Working Mom Gail Simmons Takes Us Behind-the-Scenes of Filming ‘Top Chef’

If you’re a food lover and a Bravo fan, you’re probably familiar with Gail Simmons. She’s a judge on the hit show Top Chef, but that’s not all. She’s a food writer, cookbook author, co-owns a production company, frequently makes television appearancesand on top of all of thatshe’s a mother of two.

Gail has been on the food scene since college and eventually took her passion professionally, leading her to be the Special Projects Director at Food & Wine magazine, which then unexpectedly brought her to her role on Top Chef. She lives in Brooklyn with her family of four and juggles a busy schedule, including balancing 14+ hour workdays with making quality time for her two little ones.

Keep reading to get a glimpse at Gail’s routine, learn some insider Top Chef info (Season 17 premieres tonight at 10pm ET/PT on Bravo!), and hear about her expert tips for getting kids involved in the kitchen.

 

What was your first job and how did you land it?

 

When I was 17, I was a counselor on the canoeing staff at the summer camp I went to as a camper.

After that though, my first real job was in college when I started writing restaurant reviews for the student paper. I didn’t realize it would become a stepping stone in my career. No one else was doing it, and I thought it would be fun to go out to restaurants and write about them. I went to college at McGill University in Montreal, which was an incredible city with amazing food options. I got to seek out student-friendly restaurants and also learn about the school paper.

 

When did you first become passionate about food?

 

It was actually from my mother. When I was growing up, she ran a cooking school out of our home for the moms and dads in the neighborhood. She was an amazing cook and was cooking from scratch, really simply and seasonally. Food was very much a central focus of my family and the way we traveled and the way we gathered.

In my last year of college, I started cooking more for myself and for my roommates. But I also loved to write. And that’s when I started thinking about how I could put these two things together. I thought I wouldn’t be taken seriously by my friends and family for wanting to go into the food industry. It was before the age of bloggers and influencers, and people thought it was sort of cute and fun. I realized that I loved writing, cooking, eating, and traveling, and those were the things that I wanted to try as a job.

 

 

You’ve been on ‘Top Chef’ since the beginning. How did you initially get involved?

 

After college, I wanted to be a food writer, but I didn’t know anything about food. I quit my job and moved to New York to go to culinary school with the purpose of ultimately writing about food. After culinary school, I worked in kitchens and eventually I worked for Chef Daniel Boulud for many years, doing different things in every aspect of the food industrywriting, marketing, PR.

In 2004, I landed my dream job at Food & Wine magazine. I became the Special Projects Director and started doing TV segments on behalf of the magazine. Out of the blue, the publisher of the magazine called me into her office and said Bravo had an idea for a food competition show. This was 2005 and the very early years of reality TV. They asked me to go to 30 Rock for a screen test. I didn’t really want to be on reality TV, and I didn’t know what I was getting into. A month later, they called to tell me that they were shooting in San Francisco in a couple of weeks and they wanted me to be on the show. I literally packed my bags and moved to San Francisco for a month.

We thought that this would be a silly little thing we did and we’d all go back to our lives, just hoping that we didn’t embarrass ourselves. And that was 15 years and 18 seasons ago!

 

Walk us through a typical workday when you’re filming ‘Top Chef.’

 

With my role on the show, I’m usually on set every other day. The workdays are about 14 hours and start at 7am with hair, makeup, and wardrobe. During those two hours, I’m usually trying to keep my kids occupied as I prepare. We then do a debrief with the producers and get an update on major storylines. Then, we start the elimination challenge which is usually three or four hours, we taste through all the dishes with our guests, then we shoot a set up for the elimination and decide who is going to the Judges Table.

Next, we have to travel the entire crew back to the studio for Judges Table. We go back into wardrobe and have another debrief with our producers. And then, we start Judges Table. Over the years, we’ve tightened this up. In the early days, a Judges Table could take 7-9 hours, but these days it’s more like four. We aim to be done around 10 or 11pm. And since we haven’t eaten since noon, 11pm is when we want to go out for dinner. It’s a long day, but it does have lots of breaks. It’s intense; a whole season is shot in about six weeks.

 

 

What is your favorite part of your role on ‘Top Chef’?

 

I love the travel. We have spent every season of Top Chef in different cities around the country. And because my schedule is one day on, one day off, I really have time to explore and get to know the city. I also love the people that I work withthe contestants, our incredible guest judges, and our crew.

 

What other projects are you working on?

