Gail Simmons On Top Chef, The Best Ramen, And Where She Wants To Travel Next - Exclusive Interview

No one knows food like Gail Simmons. According to the star's website, Simmons has made appearances on "TODAY," "Iron Chef Canada," and "The Talk" in addition to a handful of other shows, all while reappearing as a permanent judge on "Top Chef." In addition to making regular television appearances, the personality has also authored her fair share of cookbooks, one of which was inspired by her travels across the world, and has helped promote charities that aim to assist victims of war.

When Simmons doesn't have to make appearances on "Top Chef" or write new books, the star lives a very relatable culinary life that any of her fans might resonate with. According to Prevention, Simmons tries to switch up her breakfast routine each day, and shuffles between standards like oatmeal, or a poached egg with some greens. On the weekend, she will even cook alongside her children and whip up waffles, omelets, or shakshuka in the morning. Simmons caught up with Mashed for an exclusive interview, and she shared an inside look into the latest season of "Top Chef," her favorite comfort food right now, what it's like working with Padma Lakshmi and Tom Colicchio, and much more.

A look into the new season of Top Chef

What's going on with "Top Chef" right now? How's the new season?

The new season's great. We're [at] the halfway point, we just had Restaurant Wars last week, and it's getting down to the final contestants. It's a really special season. The Restaurant Wars episode was very dramatic and interesting, and it was really well received. So far, so good.

Has anything unexpected happened that hasn't happened in previous seasons?

Everything — nothing ever happens twice, that's for sure. Every year, we're in a new city, in a new location with totally different contestants from totally different parts of the country. You never know what you're going to get. This season's no exception, and the way that show has developed because of COVID, and the changes we've made every season to not only make the show better every season, but to adapt to the world of restaurants and chefs as we navigate through a global pandemic, for example, has changed the show as well. 

[There's] big drama that happened during Restaurant Wars, and then we did a different Restaurant Wars than we've ever done before. Every year, with our Restaurant Wars episode, we try to make sure that it is slightly different and challenges the chefs in a way that we had never challenged them, because we want to make it exciting and different.

Restaurant Wars gets even more intense

We don't ever want them to be able to watch a season and be like, "Oh, I know exactly what to expect, and I'm going to be able to do that perfectly when it's my turn." During the previous season, when we were in Portland, because we were so deep in the pandemic, we couldn't do a full Restaurant Wars. We couldn't have diners. We couldn't construct a real restaurant the way that we would've previously. In the way that we adapted, we made it a chef counter for Tom, Padma, myself, and our alumni chefs who were our returning rotating judges panel. 

It did so well. It was such an insightful, interesting way to do Restaurant Wars that when we came back this season, even though we were able to have diners this time around — smaller than usual, we only had about 30 to 50 diners — but because we were able to have diners and still wanted to incorporate that chef table, we actually ended up doing both.

It was a really high stakes Restaurant Wars for that reason. Our chefs had to build the restaurant [and] cater to an opening night of diners while, at the same time, having the judges up close and personal at a chef's counter, and having us scrutinize their every move while they're cooking. It was a lot of pressure, but it actually ended up being a really successful challenge.

How the pandemic changed Top Chef

In one way, COVID and the pandemic shaped the way that you have to go and stage Restaurant Wars in the show overall. Were there any other real world examples that took place during the pandemic that you also thought about incorporating into the show?

In many ways, we've done so many episodes that are indicative of what's happening with COVID. Last season, when we were in Portland, we cooked for a restaurant, we cooked for frontline workers. We cooked, we did a drive-thru as a way to get diners in their cars. We've done takeout episodes. The episode of "Last Chance Kitchen" that's up right now, that is the episode right after Restaurant Wars, where the person who was eliminated from Restaurant Wars is cooking. I'm actually making an appearance in which I've never done before. 

