The untold truth of Top Chef judge Gail Simmons

Gail Simmons is best known for being a judge on Top Chef, but her culinary journey began by writing restaurant reviews for her college newspaper before going on to study at what is now the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City. Before long, she was training in the kitchens of such Manhattan eateries as Le Cirque 2000 and Vong, and then served as assistant to Vogue food critic Jeffrey Steingarten. In 2004, she joined Food & Wine magazine, writing a monthly column and directing special projects.

All of the above led the Bravo network to approach her in 2006 for Top Chef, a new series that would pit some of America's best professional chefs against each other in high-stakes culinary challenges. 

Gail Simmons has been a fixture on television screens ever since, both in the U.S. and in her native Canada (where she hosts a show on that country's version of the Food Network). The author of both a 2017 cookbook and a candid 2012 memoir, Simmons' life is literally an open book. Yet even her most ardent fans will realize they've only scratched the surface when it comes to learning the untold truth of Top Chef's Gail Simmons.

Before Top Chef, Gail Simmons was a Canadian journalist

While attending Montreal's McGill University — alma mater to such famous Canadians as William Shatner, Leonard Cohen and Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau — Gail Simmons began writing restaurant reviews for the McGill Tribune. That experience, she told the Tribune years later, "gave me great writing experience and also gave me experience writing specifically in the genre of food." After graduation, she decided to pursue journalism. 

As she told Entrepreneur, Simmons landed an internship at a local magazine, and then became an editorial assistant at a national newspaper. "I found myself following around the food editor and asking him to let me write for him, and slowly he let me write little stories here and there," she recalled. "After about a year, I came to him and said, 'Well, this is what I really want to do. How do I become a food critic or how do I become a food writer?'"

The advice he gave, she explained, led her to what is now the Institute of Culinary Education, placing her on a path leading to Top Chef.

The Canadian foods that Gail Simmons misses the most

Born and raised in Toronto, Top Chef's Gail Simmons hasn't lived in her native Canada for some time. In a chronicle of her daily life for New York Magazine's Grub Street, she opened up about some only-in-Canada foods she finds herself missing. These include Jamaican meat patties, she revealed. "Toronto has a huge Caribbean community, so a patty was actually my middle-school snack," she said.

She also shared her delight when a friend brought her an iconic Canadian candy called Smarties. "Smarties are Canadian, and they're kind of like the equivalent of M&Ms — candy-covered chocolates," Simmons explained. "But you can't get them [in the U.S.], so my friend visiting from Toronto brought me a container, and we cracked it open while we drank a bottle of Tempranillo rosé."

That's not the only time that Simmons has become nostalgic for Canadian snacks that aren't available in America. In 2018, Bravo shared screenshots of some posts she made on Instagram Story about some of her favorites, including Coffee Crisp — a coffee-flavored chocolate bar made from layers of thin wafers — and the most Canadian of snacks, ketchup-flavored potato chips.

Gail Simmons wrote a memoir about being a "professional eater"

In 2012, Top Chef's Gail Simmons combined her twin talents for writing and cooking in Talking with My Mouth Full: My Life as a Professional Eater. In the book, Simmons shares her personal story of how early aspirations to be a journalist led her into the kitchen.

In an interview with Refinery 29, Simmons explained what inspired her to write a memoir. "I found that so many people — strangers, friends, journalists — always ask me the same 20 questions about eating, cooking, judging food, how I got my job, and how I handle my weight," she said. "I realized the best way to answer them is by telling my story. It's a little unconventional, but at its base I think everyone can relate to it in some way, whether you care about food or not."

Speaking with Chicago Now, Simmons shared what she hopes readers will take away from the story of her life. "I wrote that book to let people know there are so many opportunities out there and that when you're passionate about something, it's worth pursuing," she explained.

Gail Simmons ate hummus and Popsicles while writing her book

While writing her memoir Talking with My Mouth Full: My Life as a Professional Eater, Top Chef judge Gail Simmons told Grub Street her busy schedule left her limited time to work on the book, which led her to write "in a very specific way." This meant keeping to a strict schedule, writing for three to four hours per day, three times a week. That brief window of time, she explained, "always included lunch. But it was always rushed... so I sat with a very odd array of things. Like half a turkey sandwich, a cut-up apple and a chocolate Popsicle. Or a bunch of baby carrots, a thing of hummus and leftover Chinese takeout."

If that sounds like a fairly healthy (albeit eclectic) array of snacks, it's reflective of Simmons' typical diet. In an interview about her book with the Denver Post, Simmons revealed that when she's not "on duty" tasting caloric culinary creations on Top Chef, she tries to eat sensibly. "I'm almost exclusively vegetarian," she explained. "I eat tons of fruit and vegetables, lots of whole grains."

