Gail Simmons Dishes On Canadian Foods And Top Chef - Exclusive Interview

Please forgive Gail Simmons if she has trouble recalling a particular dish from "Top Chef." Simmons has taken a seat at the judges table of Bravo's food competition series' entire 18-season run and considering that amounts to hundreds of episodes multiplied by hundreds of contestants and multiple cooking challenges each week, the number of meals she's consumed on the show amounts to... a lot.

And that's not even counting Simmons' involvement in several "Top Chef" spinoffs including "Just Desserts," "Masters," "Duels," and "Junior." (Somehow she even finds time to reconnect with her Great White North roots, serving as a judge on "Iron Chef Canada.")

Of course, Simmons was tapped to lend her seasoned blend of warmth, candor, and vast culinary expertise to the franchise's latest entry, "Top Chef Amateurs."  For the very first time, non-professional cooks are welcomed to the "Top Chef" kitchen to engage in one-on-one culinary combat with notable show alumni at their side for mentorship and on-demand slicing and dicing. Think rock & roll fantasy camp, only instead of spending wads of cash to perform half-baked covers of "Smoke on the Water," participants are rewarded for executing mouth-watering meals that are befitting of the "Top Chef" brand.

During an exclusive interview with Mashed, Simmons displayed her extraordinary passion for food and even greater reverence for the individuals that make the magic happen. She also offered her thoughts on the celebrity invasion of foodie entertainment and defended her controversial position that Montreal produces the best bagels.

Gail Simmons waxes nostalgic about her favorite Canadian foods

We couldn't happen but notice on Instagram a few days ago you posted your preference for Montreal bagels. Can you state your case for why Montreal bagels are the best?

A lot of it's cultural. This is the bagel I grew up with. It's the bagel of my homeland. And I just think that it's the right size. I love it fresh out of the oven. They're made wood-fired. They are made with a little honey in the water. I love the toasted sesame flavor. They're a different bread. I will eat a New York bagel — that's also what a Toronto bagel is, which is where I grew up. But my family's from Montreal and I grew up eating Montreal bagels, and they're not just kind of big, puffy oversize bread. There's this very specific flavor. There's a different dimension and texture to their shape. And when they are fresh — I know they sell real quick — but when they are fresh out of the oven, there's just nothing like it. It's very unique. And it is, to me, one of the most delicious things in the world.

What are some of the other Canadian foods that you crave when you go home?

There's a lot of very specific things. There's a tart that I love, a tarte au sucre, which is also a Quebecois tart, a maple sugar tart that I love from my childhood. You don't really eat it in the middle of summer but it is one of my favorite things. It's a caramelized maple tart that I love. I mean, there's little things. A lot of the junk food of my childhood, it's just not the same in the States. The chocolate is a little different, the chocolate bars. We eat Smarties instead of M&Ms. There's a chocolate bar called Mirage that I love and Caramilk that you just can't get and I'm nostalgic for them. The flavors of the potato chips, All Dressed potato chips, things like that. Those, it's just nostalgia more than anything but I also love eating the produce from Canada, which I love at this time of year, but it's not to say that there aren't good peaches in a million places around the world. I just love, have an allegiance to Ontario peaches because that's where I grew up.

Gail Simmons discusses Top Chef Amateurs

Let's talk "Top Chef Amateurs." The caliber of cooking on the show has been phenomenal. It seems like every judge's table, you and your fellow judges are raving about the dishes. Did you anticipate such a high level of talent on the show?

No, it isn't something we anticipated. But we also are judging kind of with different criteria than we would on "Top Chef," right? First of all, this is not a show where there's 20 people and we're eliminating someone. It's really about giving two amateur home cooks a challenge and seeing how well they can do. And in the context of who they are and knowing that they are not professionals and the fact that they're able to accomplish what they accomplish in that kitchen, which is such a difficult kitchen to cook in on a good day, by people who've been cooking for 20, 30 years professionally, it's just amazing how much they're able to do.

And considering that every single one of them got something on the plate for us every time that was edible, that for me, first and foremost, was unbelievable and a real accomplishment because it is a really challenging place to cook, especially if it's your first time in it. You're not a professional, you're not used to the equipment. You don't know where anything is. There's eight cameras in your face. You've never been on TV before. You don't have anyone to help you. Although we do bring them our mentor alumni and I think that that also makes it a really lovely warm environment and boosts their confidence. And I think that has something to do with, obviously, why the food turned out as good as it did. And I'm grateful because I'm the one who has to eat it.

Speaking of the alumni, it's always amusing how star-struck the amateurs are when they first met their mentors and then five, 10 minutes into the competition, they're bossing them around in the kitchen. Is that something that you enjoyed watching as the competition progressed?