That whole episode we did as an ode to the way that restaurants have pivoted during the pandemic, and built ghost kitchens, or delivery concepts. We asked our two chefs who were competing in "Last Chance Kitchen" to come up with ... It's almost like a 2.0 Restaurant Wars where they had 20 minutes to come up with a concept for a ghost kitchen, for a delivery-only concept. What would it be? Make three dishes from it, and deliver it to Tom and I at Tom's house.

That is definitely something that, two years ago, before the pandemic, we would've never asked the chefs to do. It has given us a lot of creative ways to think about the way we eat at restaurants [and] the way we order food. It has posed some really creative challenges for our chefs because of it.

Simmons favorite Top Chef meal

In the past season, do you have one particular moment that stands out as your favorite?

No. I wish I could answer that question for you, but we've done 19 seasons, episode upon episode, dish upon dish, [with] hundreds of contestants at this point, dozens of locations, and thousands, hundreds of thousands of bites of food. I can't possibly think of one of my favorites. It's been the last 17 years of my life.

That's not to say there aren't incredible moments. Sure, I've had a lot of highlights. Every episode there's contestants I'll never forget, there's dishes I taste that blow me away, there's locations we go to that I'll never forget — really memorable challenges that we're able to do that could only exist because of the place we're in, and the chef who is cooking for us. I wish I had a better answer for you.

Simmons' most-asked question

That probably also means you don't have a few standout dishes that still resonate in your mind over the years from previous seasons either, right?

From 17 years of eating, and five spinoffs, no. I can tell you one or two things, but I don't... It's a question that I have to say, everybody asks me, and it's not a possible question to answer. [There are] literally hundreds of thousands of dishes on the show that I've eaten at this point, and they all blur. I don't remember what I ate this season, let alone what I ate in Season 3, 4, 5, and every season. There's a ton of incredible dishes especially in our finales, or the three or four episodes leading up to the finale. There's dishes and flavor combinations that the chefs pose to us every episode that are remarkable and interesting, and could never have been created had it not been for those specific circumstances. 

Again, I wish I could tell you one dish that was the best, but it doesn't work that way. There's thousands and I have been doing this a really, really long time.

How Simmons approaches judging food

For you personally, what's the hardest part about judging?

That the food's really good, that this is a really professional show. At this stage, they're not amateurs where one day, they can nail it, and the next day, they totally mess up. It's not a show right now anymore about extremes; it's never extreme. The chefs rarely completely fail. Yes, there are mess ups, yes, the chefs have good days and bad days, but these are professionals who are at the top of their game at this point. They've all been cooking for a minimum of a decade to get onto the show.

They're not learning how to cook something. They all have really strong understandings of the kitchen. Most days, the food is really good and that's what makes my job so hard, which is a good thing. It makes it exciting, but it also makes it harder to send people home because more times than not, they're going home for cooking a good dish. It's all judged on a relative scale of whose was the least good, or whose was the best of a bunch of really great plates of food.

Simmons' perfect meal

What do you think makes a really good meal?

It's elusive. A meal is different than a plate of food or a dish. I can talk to you scientifically about judging objectively about food, and if it's technically sound and prepared correctly, and I can talk about the temperature of meat and doneness, and cooking techniques, and kitchen skills, but that isn't what makes a meal great. Really, a meal is a thousand things. It's the atmosphere, it's the people you're with, it's the setting, it's the circumstances, it's the story behind the dish and why the person created it in that moment. It's the attention to detail, the thoughtfulness of the hospitality. 

The meals I remember the most in my life aren't necessarily because they were the most perfectly cooked, but because they were the most meaningful. Meaning can be derived from so many different things when you're sitting at a table.

How to make a great meal on Top Chef

On "Top Chef," the most meaningful, the best meals have been because the chefs have been pushed to think about a topic in the world of food in a way they've never thought before, whether it provokes an emotion, or they are cooking from their cultures, or they are cooking for ... I'll give you an example: We cooked for an indigenous local people in Portland. We used only the ingredients last season that they were using in season at that moment and would've been cooking with. That was really meaningful to our chefs, and the food was amazing because it connected us to that story, and to those people, and to the land.