Top Chef has opened a lot of doors for Gail Simmons

Gail Simmons first joined Tom Colicchio behind the Top Chef judging table when the show premiered in 2006, with her performance on the show leading to more television opportunities. In 2010, she was tapped to host spinoff Top Chef: Just Desserts, which focused on pastry chefs creating sumptuous desserts. As her IMDb page illustrates, she subsequently appeared on more Top Chef spinoffs, including Top Chef DuelsTop Chef Masters and Top Chef Jr. 

In 2014, she starred in her own show The Feed, for FYI Network. Described by The Hollywood Reporter as a "food comedy road show," Simmons hosted alongside chef Marcus Samuelsson and comedian Max Silvestri. As she quipped to Grub Street, execs at the Bravo network — home of Top Chef — were "not happy, but they know. Nothing they can do about it!" she said with a laugh. 

Asked jokingly if her goal is to have a show on every network, Simmons played along. "Yes. I am systematically trying to get a show on every cable network in the universe," she deadpanned. "The universe is a small goal. I think it's really attainable."

Gail Simmons hosts Iron Chef Canada

In addition to Top Chef and its spinoffs, and other various TV appearances on American television, Gail Simmons also has a side gig in her home and native land. Since 2018, she's served as host of  Iron Chef Canada for Food Network Canada. The premise is pretty much identical to the U.S. version of Iron Chef, with professional chefs competing against some of Canada's top celebrity chefs. In addition, an actor known as "The Chairman" introduces a mystery ingredient at the start of each episode that must be used by all the chefs in their dishes. 

In an interview with Food Network Canada, Simmons outlined the various reasons she enjoys her role on Iron Chef Canada, explaining "it gave me an opportunity to work on not only a brand I love, with a network I've always wanted to work with, but to have a project that brought me home."

The bonus, she added, is that she gets to work alongside "the best chefs in Canada and I also get to see how far the culinary world has come since I left 20 years ago."

Gail Simmons' home is a converted church in Brooklyn

While Top Chef's Gail Simmons may have been born in Canada, she's a longtime resident of Brooklyn, New York. Her hometown newspaper, the Toronto Sun shone the spotlight on her Brooklyn home, which is actually an old church that's been converted into luxury condos. The original church, she told the Sun, dates back to "the '40s or '50s," and had been transformed into its present form seven years before she and her husband purchased it in 2011. 

The couple oversaw a renovation in 2013. "The outside of the building still looks like a church, with stained glass windows along the sides and a garden courtyard in the center of it," she said of her 2,400-square-foot, two-story unit.

Asked to single out her favorite room, Simmons' answer shouldn't be surprising. "The kitchen," she said, revealing that she designed it herself to her own exacting specifications, knowing it would be the room in which she'd spend much of her time. "I spend so much time in my kitchen professionally because it's where I develop my recipes for my books, projects and for the magazines I write for," she explained. 

Gail Simmons singled out the food fad she's glad is over

Having been deeply enmeshed in the New York City culinary scene since the late 1990s, Top Chef's Gail Simmons has seen a lot of trendy food fads come and go over the years. Asked by Us Weekly to pinpoint the one fad about which she's happiest to see fall by the waysideSimmons pointed to "monster, over-the-top food, like the rainbow unicorn sundae with the cotton candy on top." She added: "I want to be able to eat and enjoy it and I can't really enjoy that stuff."

While the increased popularity of kale and avocado on menus might be viewed as encompassing a food fad, that's not how Simmons sees it. "Kale is legitimately not a trend, it's a green," she insisted. And while she conceded those particular items are "overused," admitting, "I could do with a little less avocado in my life," she was adamant that kale and avocado "are ingredients, they're not trends, and they're here to stay."

Gail Simmons revealed her favorite celebrity encounter

There have been numerous celebrity guest stars who've popped in to participate in Top Chef over the years, including the likes of Oscar-winners Natalie Portman and Charlize Theron, Maroon 5 frontman Adam Levine and even Sesame Street favorite Elmo. After rubbing elbows with all those A-listers at the Top Chef judging table, could Gail Simmons possibly single out one star who left her in awe?

That took place in a season five episode, Simmons told Delish, when Top Chef welcomed iconic rock band Foo Fighters to the show. As Simmons recalled, she was shocked to see how thrilled the band's frontman Dave Grohl was just to be there. According to Simmons, the former Nirvana drummer was unable to contain his enthusiasm, telling her excitedly that he couldn't believe he actually got to appear on Top Chef. "I was like, I can't believe you're Dave Grohl for God's sake, like, are you kidding me?!" she exclaimed. "It was just a really great moment to realize how similar we all are."

In an interview with People, Simmons also admits that a Top Chef appearance by actor Paul Reubens — in character as his comedic creation Pee-wee Herman "was a total trip."