Oh my God, it was great seeing their dynamic and also seeing how competitive the alumni are even though they're the mentors and there's nothing truly on the line for them except their own credibility and their inability to just sit on the sidelines. They're just chomping at the bit. And they get so competitive. So they are really trying to just do their best to not let down [the] amateur cook that they're paired with. But I love seeing them get bossed around because that takes confidence from their amateur. But they were really instructed to follow the vision of the amateur they did the cooking with and to help them along the way, to give them support and guidance, but not to lead them, not to interfere with the vision of their food. And that was really hard for people who are used to being the boss in the kitchen. And these are definitely Type-A personalities, which I think is great because it just showed another side of them that we don't get to see often on the other shows that we do.

Gail Simmons estimates the number of dishes she's eaten on Top Chef

Reflecting back on what you ate, what was the tastiest dish and what was the most interesting dish that you tried during the competition?

I have to admit ... that we're talking about 24 to 40 dishes that I ate eight months ago and it's really hard to remember them. And even if I remember the dishes, to remember who made it and in what challenge it was for without a list in front of me ... There were a lot of really good things but I don't want to get it wrong without literally ... If you showed me a list of the dishes in every challenge, I could tell you so much about each one, but off the top of my head without a list ... I have eaten 20,000 dishes on this show over 15 years of my life. It is almost impossible to differentiate between them at the moment.

Have you ever actually tallied up how many dishes you've been fed? Is it around 20,000?

I don't know. I mean, if you think, we've done 18 seasons, I've also been on episodes of five different spinoffs at one point or another. I did three or four seasons of "Top Chef: Masters," but not every episode. I did two full seasons of "[Just] Desserts." I did a season of "Amateurs," a season of "Duels." I was on a few episodes of "Top Chef Junior." And then we think about the few Quickfires I've been in, the multiple courses within every episode that we've cooked, the finale meals that are in and of themselves four to five dishes. I could begin to do a tally. I mean, there is a way but it would take a lot of time that I just don't have at my disposal. But it is kind of amazing. Yeah. Who knows? Thousands?

The Top Chef spinoff Gail Simmons thinks deserves a reboot

You mentioned all the different "Top Chef" spinoffs that you've been involved with. Do you have a particular favorite?

They're all really different, which is why we do them, obviously, because they're so different than the original. And the original is always to me, the most thrilling because it is professionals at the highest level. And I'm so amazed by how far we've come as a show and how incredible our contestants have been over the years. But, "Top Chef: Just Desserts" will always sort of be my little baby and I miss it so much.

And I'm still amazed, however many years later, eight, nine, 10 years after the fact, how often I get asked about it on social media, stopped on the street when I'm out for dinner, when I'm at events around the country, because it had such a strong following and such an invested following and the contestants, the pastry chefs, were so unique and wonderful. So, I always am waiting ... we joke, but I'm always waiting for the comeback. If there can be a remake of "Full House," don't you think there could be [a] remake of "Just Desserts" sometime in the future? But it was an incredibly difficult show to make as well.

And "Top Chef Amateurs," I have to say, was incredibly rewarding in ways I didn't anticipate. Coming out of the pandemic and seeing how strong home cooks became and how willing they were to dive deeply into cooking was really inspiring to me. And I just love that we were able to make a show about it. And, for the first time, bringing home cooks into the real "Top Chef" kitchen. We broke down after Portland — we shot our Portland season, had three days to turn the kitchen around and we use that same kitchen and brought these contestants back into it — and just were amazed at what they were able to do and how much it meant to them to have a day in this place, sort of like this storied set that they've been looking at and cheering on for so many years. So for us, it really felt like dream fulfillment for these amazing people. And that brought me a lot of joy. So, that'll always have a special place in my heart.

Gail Simmons reflects on her favorite Top Chef challenges

The competitions for "Top Chef Amateurs" were based on throwbacks from the main show. Looking back, is there a particular challenge that stands out to you from "Top Chef"?

I mean there's a lot. There's a lot that I think stand out for different reasons. The ones we chose, I think, were really smart because we adapted them to really make them exhilarating for a home cook. I think that watching things like the relay race and the blind taste test, which are generally Quickfires, but expanding them a little was really fun because they are consistently on, in some way, every year. So they're the ones that people are always sitting on their couch thinking, "Well, what would I do or how would I have done better or could I do better?" And that was fun to see when people are actually given the chance.