There's so many episodes in Houston that do the same. The episode, I believe that [aired last week] tells the story of Freedmen's Town, which is an area of Houston that has incredible significance to the black community in Houston and the story of Juneteenth. We create a charity event to support the rebuilding of that neighborhood. Cooking for that neighborhood became incredibly important to the chefs, and they were able to cook differently because of it. That was really special.

Simmons' relationship with food

Do you think your relationship with food has changed at all over the course of being on Top Chef, or has it been pretty constant the entire way through?

Oh, of course it's changed, because I've grown in so many different ways. I've traveled, the show has forced me to travel the world, and taste new things, and meet young chefs who were doing things that I would've never known about had I not been on the show, and to go to places, and learn about ingredients. Every season, that's what I love about food in general, but about "Top Chef" in particular that every season, we go somewhere where even if it's a place I've been before, I get to see it in new light, through different eyes, through the lens of food, through the locals, and the ingredients, and the history of that place. Every meal I have on the show informs the way I think about food, and changes my thoughts about it, and expands my mind about what it means to be a chef, and what good food is.

Over the last couple years, I've become so much more aware of the cultural relevance of food in America, and the story of America, as it's told through people's traditions and cultures on their plates.

Where Simmons wants to take Top Chef next

Are there any places that you ever wanted to take this show to that it hasn't gone to before?

Yeah. There's a whole world out there. We stayed in the states for most of our seasons. We've done international travel for our finales. We've gone to Singapore, and Mexico, and Italy, but [at the] top of my list, if we could snap our fingers and make it all easy, would be to go to Tokyo. It is the most explosive, extraordinary food city in the world. It's overflowing with stories and significance. There's so much good food. It's mind blowing, the quality of the food there. 

I would love to go to France, I would love to go to Spain, I would love to go to Bangkok — literally the whole world. I would love to go to South America. We've been to Mexico, but going south to places like Brazil or Argentina would be a dream of mine too.

Simmons' current favorite world cuisine

Are there any particular food cultures that you're right now resonating more with than others?

I don't want to say resonating, but I'm constantly learning about lots of great food. That's the beauty of living in New York, and doing the job I do is that last night I went out for a really great Spanish meal, which got me really excited again about Spanish food, because I hadn't had it in a while. I recently spent time with a Mexican chef who was telling me stories of where he lives in the Yucatan, and showing me dishes from there. That was really exciting, because the dishes I wasn't familiar with. It was [recently] Passover, so I spent a lot of time cooking the dishes of my mother, and my mother-in-law, and my grandmother. Even though I make those dishes every year, I love reconnecting with them.

I feel very lucky that I live at a time in a place where I don't have to just cook one thing, and I can learn from so many different cultures, and I don't claim to be an expert in many of them, but I'm like a pupil at all times, and there's so much more to learn. I love my Brooklyn neighborhood because I can eat a different culture's cuisine every night of the week.

Simmons' favorite ingredient

Right now, is there a particular ingredient that you're drawn to, or is there maybe one ingredient that you can't live without?

I always say eggs. Eggs are my favorite ingredient. They're simple. They're the simplest food in the world, but they're the most versatile perfect food. You can eat them on their own, you use them to cook with, you can eat them for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. You can cook them in 10,000 ways. They make meringue, they make curd, they make soufflés, they coat things, they bread. They are a perfect protein in every way. I can't live without eggs.

If you had to eat one particular recipe or dish for the rest of your life, have you ever thought about what that might be?

I've never thought about what that might be, and I hope that never happens because I like eating many things too much. Off the top of my head, I would say ramen, because it's perfect. It's cravable, it's piping hot and flippable, and the noodles are chewy, and the broth is flavorful and fatty, and there's veggies, and there's meat, and there's an egg. It does everything I need.

