Earlier this month, we had the honor of sitting down with one of our culinary faves at NYC's The Kitchen Table in NoLita with Gail Simmons. In addition to her role at Food & Wine Magazine, she is also known as a judge on BRAVO's Top Chef. We talked with Gail about her journey in food journalism, the importance of working throughout the food industry to gain invaluable knowledge of professional kitchens, Top Chef history, food diversity, how she maintains calm when planning for guest arrivals for food celebrations, key ingredients in her kitchen this Spring, where we can find her shopping in Brooklyn and more!
ATHLEISURE MAG: So tell us about your background and how you came to work in food journalism?
GAIL SIMMONS: It’s sort of a long story and I have always started with a love for food. I graduated from college and didn’t know what I wanted to do with my career and everyone else seemed to know what they wanted to do with their degree out of college. All I knew was that I loved to cook and I loved to write. But back then, that wasn’t necessarily a one plus one equals two situation. People were just starting to cover the food world. The term food media back then just meant writing for a handful of magazines or a couple pages of newspapers and there wasn’t the kinds of opportunities that they are now. But I knew that cooking was my passion and so I got a job first as an intern in a magazine and as an Editorial Assistant in a newspaper as sort of a lifestyle food and travel section. I realized that in working everyday around all of these different subjects that food is really what I am more interested in. Then I was given this really great piece of advice that anyone can write as you can practice on your own and that’s what you have editors for, but if you want to differentiate yourself and really make a mark in the food world then you really need to understand the professional kitchen and learn to cook.
So I picked up, packed up and moved to NYC and went to culinary school and from there I worked in a few really tough, but incredible professional kitchens as a line cook and always with an agenda that I wanted to write about it and knowing that I never wanted to be a chef in a kitchen full time. When the time was right and I had a lot of experience and felt that I really understood how to cook well properly with a good foundation, I moved back into writing first with Vogue Magazine as an Assistant to the Food Writer and then for a chef doing events, marketing and PR all sort of learning around the events of the restaurant industry in every different aspect of what it takes to work in the food industry. About 15 years ago, I landed at Food and Wine Magazine and I’ve sort of been there ever since.
AM: That is a journey and what was the moment while you were on this food journalism track that you realized that you wanted to enhance your brand and make that jump into TV as well?
GS: I didn’t actually. I never ever consciously thought, I want to enhance my brand as a personality – the word brand, was never in my language or in my purview. I never thought about going on to television it was always about writing and publishing for me back then – 14 years ago. I did a little bit of food television in my early days on behalf of Food & Wine because often morning shows would need someone to talk about recipes, wine trends from the magazine or what we were doing for our spring issue ,so I was the one that would often go on because I had the cooking and marketing background to go on and be able to do cooking demos and to talk with the anchors and the hosts. So that sort of became what I did for the magazine and about a year into my job at Food & Wine, BRAVO came to Food & Wine with this idea of a reality show about the lives of professional chefs and they wanted to call it Top Chef and they wanted to partner with Food & Wine to teach them about the world of food and cooking and in exchange, they would put one of their editors on the judges panel and so they screen tested me and asked me to do it and I have been doing it ever since. I never meant to do it, I never sought it out, but we also certainly never knew that it was going to be a hit show and that it would last this long. We’re going into our 17th season and it doesn’t seem like it is going to be slowing down.
AM: We love your authenticity and in doing the research to chat with you, it was amazing to see how many areas of this industry that you have touched to immerse yourself in this space. Clearly this is why you can speak about so many aspects of it due to your knowledge.
GS: For me, everything I did up until now, and what I continue to do, feeds into my experience and my knowledge. I don’t think that I could have ever gotten the job on television had I not done all of those things. I think that being able to speak to the real life of professional kitchens, which is what our show is about – we want to speak fairly and honestly in a constructive way and understand the work that chefs do. I think that you need to have a working knowledge of that to come across to your audience not only as authentic, but in a way that the audience of a show can identify with you because the audience can’t taste the food. You really become the taste buds for your viewers and I think that all of the work that I have done and before leading up to Top Chef helped prepare me.
AM: What led to you creating cookbooks and what is that process like for you when you’re making them?