I loved recreating and modifying the seafood challenge where the chefs had to physically dig for clams in mud. And that was pretty great. And a funny trip down memory lane for us too. The Seven Deadly Sins challenge was so much fun because it's a challenge from season two. I mean, that was so long ago, we've all changed so much. The show has changed so much. And seeing it sort of brought into the show now was really nostalgic for me and really fun to see. I don't know. There's just so many. It's just fun to see how many we've done over the years. I mean, it's endless after 18 seasons. There's just so many fun ways to adapt and bring back challenges that at the time we made them, we could have never known how successful they would be.

How Dale Talde impressed Gail Simmons

Is there anyone on the show who didn't quite make the best initial impression, but since being on the show, you've enjoyed their evolution and changed your mind about them?

Yes, actually. One that comes to mind ... it's not that I didn't like him, but I've seen just an enormous evolution and I'm here for it, has been Dale Talde, for sure. If you look back at him in Season 4 and he came back for All Stars ... Season 4, especially, he was this young punky, sous chef. He had such an attitude. He gave attitude. He was hot-tempered. And I mean, he was fun to watch, but he wasn't going to make it. There was no way he would win with the attitude he had. Not because he wasn't cooking good food, but because he was so closed off to criticism and was so defensive about his food.

And over the last few years, I've gotten to know him. He's had success. He's had failure. He's gotten married. He's started a family. He's opened and closed restaurants. And I've come to know him really well. And he came back on for this season as an alumni judge. And I loved him for a long time, but I truly was so thrilled to have him alongside us the whole season long this past year because I think he just gave so much. He has so much insight. He's wiser and he's calmer and he's humbled, but he's still so smart. And he's still such a talented cook. And I just think he has so much more self-awareness, but also he's just really, really fun to be around and positive. And he made everyone laugh. And I don't know, I just love his evolution, for sure.

When it comes to judging, Gail Simmons has no regrets

With 18 seasons and all the various spinoffs, do you ever find yourself second guessing your judging decisions?

No, I don't think I second guess my judging decisions. I mean, that's why there's four of us, right? I'm a quarter of the equation. And I think that the fact that we have four people really balances each other out, really makes it an authentic conversation. It's not a dictatorship. It relies on the four of us to be unanimous, to feel confident, to talk out our concerns or likes or dislikes, our agreements and disagreements and come to a place where we're all always in agreement about our decisions. So I don't ever regret or second guess my decisions.

I definitely think that the stakes have gotten higher. And I think our decision making has gotten more difficult, but that's a good thing because it means the food's better, right? It used to be that there was a much wider gap between the good food and the bad food, the really strong chefs and the weaker chefs, because there was a broader range of talent. But the stakes have become so high and the talent has become so strong overall that every challenge is a serious conversation. It's never obvious anymore. And that makes our job harder, but that also makes it better television, better food, and better for the industry on the long term ...

Why Gail Simmons doesn't consider herself a chef

You're a fantastic chef in your own right. Is there a particular dish that you are focused on getting right?

I never call myself a chef because to me it means you run a kitchen and I don't run a kitchen. I'm not the leader of a team. And at this moment in time, I'm really glad to not be a professional chef, but I'm a professional cook. Sure. And I had training and I've been cooking for years and I cook every day. But the majority of the cooking I do is for my family these days. I mean, I cook in my professional life in a million ways: recipe development, teaching, cooking for events, cooking demos, that kind of thing; articles and recipes that I'm publishing, cookbooks, et cetera. But I have time to work on them. I mean, there's nothing specific. There's not one dish I'm ever just working on, but there are certain things that I love to come back to and tweak and develop.

I mean, in every day, everything I do, I'm starting from scratch. That's kind of the beauty of food, right? It's perishable. So you have to start from scratch every time you come into the kitchen, more or less. And just this morning I made a new pancake recipe. Pancakes are the simplest food in the world, right? Just making it for my family. I'm up in Canada. There's 12 of us together. And I was making breakfast for all the kids. And I used a new pancake recipe I'd never made before. And it wasn't perfect. It took me three tries. The first pancake's always burnt, uneven. This is a stove I've never worked on. I'm not in my kitchen. It's an old stove ... It's not my ideal pan. I'm working with different things than if I was in the comfort of my own kitchen. And it took me some tries. It was this, like very super fluffy buttermilk pancake recipe that took me a minute to hit my stride with. [But] ended up being delicious.

But every day is a challenge. And I learned from it. And now I know if I'm going to make this recipe again, I knew exactly what to do for next time. And that's part of the process of being a confident cook. It's not being perfect every time. I think that is hubris if you say you can make everything perfectly, every time. It's about being able to internalize and learn and add on to your repertoire and practice.