Simmons' perfect bowl of ramen

From your perspective, what makes a good bowl of ramen?

Ramen's really about the broth, the layers of fat, and flavor, and building of broth. [You also want to] make sure that the fat is emulsified in the right way, that when you dip your noodles through the broth, and then up onto your fork, or chopsticks, or spoon, and slurp them, you get that amazing flavor from a really well seasoned, well balanced broth.

Do you have a go-to ramen shop?

Not really. There's so many that I like in New York and in other places. There's a place in Portland that I became obsessed with ... that had this YUZU Ramen that I love. I love Ippudo, and I love Ivan Ramen ... There's a great little place in Brooklyn near where I live (I'm pointing because it's there), called Botan, that is really great. There's lots of good ramen.

Simmons's go-to fast food order and dream restaurant choices

Along those same lines too, when you don't have time to cook for yourself, do you ever splurge on fast food?

I don't know about fast food. It depends on the definition. I get takeout, sure, but I wouldn't say I get much fast food. Once in a while, if I'm on the West Coast, I'll get an In-N-Out burger, or what was the last time I had like fast food? Hard to remember. Very rarely do I say I go to a truly fast food shop.

But I definitely get lots of takeout.

You don't have a go-to order In-N-Out, do you?

I like their cheeseburger animal style. extra mustard and pickles, but I like single patty, not a double patty. It goes really fast, but the double patty's too much for me.

Along the same lines, do you have a bucket list chef that you want to have cook for you someday that you haven't got to experience yet?

I mean, there's lots of great chefs in the world who haven't cooked for me, that's for sure — so many restaurants that I want to go to. I had a reservation at Noma booked and confirmed for July 2020 and had to cancel that. I still need to get back there. It was hard enough to make a reservation two years ago. There's so many great chefs. Often, there's so many amazing chefs on "Top Chef” who go on to become finalists or winners. I get really excited when I finally get to go to their restaurants and eat their food the way that they intend it, because all along the season, we never really let them do that until the very end. It's always really nice to finally get to sit down with them, and have them cook under no judgments, in their comfort zone. That's always really exciting, too.

A new model for Top Chef

How do you think the show would change if you had unlimited resources and you let the chefs explore their perfect vision of whatever their dish might be — how do you think that would affect the trajectory of a regular season of the show?

We do let them do that in the finale. They cook whatever they want, and we let them bring ingredients, and we get them whatever they need. In the finale, that is exactly what they do. That's why the finales are always really special because after fighting so hard to get there, they finally can cook the food they want. I feel very strongly that we don't let them do that throughout the rest of the season or else there'd be no point to the season. 

I always tell them ... A common complaint by the chefs when they're in the season is, "You haven't seen me cook my food yet. I haven't had a chance to cook my food yet for you," and my response is always, "If I had wanted to eat your food the way that you are perfectly comfortable and used to cooking it, I would come to your restaurant." That's not the point of being on the show. The point of the show is to take you out of your comfort zone, and give you restrictions, and give you limitations and very specific challenges and parameters and see how you cook there.

The most uncomfortable aspect for Top Chef contestants

Taking you out of your comfort zone and seeing how you are when you don't have all your sous-chefs, and your kitchen that you're used to, and the stove that you've cooked on for 20 years, and all your ingredients at your disposal is when you really discover what you're made of. That's why the show is so compelling. It would be really boring if they were allowed to cook whatever they want week after week. There would be no stakes.

We touched on it a little bit, but are there any particular directions that you would want to see the show going in the future?

I don't know. We've done versions when we did "Top Chef Masters" of allowing the masters to have a sous chef with them. That's been exciting, like when they bring their own sous chef, not when we let other contestants be their sous chefs. That's interesting to see at the end in the finale. Blowing out Restaurant Wars in a bigger way has always been something we've talked about, or giving the chefs more room to play in terms of our locations is really what makes the show exciting. The more travel we can do, the more we can introduce them to new flavors, new cultures — [that's] what really forces them to cook their best.