Gail Simmons is obsessed with pickles

Top Chef's Gail Simmons loves pickles — so much so that she wrote a veritable ode to the crunchy cucumber-derived snack for a compilation entitled The 100 Most Jewish Foods. Writing of her affection for pickles, Simmons describes how her father — who "could barely boil water" — was the family's primary pickle-maker. As she wrote, "As far back as I can remember, full-sour dill pickles have been the single most important food in my life," with her father's pickles setting the standard by which all future pickles would be measured. "There's no other flavor as satisfying," she explained, "nor that defines my family and my Jewish heritage, as perfectly as a pickle."

There are, however, limits to Simmons' affection for the briny beauties. "As far as I'm concerned, sweet pickles don't count in the category," wrote the pickle purist, adding that she will, however, "gladly accept any other salty, well-brined, and preserved vegetable..." 

Speaking with Delish, Simmons also declared herself a fan of picked fruit, including pineapples, apples, and even "pickled watermelon rind." She also admitted to being an aficionado of pickles used in grilled-cheese, tuna and egg sandwiches, and admitted she won't say no to adding pickle brine to a martini.

Here's what's inside Gail Simmons' fridge

Peeking inside someone's refrigerator always offers some unique insight, and that's especially true when that someone is a celebrity chef. In an interview with Parade, Top Chef judge Gail Simmons shared some of the "key ingredients" she always keeps on hand inside her family's refrigerator, "things like citrus, Parmesan, and eggs." She also likes to stock her fridge with fresh fruit "in sync with the seasons," which can be used as a quick snack for her kids or for ingredients in a recipe. "I love having things like Hood Cottage Cheese in my fridge that I know I can make 15 different recipes with on a moment's notice," she added.

Simmons got even more in-depth in an interview with SheKnows, literally going through her fridge shelf by shelf to provide a complete inventory. Among the more interesting items she described: handmade Canadian maple syrup flavored with bourbon; lemons that she "quick-preserved" in salt, olive oil and chili; a customized fish sauce ("aged in bourbon maple barrels"); and Pickapeppa sauce, "a traditional Jamaican condiment that we love" (and which she may or may not have smuggled into the country).

Gail Simmons revealed what really happens at the Top Chef judges' table

When TV viewers see the judges deliberating over a dish on Top Chef, Gail Simmons wants them to know there's nothing staged about any of it. "So, what you see at the Judges' Table is really what you get," she divulged to Parade. "The only difference is that we talk for four hours and it's culled down to about eight to 12 minutes, but we taste all the foods together like you see us do it in the challenge."

According to Simmons, producers discourage her and the other judges from interacting too much before the judging, "because, ultimately, what they want and what we want is an honest, serious, and spontaneous conversation about food." This, she explained, can lead to in-depth discussions about what they're tasting that can last for hours. "We talk about every dish, the pros and cons," she added, pointing out that "it really becomes about not only understanding the fine-tuning of what went in to cooking and the intention behind every dish, but pulling apart the micro details to figure out which dish is better or worse than the rest, because they're all pretty good these days."

Gail Simmons made a special appearance on Top Chef while on maternity leave

Gail Simmons was almost entirely absent for Top Chef's 16th season, which aired in late 2018 and early 2019, and for a very good reason: During filming, she was in the home stretch of her second pregnancy before welcoming son Kole in May 2018.

However, when Simmons appeared at a Top Chef event at Paleyfest in New York City in October 2018, she teased an appearance on the show before the end of the season. "I wasn't sure if I was gonna come back. We really were playing it by ear every step of the way," Simmons told Bravo's The Daily Dish. "And our producer sort of said to me, 'Look, if you're feeling up to it and you want to come down at any point, we're there... I felt like, 'You know what? I can do this. I'm gonna come for 24 hours, shoot one dinner."

After giving birth, she recalled thinking that "it would really make me happy to get out and do this one thing for myself. And I did and it was great, and then I went right back home and got back on the couch with my baby boy."

Gail Simmons revealed the casual sexism she's experienced as a Top Chef judge

Gail Simmons has never held back when it comes to speaking her mind about the cuisine she judges on Top Chef, and the same holds true whenever she encounters casual sexism that she feels should be pointed out.

This was the case when she was interviewed by the Denver Post while promoting her 2012 memoir, and was asked, "How do you balance eating for a living and looking good on TV?" (the interviewer, by the way, was female). Simmons issued a pointed response: "Tom Colicchio never gets that question."

Speaking with MarketWatch, Simmons addressed why that seemingly innocuous line of questioning rankled her. "A question I get a lot is, 'How do you eat all that food?' — meaning quantity of food, and not getting fat," Simmons explained. "Interestingly, I have this conversation with Tom Colicchio often, and he doesn't get that question as much as I (or other female chefs) do. We're supposed to be much more concerned about how we look (than male chefs)."