Top Chef’s Gail Simmons Talks Obnoxious Food Trends And Nit-Picky Judging

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One thing you should know about Top Chef co-host Gail Simmons: she’s a delight. I know, I hope I don’t get thrown out of journalism saying so, but it’s true. I spoke to her over the phone from Sundance, where the 10 degree weather and crushing hangover made me want nothing more than to make a couch fort and not talk to anyone ever. But I had an interview scheduled, dammit, so I steeled myself and dialed the number, in that laborious manner hungover people have when attempting anything. She picked up, bright and chipper (and two hours ahead), and the sound of her voice instantly made me less cranky and nauseous. I don’t quite know how to explain it, I think Gail Simmons is like auditory comfort food.

She was charming, articulate, spunky — exuding all the qualities that made her my favorite Top Chef judge. Where other judges are offering Gruden-esque platitudes like “this dish really punches you in the mouth!” Gail’s critiques are generally concrete — Top Chef harsh as much as anyone else, sure, but also specific, with an air of welcoming Canadianness.

Of course, there’s a lot more to Simmons than just “nice.” Special projects director at Food & Wine Magazine, permanent Top Chef judge since episode one, and author of a 2012 memoir, Talking With My Mouth Full, Simmons has more than her share of bona fides. Born into Jewish family in Toronto (where she once wrote about the food scene for Uproxx), with a South African father, her mother ran a cooking school out of Simmons’ childhood home.

“She built our kitchen in our home to be a teaching kitchen so that she could stand at the counter, with an open living room, family room, and dining room, and people could sit around and watch her cook,” Gail says.

The elder Simmons even had her own food column in Canada’s biggest newspaper. Of course, just because Gail was Canadian food royalty (along with Dave Poutine and Maple Mel, the Syrup magnate) didn’t mean a career in food was a foregone conclusion.

“All my girlfriends at the time were going back to school to become doctors and lawyers and art historians,” Simmons say. “Again this is 20 years ago, no one thought that aspiring to be a food writer was, like, a real thing. Even my mom wanted me to be a lawyer.”

Luckily, she didn’t take the advice. Or get discouraged by the fact that there were “maybe five people in Canada who were full time food writers” at the time. Which meant she had to more or less create her own profession. Which she didn’t accomplish just by writing and cooking and eating and writing humorous recaps of cooking shows (uh, not that there’s anything wrong with that…). Unique among food writers, Simmons actually left her early newspaper job to attend culinary school. After she graduated from the Institute of Culinary Education (called Peter Kump’s New York Cooking School until 2001), she worked as a line cook for a few years before eventually joining Food & Wine magazine in 2004. Top Chef brought her on as a judge when it debuted in 2006.