GS: I think that these days, cookbooks for me was a very natural offshoot for everything that I do and finding a place where all of my favorite recipes could live that shaped me and make me who I am and recipes that I have learned and brought home from my travels that have become staples in my household and I wanted to just share those with everybody because I am asked for them so often. It was a great opportunity to put them in one place.
The process was rigorous. It took me 2 years to write my most recent book. 2 years is sort of par for the course and sometimes it can take many, many more. From conception to publication, so it was an all encompassing process. It was so much work in every aspect – testing, developing, testing, rewriting the recipes, editing etc. Writing all the head notes, the introduction, making sure that they are accurate having someone else retest for that accuracy. I really wanted to make sure that every recipe in the book not only sounded delicious, but was absolutely attainable for everyone to make at home.
AM: That’s intense. Going back to Top Chef, we have had the pleasure of interviewing Chef Brooke Williamson and Chef Richard Blais previously in Athleisure Mag as well as on Athleisure Studio’s podcast network show – Athleisure Kitchen. What is it like for you as a judge to be on Top Chef? What is the process like for you and how do you get yourself prepared for those moments that are taking place?
GS: I mean we have been making this show for so long that we have gotten it down to a science. It’s a great process though as we have a great crew that has worked with us for so many years and everyone really understands what every episode takes. So we’re a pretty fine tuned machine. I would say that the most important part of what I do is balancing - being constructive and fair with the challenge that is being presented every episode and making sure that I am speaking to that challenge and what all the different chefs that are doing. The great thing about the show is that we travel to a different city every single season so I always do a little research about the place because the location is going to inform so much about the cooking, the ingredients and the history. You know, the history of Charleston is going to be different then the history of Boston which is going to be very different than the history of Kentucky or California. I think it really plays a role and is what differentiates our show from all others.
AM: It’s also so inclusive to food diversity from a geographical standpoint. This season’s Top Chef was in Kentucky and one of our Co-Founders is from Indiana and many of the recipes that were made this season were also indicative of areas she grew up in and which allows audiences to connect from that standpoint as well.
GS: Exactly there is a lot of food overlap and that is what makes our show so fun. You don’t have to be a great cook to identify with loving food or understanding the history of this country. Food plays such a great role in that and in our families in the way that we eat, the way that we go out, the way that we celebrate and we try to stay true to the locations that we go to.
AM: How would you define, your style of cooking?
GS: I think my cooking is spontaneous and changes with a season. I’m a mom and I think my food has changed a lot since I became a mother. I want flavor and I want it to be healthy and easy to make because I don’t want to give people recipes that will take them 3 days in the kitchen and I certainly don’t have time to dedicate that. So my style really calls from all of my travel experience and my childhood which has a lot of influences. People always ask me, “what’s your favorite thing to cook?” I never have one favorite thing, it always depends on the time of year, where I traveled to last, the ingredients that I am most excited about and then ways that I go about organizing them and being the most efficient in the kitchen to get the most flavor by doing the least to the great quality of food that I have.
AM: Because you have done so much in the food industry, are there other projects that you would love to be a part of that you have yet to tackle – but would want to?
GS: I think there are so many things. There is so much travel that I want to do and I think that giving back to the community that helped me for so long is really important to me and there are so many ways to do that right now. Cooking is such a life skill, so not only does it nourish people, but it teaches people to translate that skill into a job anywhere where they are. Certainly, there are so many things where food applies to our lives, whether it’s politics or math and science. Teaching my child to cook, you become some conscious of that and so just teaching is always in the background for me, whether it’s through books or in television championing my industry, and giving back to my community through all of these different channels is always top of mind and there are always more things to be done.
AM: With Spring being here finally as we see the leaves on the trees – there are so many Spring holidays coming up and reasons to just come together just because. What are some trends taking place in the kitchen that we can incorporate right now into our dishes just to change things up?
