Gail Simmons’ plate is full. Along with being an original judge on the wildly popular food show Top Chef, for which she just received her first Emmy nod, along with her co-hosts, she’s a food writer, cookbook author, co-host of The Dish on Oz —and on top of all of that— host of the new Top Chef Amateurs, which premiered in July.
No amateur herself, the Brooklyn-based foodie has been a part of the culinary scene since college and eventually took her passion professionally, working in countless food-world positions before she eventually scored the Top Chef job—one she’s held for 18 years. “My career was years in the making, testing out all these different positions and figuring out what I loved about food and restaurants and writing.” says Simmons.
Top Chef has allowed Simmons to eat her way through a multitude of places around the world. It’s a dream job for the passionate traveler who likes nothing more than deeply immersing herself in each city’s cultural, architectural and food scene. Besides the food and travel, the close-knit hosts consider the show a kind of “summer camp” where they gather together for several months each year.
Gail is hosting Top Chef Amateurs solo, though, and is especially enthusiastic about it as it’s the first Top Chef show to have an all-female production head team, including the producer, director, host and showrunner. And while only professional chefs competed on Top Chef, for Amateurs, the spotlight is on 24 home cooks, who compete against one another in the Top Chef kitchen. “The show was born out of the pandemic when we were all forced to be home over the last year, our professional industry was in crisis and we saw home cooking in this country come alive,” explains Simmons.
Serendipity chatted with the charming food pro about hosting, how she’s raising adventurous eaters, and why she thinks food is “the greatest unifier of humankind.”
Season 18 of Top Chef premiered in April. What was different about this season compared to the earlier seasons?
We shot this season in one of the most volatile times in American history—I call it a triple pandemic. When we flew out to Portland to film last year, we were in the middle of Covid, at the height of a racial and social justice reckoning, and in the midst of terrible wildfires. We created a completely closed bubble to shoot in and every single episode of the show reveals what we were dealing with at the time and that is what makes it unforgettable.
What is your favorite part of judging Top Chef ?
Meeting the talent. They’re amazing people and so many have gone on to become real leaders in the industry. They put their livelihoods on the line for a shot at being on the show with us and that never ceases to amaze me. If you look back on the 18 seasons, I think it has more success per capita in terms of outcomes for contestants than any other reality show. Something like 200 restaurants have been opened by contestants that have been on our show.
Have you ever been starstruck by a guest at Top Chef ?
All the time. Everyone is an eater, so when you see Natalie Portman or Dave Grohl from the Foo Fighters tell stories about their connection to food that’s always really special. Even chefs like Nigella Lawson (who has always been a hero of mine) are touched and inspired by the food and dishes our chefs are creating. It’s always a pinch-me moment.
Tell us about your new show Top Chef Amateurs.
We saw how ambitious home cooks became when given the time and we wanted to showcase how special that is. Every episode lives on its own: It is two home cooks who come to our kitchen and compete one-on-one against each other. We bring in former contestants to be their sous chefs and set them loose in the kitchen. It is pure joy!
Are you and your Top Chef co-hosts (Tom Colicchio and Padma Lakshmi) as close as you seem on the show?
In the many years we’ve been together we have seen deaths, divorce, children, marriages, pandemics and every possible iteration of life. Tom is absolutely my big brother and a mentor in every way. I call Padma my sister wife! I look to both of them for guidance so often.
As a mother of two young children what are your tips for raising adventurous eaters?
My kids love all the things kids typically love, like spaghetti and meat sauce, meatballs, tacos and ramen. I’m not going to be that chef who says “My children eat lamb heart for dinner,” but they are good explorers and are not afraid to try new things. Where we have the most success with our kids is when we give them the opportunity to be involved in the process, even ‘sushi nights’! I’m saying that with air quotes because they’re not eating tons of raw fish, but they’re making their own rolls and that is fun for them. I also give them food that is familiar enough so they have a point of reference, but introduces them to something new too. We do lots of Middle Eastern and Southeast Asian food where you start with a noodle or a dumpling because they know that, and then add in other flavors.
What do you think it is about food and cooking that unites people?
At its most basic, cooking is what civilizes us as a species. Food is the greatest unifier of humankind. We all eat and take pleasure in food. Food is what brings us together: we celebrate milestones with it; it’s what we gather around with our family; it brings us joy and comfort in times of need; it is how we show love to one another. There is no more powerful vehicle then food.
ON GIVING BACK
My philanthropic work is mostly connected to food and hunger, women’s and children’s rights and causes, and mental health.
I’ve been working for many years on the food council for City Harvest, New York’s largest and oldest food rescue organization. cityharvest.org
HOT BREAD KITCHEN
I sit on the board of directors of Hot Bread Kitchen, which trains women who are immigrants or from underserved neighborhoods to follow a path for a career in food. hotbreadkitchen.org
I’ve done a lot of work with Common Threads, which helps children in underserved communities to learn tolerance through cooking skills. It also provides them with food and menus to help them make better food choices. commonthreadsfarm.org
CITY MEALS ON WHEELS
They provide food delivery to New York’s homebound elderly. citymeals.org
“It’s an endless hole, but here are a few that are keeping me going these days,” says Simmons of her favorite IG accounts.
- Raising Imagination(@raisingimagination): a great account that tackles New York City parenting at this complicated moment in history.
- Jon Baptiste (@johnbaptistemusic): He’s so joyful!
- Tasty Japan (@tastyjapan): for mind-blowing food escapism.
- New York Times Parenting (@nytparenting)
- Viola Davis (@violadavis)
- The Wonder (@thewonder)
- The Conscious Kid (@theconsciouskid)
- Bryan Ford (@artisanbryan): bread bakinginspo.
- Meena Harris (@meena)
- Jenybsg (@jenybsg): AfroHouse dancer andchoreographer based in Belgium, and herextraordinary students. So uplifting!
- ACLU (@aclu_nationwide)
- Chef Millie Peartree (@chefmilliepeartree)
Photography by Fabrice Trombert