People come to me all the time and they're like, "Oh, I'm not a good cook. I'm not a good cook. I can't cook. I can't cook." And my response is that's just because you don't cook. I mean, you don't wake up knowing how to be an NBA star. You don't wake up knowing how to play the cello. You've got to learn it. You've got to practice it. You've got to put in the hours and that's how you get better. And I think being a good cook is just about understanding and being willing to put in the time and the headspace, right? And every day I get better.

Gail Simmons emphasizes being true to yourself in the kitchen

It seems like on "Top Chef" in recent years, there's been an emphasis to encourage the chefs to highlight their cultural backgrounds. Has that occurred naturally on the show or is that discussed behind the scenes, to draw that out from the contestants?

Well, both. I mean, I think it's the world we're living in right now and we can no longer, nor do we want to, not have honest conversations about food and where we come from and how that informs the way we cook, right? And be our truest, best selves. I think, as I said, the most successful chefs on our show are the ones who came in and learned about themselves and stayed true to that. So, I use Shirley Chung and Nina Compton as examples because I saw it the most clearly with them. Melissa King as well. Women who were cooking other people's food for a long time and who were based in sort of Western fine dining, traditional cooking techniques and mastered them and were masters at them, but had their own stories that they'd never really explored.

Nina, her family's from St. Lucia, from the Caribbean. She's a Black chef cooking in America, living in New Orleans, and with a deep history in the Caribbean ... She was cooking Italian for most of her career. And then she stopped and was, "Wait a second, why am I doing that again? Because there's not only a hole where, at the level that I'm cooking ... of these cuisines, but I have a story to tell that's of just as much value, if not more to the American narrative of cuisine and it's important to me and to the culture of the people around me. And so I want to cook that story. I want to tell that story." And she opened Compère Lapin, which blends so beautifully New Orleans food, the food of the Caribbean, the spice trade, the food of African-American culture in a way that no one had really done before her, exactly the way she could. And that's where she found her biggest success.

And Shirley Chung, too, was cooking Western food. And she's, "I'm a Chinese American. Why aren't I cooking my food and telling my story?" And on "Top Chef" she started doing so. And that's when her food was like, the most mind-blowing. And now she's gone on to open Chinese restaurants where she can really tell that story. And she's so good at it.

And I mean, Melissa King, her story evolved before our eyes. In "All-Stars," her moments of inspiration, where she really married her childhood in California, her training in California cuisine with the food of her family, of Hong Kong and of China and her roots and her parents and that immigration story, her childhood memories. That was true evolution of the food in this country. And that's how America got to where we were and why we are all able to eat a different dish every single day from a different place in the world and even have it be its own special thing in America, because it's not exactly the way it would be in that home country. That is what makes America so magical, I think, is moments like that with immigrant stories. That was a bit of a rant, I'm sorry. But I'm excited about it. And it's, to me, that's the beauty of our show and the people who've been on it, right?

"Top Chef" is about good food, but it's also about storytelling and it's about these contestants. And we cast them because they are diverse and interesting people from [a] myriad of backgrounds or else it would be really boring to watch. And we encourage them to tell their stories and we put them in positions, in challenges where we give them opportunities to tell those stories. 

Gail Simmons weighs in on Cooking with Paris

There have been so many celebrities getting into the cooking game, especially on television. Do you think the more the merrier or once "Cooking with Paris" enters the picture, we're at a tipping point?

I'm going to say the more the merrier. I would have said differently a few years ago. I'm not saying that [Paris Hilton] is going to elevate the world of cooking or bring to it anything ... I haven't watched the show. But Selena Gomez is also cooking, right? And she was never a cook and she is, very openly, not a cook on the show. But you know what? They add something. They encourage people who are their fans, and they have millions of them, to get into the kitchen and try something new. And, yes, I could criticize that this isn't perfect or that's not done well, or that could be insulting to this dish. And what do they know about food? It doesn't matter. They're cooking.

And ultimately at the end of the day, what's my job? My job is to be a cheerleader and a champion for my industry to get people in the kitchen, to get people to eat out, to try things they've never tried, to get their hands dirty, to read a menu and taste something that they wouldn't otherwise order or to get their kids to try a new food. And if Paris Hilton can do it, thank God for Paris Hilton. Because she's got power. You can't deny that she has influence. And if that influence is going to be for good, if it's going to be for cooking, for getting in the kitchen and trying a dish that she wouldn't otherwise ever do, and it encourages her fans to do that too, great. Bring it on.

We'll undoubtedly see more of Gail Simmons when "Top Chef" makes its return, but in the meantime, you can find her cookbooks on her personal website, or just swing by her Instagram.