GS: I think that Spring is just the most exciting moment in the year because we have all just been in hibernation for so long and I got real cozy with lots of soups and stews over the winter but I am ready for bright new ingredients. I am really excited about bringing all of those fresh herbs, fresh flavors, different fruits and vegetables into my diet that I haven’t been able to get all winter long. But I also want to be efficient with what I am cooking and because there are holidays in the Spring where you are cooking for a crowd often of all ages with family and friends with Easter and Passover – you really want to optimize your time in the kitchen. My entertaining strategies are always about finding recipes that you can be organized with and prepare as much as possible with in advance, so that when guests do arrive you’re just doing the minimal to get food on the table so that you can spend time with them.
AM: People come by unexpectedly sometimes. What do you suggest that we should always have in our fridges so that we can ensure that we are always ready as sometimes you never know when Auntie May comes by!
GS: Yes and there’s nothing to eat – it’s true! I mean I think with a few simple ingredients, whether it’s breakfast, lunch or dinner, there are ways to use them so that you’re picking ingredients that are versatile. A few products that I love are having lots of fresh herbs in my fridge and lots of citrus as they can be added to lots of things from pasta to cottage cheese. They can be turned into so many things in so many different ways. Or even eggs that they can go on top of. I love keeping good quality dairy products as they are always in my fridge. As I said, herbs and citrus, cheese, eggs, and then as much fresh ingredients as possible. So if you have salad greens or you have a few key bowls of berries, you can make 100 different things. Breakfast for example, is a time where I feel that people run out of ideas. There are a ton of things going on in the morning or if you’re entertaining in the morning there is a lot you have to do so quickly. If you have people over for brunch for Easter for example, if you can think a little ahead of time – you can make a really beautiful statement with minimal work. One thing that I always advocate is big batch cooking. I love making granola for example and I make it a week in advance in a big batch that I can eat throughout the week and I can have it as my go-to to put on top of things in the morning. Or just eat it as a handful to grab and go as a snack. When you have granola and some fresh berries, granola in the fridge and cottage cheese, then there you have the perfect protein packed, versatile and easy breakfast parfait that looks great and beautiful for everyone.
AM: When you are planning for 8-10 people that you know are coming for a dinner party, people get overwhelmed with the idea of tackling this – what do you do?
GS: I always make sure that I make my list and be organized. I can never underestimate how important that, is especially when you have guests arriving. Try not to do too many things and remember that you can ask for help. I think that people forget to do that. If I’m having people over, I want to think 2 days out about what I can do and then 1 day out, what I can do. Sometimes that feels daunting – no one has 3 days to make a meal, but I’m not talking about major cooking. Just marinating your meat in the morning so that 8 hours later when you cook it, it has all that flavor that is already done. That’s just 20 minutes in the morning and then you’re ready to cook as soon as guests arrive and it’s the same when you’re making your dressings in advance if you’re making a salad. I love making bowls – grain bowls for example, so doing things like making the dressing in advance, washing the lettuce, if I’m using quinoa or another grain like that – cooking it in advance really takes 15 minutes and then it’s cooled and ready to go and it’s in your fridge and all you’re doing is really assembly.
AM: What are 3 ingredients that you always have in your kitchen that are really good for versatile dishes?
GS: I would say that right now it’s fresh herbs, lemons because I use every part of the lemon from the juice to the zest and Hood Cottage Cheese because I feel it is the most versatile dairy product that I have that everyone loves and you can do so many things with it.
AM: Do you have some recipes for those of us that are busy and running around that are easy to satisfy and easy to make as well?
GS: One recipe that is my go to because it’s great for lunch, it’s great for a snack and it can feed a crowd and it’s easy to batch it up for 10 people or to just have a personal bowl of when I need something that is healthy and really satisfying – I make a really delicious Mango Avocado Salsa. Lots of lemons, lots of lime juice and lime zest and fresh cilantro tossed with fresh mango and avocado and I put it on a base of Hood Cottage Cheese with Black Pepper in a bowl. My little trick is I always make a little well in the center of the cottage cheese using the back of my spoon and I pile all the salsa right in the middle so that when you’re dipping you’re getting a little of both and you’re not searching for one ingredient or the other. I find that it’s a great after school snack for my kids, it’s a great appetizer for a dinner party or the perfect quick lunch for me on the go and it really doesn’t require many ingredients.
I talked with you about the grain bowl which is another one to make in advance and then the granola that I make all the time for breakfast for parfaits. Because if you have some fresh wash berries in the fridge, you can have your granola that you made before and all you have to do is layer it on together.
