’s The Globe and Mail, was “ahead of her time.”
Instead of making microwavable meals like her friends’ parents did, Gail’s mom bought fresh ingredients in Toronto’s Chinatown neighborhood to cook meals at home from scratch. She even started a cooking school for other moms in their neighborhood, and she “prided” herself on giving her family “fresh home-cooked food most nights of the week.” Though Gail said it sometimes “drove [her] nuts” that she wasn’t eating boxed mac and cheese like her friends were, she now appreciates the effort her mom made.
Gail’s love of food began at home, as did her love for travel. Renee hails from Montreal, while Gail's dad, Ivor Simmons, is South African. The two would often explore the world together and share what they discovered through food.
“My mom was always bringing back inspiration from her travels, and she was just a great spontaneous cook,” Gail said. “I grew up around the idea of traveling, and when we traveled, [the idea of] seeking out great local food [and] trying things.”
While food was a major part of the fabric of her upbringing, it wasn’t until Gail was in her last year of college that she realized she could make a career out of writing about it.
Realizing her path
When Gail moved into an apartment with two of her friends during her final year at McGill University, where she studied anthropology and Spanish, her love for food developed into a passion for cooking.
“I started cooking a lot more for myself and for [my roommates], asking my mom for recipes, looking for ingredients,” Gail explained, adding that Montreal had a “great food” scene. “I just started learning how to cook for myself in earnest.”
She began writing food reviews for the student newspaper, and she fell in love with the idea of “play[ing] a food critic.” After she graduated and found herself living back at her parents’ house without an idea of what she was going to do, a family friend suggested that she try to write for a career.
“It was as if I had never known anyone who had ever done that job before. It did not occur to me that my mother did that exact job,” Gail continued, pointing out that her mom had moved on to a different career by the time Gail finished college. “It was only when someone outside of my family pointed out that I could do that for a job, and there are people who do that, that I sort of took it seriously.”
After inspiration struck, Gail went on to work at two publications — one magazine and one newspaper — as an editorial assistant in Toronto. Both times, she felt herself drawn to the food section.
“That’s when it kind of hit me, ‘OK, so food is what I love. Food is my thing. I want to explore it. I’m fascinated by it. I love the culture of restaurants. I love the culture of cooking,’” she added.
Gail said she “begged” one of the food editors to let her write, and he eventually let her work on “little things.” He taught her a major lesson that has stuck with her ever since.
“He explained to me that just because I like food doesn’t mean I’m an expert in it. And if you really want to be an expert and really want to be a person of authority in terms of journalistic integrity, you need to study the thing,” she explained.
“I needed to learn how to cook,” she determined. “It was kind of the excuse I needed. I quit my job at the newspaper, packed my bags, and moved to New York City. [I] enrolled in professional culinary school, and that’s how it all started.”
Learning the craft
Gail decided to sharpen her culinary skills by attending what is now known as the Institute of Culinary Education. From the start, she knew she didn’t want to be a chef, and she considered her time in culinary school to be her getting her graduate degree.
Afterward, Gail did an externship and eventually worked as a line cook in “two amazing restaurants” so she could really practice what she’d learned. She always knew she would want to return to food writing, and she got her chance when she landed a job as an assistant to Vogue’s food critic, Jeffrey Steingarten.
Putting it all together
The culinary expert said that working for Steingarten “led [her] to everything” in her career.
“He really opened incredible doors to me in New York City, and taught me so much about food writing, research, editing, and the integrity of being a journalist. [He taught me] how to treat food, my subject, with respect and honor and understanding,” Gail said. “That was sort of that next step that put [together] all those things I had learned at culinary school, and my anthropology degree from college, and the work I had done in journalism.”
After her experience with Steingarten, Gail became the special events manager for chef Daniel Boulud’s restaurant empire. In 2004, Gail took a position as the special projects director for Food & Wine magazine. This role is what ultimately led her to the judges’ table on Top Chef.
Joining “trailblazing” Top Chef
While Gail was at Food & Wine, the publication was approached to partner with a “trailblazing” and “never-before-done idea of a show” that ultimately became Top Chef. The partnership involved having someone from the magazine on the judges’ panel. Gail ended up being the editor who was selected.