How a new season of Top Chef gets made

We're always playing with challenges, and ways to do things differently, and ways to give them more every season. They actually do a really good job of tweaking just enough every season that it's still familiar, but that it pushes the envelope a little bit for the viewer and for the chef.

When it comes to thinking up a new season for the show, how does that normally work? Do you typically have to discuss that with Tom and Padma, and then go through a process, or is it more from the back end, and it comes to you later on? How does that work?

It's from the back end ... Tom, Padma, and I play a role, but there is so much to our production that you don't see. It's not like me, Padma, and Tom were sitting around being like, "Let's go to Philadelphia. Great." We pick up and go, and 15 chefs appear there and start cooking. If you think about what it takes to get our production, which is about 150 people at this point, traveling to a city, we build that "Top Chef" kitchen from scratch every single time in a new city around the world. Then, [there's] all of our locations, our crew, our integration into all the venues and the local chefs we use, and the casting process, which starts with thousands of applications.

The last stages of making a Top Chef season

When we get involved towards the end, when we start production, and first see the chef's resume, it's already been six months of hard work by many, many people. We definitely weigh in on the creative process, our executive producers talk us through all the challenges for the season in advance. We weigh in on local chefs, and restaurants, and historic or geographical significance of locations to make sure that we're all thinking about where we are, and how to use our location, and the local chefs and ingredients to the best of our ability. We weigh in on that process a little bit, but it's already pretty far down the line once all that stuff has been decided. It's a big production.

What's it like working with Tom and Padma? Are they pretty much like how they appear to be on television, or are they completely different off screen?

I think we're all pretty accurate at this point. It's not edited the way it used to be, where it was much stiffer in terms of [resembling] reality TV judges. They let us see ourselves because if the audience doesn't trust us, then [they aren't] going to be invested in the show, because the audience can't taste the food and rely on the three of us to be their taste buds. They have to like us, and they have to trust us. We've been working together now for 17 years. I always say that Tom and Padma are like my siblings, and we go off to food camp every year together. We're really close. We've now been through a million life moments together, death, divorce, marriage, children, pandemic, wildfires ... We've had 1,000 things happen to all of us, collectively, while being on this show.

Watching Tom Colicchio and Padma Lakshmi grow up over the years

We've aged from childhood to adulthood in many ways. They're passionate, they're serious about their jobs, they're a lot of fun. We have a lot of hangout time. We go out for dinner a lot. We explore cities, we support each other. We have a really awesome shorthand after so many years. They've both been huge mentors to me along the way as well, both as parents, as navigating our careers. I feel very grateful that I work with people who I like hanging out with so much.

Tom can be a grizzly bear, but then he is also a teddy bear, and Padma can be very discerning in particular, but she also is super smart, and takes her job seriously, and is great at it. We all have a lot of professional and personal respect for each other.

Simmons' next projects

What are your next plans?

It's not next. We go back to "Top Chef" Season 20 very soon. In the meantime, I have a whole other show that I'm on weekdays called "The Good Dish," and it's a national syndicated television show that airs every weekday. That's been a really fun project to work on, and there's new episodes airing through May every day of the week. That took up a lot of the past year of my life. I have a bunch of travel coming up that I'm really excited about, things I haven't been able to do for a few years: work, travel, events. 

I'm happy to be back out in the world again, after the last two years. I continue to sit on a bunch of boards for some charity work that I do that I'm very proud of, and work on a bunch of projects like that, especially things that affect children, hunger issues, the restaurant community across this country that's still really suffering and needs a lot of support. I continue plugging away at all the issues that surround our industry.

We've been working [and] keeping busy. I feel lucky to have a job that I love, and it's changing every day.

New episodes of "Top Chef" air Thursdays at 8:00 p.m. ET on Bravo. Check your local listings to find out how and when you can watch "The Good Dish."

This interview has been edited for clarity.