AM: Are there other ways that cottage cheese can be used beyond what someone would think is their “traditional” use?
GS: I think that cottage cheese is having this renaissance moment because people are rediscovering it from their childhood. First of all, it’s packed with protein which is a bonus, it can be used the same way that you use other dairy products. I love it in smoothies, I can use it in place of ricotta for pasta and lasagna. My kids love it and my little baby loves it for breakfast in the morning. It has texture and a rich creaminess and it's a great item to have around.
AM: You’re based here in NYC, where can we find you working out, grabbing a meal/cocktail and shopping?
GS: In NY the options are endless and I live in Brooklyn – I love my neighborhood. It’s a quiet treelined neighborhood in Brooklyn. There’s a lot of great places to eat nowadays. I’m really obsessed with eating at a lot of places with fresh little small plates and a glass of wine so there’s a great wine bar close to me called June that I love and another wine bar with great food called Frank’s Wine Bar. When I’m in downtown NY, where we are today in NoLita – I love eating at a little Middle Eastern spot that has really fresh fast casual food called In the Dez, it’s delicious and right up the street. That’s where you can see me grabbing food.
Working out - now that the nice weather is out, I can pick up running again. I love running, but I don’t like running indoors so winter is kind of out for me and I take a break from running. But I live near the Brooklyn Promenade so running from my house to the Brooklyn Bridge is sort of my go to run when the weather is nice. If not, then I’m a spinner so you can catch me at SoulCycle.
And shopping – what kind of shopping?
AM: Well whatever, whether it’s for clothes or food – it’s so open!
GS: I mean, that’s a tough one! Shopping – I’m shopping for lots of things all the time! Let’s see, I love Veronica Beard for clothes, she’s a great designer that I wear a lot from these days. For food, what I love about my Brooklyn neighborhood is that it’s so old school in that instead of going to big huge grocery stores, there are small shops so I have my local butcher that I love, there is an amazing Middle Eastern store that I get all of my spices and things like pita and fresh bread and things like that. I’m at the regular grocery store buying all of my pantry items too.
AM: Your makeup is always great and you have great skin. As someone who travels a lot, what are 3 skincare products that you use?
GS: I have really dry skin so traveling definitely takes a toll. But I am also someone that doesn’t use 50 products a day because I’m someone that has to get up and go and I am always in a rush. So 3 products that I love my under eye I believe in helping as much as possible because tired is real. I’m a big fan of Drunk Elephant Vitamin C under eye cream that I use all of the time. There is a really beautiful store here in NYC and there is another in Boston and in a few other locations possible in DC, and It’s called Follain that has the most non toxic products from body to face to make up and hair products that are not only good for the planet, but with ingredients that are pure and all natural – so I use a lot of their products. I love Naturopathica skin care. I use a bunch of their products – I love their Daily Moisturizer and there’s this Body Balm that I absolutely love OSEA. They carry it at Follain so I get it there, but I initially got it as a gift and I’m obsessed with it. I love the smell, it’s rich and luxurious and really a great natural and beautiful skincare product for your whole body.
AM: You’re very busy. How do you take time for yourself to just recharge and disconnect?
GS: It’s a hard thing to do and it requires actual carve out time on the calendar for sure. Working out and clearing my brain is really important. I have to force myself to do it, but for me, it’s not about losing weight as obviously staying healthy is important. It’s about clearing my head and destressing because I know I will feel better at the end of the day if I can. I love that I live in NYC and I don’t have a car and that I can walk everywhere as I find that therapeutic. Cooking is also something that lets me relax at the end of the day. There is nothing that I like more than anything at the end of the day, relaxing with friends where I can sit around the table and I can cook for them and destress and really connect with the people that I love the most and that to me is taking a great time for myself. Once or twice a year, I like a really good massage and date night with my husband is also nice every once in awhile! We forget to do it, but when we do it’s always important.
You can hear this interview with Gail Simmons May 3rd on our show, Athleisure Kitchen, which is a part of Athleisure Studio, our multi-media podcast network! You can hear it on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts and wherever you enjoy listening to your favorite podcast shows.