“I was able to use all the things I’d learned as a cook and as an editor and writer… on Top Chef," Gail said about taking a seat at the table for the debut season in 2006.
Prior to joining Top Chef, Gail had never really considered appearing on TV for one key reason.
“Food television, and certainly being a judge on competition television, didn’t exist,” she said about working on a TV series that featured professionals instead of amateurs. “Top Chef really made it a thing, and Project Runway. I had never even thought about being on television, so the television opportunity really came to me in a way that I had never imagined. And, obviously, it changed my life.”
Twenty seasons later
When Gail decided to participate in Top Chef, she never could have imagined that the show would be in its 20th season and that it would have the impact it’s had on chefs, aspiring chefs, and viewers. “There was just no precedent for it,” Gail explained. “I remember when the show was in its fourth season, thinking, ‘This is crazy. I can’t even believe we’re making a fourth season.’”
“Every season, for I think all three of us, and for our producers, and for Bravo, feels like a gift in a lot of ways. But the fact that we work really hard on it, we believe in it, we try to change it every season, and we try to be true to that original goal of representing our industry and giving opportunity to young professionals on the brink of their careers, [and] discovering talent, I think all of that is reflected in the success of the show,” Gail added. “We worked really hard to make the show different from anything else out there.”
“The fact that we’ve been able to do this for so long is really very special,” she concluded. “There’s been so much talent and success. I mean, we all say this, really, because we’re in awe of the fact that there’s no other competition show on television that has produced as much success in its industry — restaurants opened, books written, products made, television shows spun off, household names made — than our show, across any genre. That is what I think we’re most proud of. It’s really about them.”
Beyond Top Chef
As Gail herself mentioned, Top Chef has given life to other shows — and she has been a part of several. She hosted two seasons of Top Chef: Just Desserts from 2010 to 2011, hosted Top Chef Amateurs, and was a judge on three seasons of Top Chef Masters. In the States, she worked on a daytime syndicated talk show, The Good Dish.
In her home country of Canada, Gail has been a guest judge on Top Chef Canada, she’s hosted Iron Chef Canada, and she’s been a judge on Recipe to Riches. Her memoir, Talking with My Mouth Full: My Life as a Professional Eater, came out in 2012, and her cookbook, Bringing It Home: Favorite Recipes from a Life of Adventurous Eating, followed five years later.
She is also dedicated to philanthropic work that betters the restaurant industry, from giving platforms to organizations centered around hunger to work training, sustainability, and food programs. Through her production company, which she founded with a partner in 2014, Gail has mentored others who want to work in the food industry.
Outside of her professional endeavors, Gail is married to Jeremy Abrams, and they have a daughter, Dahlia, and a son, Kole. As Gail joked, she planned on leaving New York City after finishing culinary school, but she’s been in the Big Apple “25 years longer than [she] thought” (she became a U.S. citizen in 2022).
Words of wisdom
Looking back on her career, Gail recognizes how unique her path has been.
“No one can be another person. You know, you can say, ‘I’m inspired by this person or that person,’ but you can’t follow exactly in someone else’s footprints — because the time will be different, your personality, your goals, your dreams,” she explained. “No two people can do the same job.”
She noted that many of her greatest accomplishments resulted from her saying yes to different opportunities.
“I think part of what’s helped me is that I never had this set-in-stone, preconceived idea of exactly who I wanted to be. I was also very open to sort of the power of saying yes to things that I was scared to do, and having really amazing mentors myself. [They were] people in the industry who kind of took me in, showed me things, taught me, and allowed me to learn from them,” she said. “I’ve been so grateful for those experiences.”
She’s also never lost her hunger for learning.
“You’re never done, there’s always more to learn. I mean, that’s been a great experience on Top Chef, that every city we go to, every chef who is on the show, whether they’re a judge or a contestant, teach[es] me something about food. It’s sort of a never-ending adventure,” she said. “I still feel like I’m at the beginning of [my life] and there’s so much more to do. And as the industry changes and technology changes and media, there’s just more and more opportunities that wouldn’t have existed even five, 10 years ago. That gives me hope for also the next generation.”
In Bosses of Bravo, Bravolebs pull back the curtain on their business journeys. From how they got started, to real talk about their career ups and downs, these stars-slash-businesspeople give us an in-depth look at how they made it.