 

I have a lot of other projects that I’m working on! Up until last year, I was still working with Food & Wine magazine. I’ve also shot several other TV shows and make regular appearances on shows. I do a lot of philanthropic work, do work for food festivals, and have speaking appearances around the country.

And about four years ago, a business partner and I founded a production company. We have a few shows in development that will promote and encourage other women in the food industry to be in front of the camera, telling their stories.

 

 

Tell us a bit about your family! How has motherhood impacted you both personally and professionally?

 

I’ve been with my husband for nearly 20 years, and we’ve been married for 12. We met in New York, but we’re both Canadian. We have two delicious little humans, Dahlia who is 6 years old and Kole who is almost 22 months.

Your whole life is thrown a curveball when you have a child. I worked really hard to get to where I was in my career, and I felt like I had just found my rhythm. It was overwhelming trying to juggle my personal life and my career. I didn’t know how I would find a sense of self and still feel like I had my own identity when being a mom was so all-consuming.

In so many ways though, I think motherhood has made me better in all aspects. It has helped me focus and prioritize my life and has made me really look at every opportunity. It’s made me give myself more value. I think some people feel like they are less valuable when they become a mom. That’s upsetting and not true. I’ve realized that I am more valuable both at home and out in the world because I am a mother. If I am going to do something, I do it at 100 percent. I’ve learned to set boundaries and to say no if things are of not of value to me, because I would rather stay home with my family.

In the end, it is not about the work, it’s about the things that work allows you to do. And having my family is certainly one of those things.

 

What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced with balancing home-life and work-life since having kids?

 

It’s funny because I said that my favorite thing about being on Top Chef is the travel, and I love to travel and see so much of the world through my job. But at the same time, it is the most challenging piece of my job as a mother because it means time away. It’s hard when your kids are small, and I don’t think it gets any easier as they age and their needs change. You want to be there and you don’t want to miss moments. You realize it disrupts their routine and your family’s rhythm. There is guilt associated with it. I’ve worked hard to figure out how we can function and how we can make the most of it.

I often bring my children with me for extended periods of time. And we always make sure that everyone is cared for and feels loved, whether it’s with me or the many people in our lives. I’m lucky that my husband is 100 percent my partner, and he carries the load just as much as I do. We also have an incredible caregiver who’s been with us since my daughter was 3 months old. She is so devoted to our children, and I trust her implicitly with them. And then grandparents, uncles, aunts, and our community who are like family would do anything for my kids.

 

 

As a working mom, what did your maternity leave look like?

 

A little unexpectedly, I went back to work after 11 weeks. I planned to have a solid 14 weeks after my first child was born, but a TV show that I had pitched came to fruition with a very tight deadline.  In retrospect, I see that it was one of the most productive years of my life. I shot three TV shows back-to-back starting three months after my child was born. She was so small, and it was easy to just throw her on my back; she came along for the whole thing, as did our caregiver.

It was an amazing adventure, but in the early weeks, I was so nervous and scared. I remember coming home from that first day of working on set and crying for two hours to my husband. I called my producer saying I can’t do it, I don’t have it in me. I can’t work 14 hours and be pumping on set in the bathroom while on location.

I hated being away from her and feeling like I was failing her, like I was putting her at risk. But now I see, when you come out of the darkness, it was amazing for both of us. It taught me that I could do it and that she would also be better for it too. She has an understanding of the bigger world out there and has been having these experiences with me since the very beginning.

 

Are your kids adventurous eaters and do you have any tips to get young ones interested in different cuisines?

 

My kids are great eaters, but I don’t want anyone to think that they’re downing anchovies and caviar. They have been great eaters since the beginning, but their needs and demands change daily because they are kids and that’s what they do to assert their independence. My kids love pizza, pasta, and candy as much as any normal kid their age. But they also love fruit and vegetables and aren’t afraid of trying new things, even if they decide they don’t like them.

My tips for raising good eaters:

1. Set a good example. Kids do what they see, not necessarily what they are told. If they see you eating a variety of foods and lots of fruits and vegetables, whether they try it the first time or eighth time, it will become commonplace.

2. Get your kids involved in the cooking process. You don’t have to be a huge cook for them to help with stirring the pasta, cracking an egg, or measuring flour. This teaches kids to be proud of and play a role in getting food on the table. I think they are more open to trying things when they make it themselves.

3. Make shopping trips fun.  We give my daughter a task at the supermarket and give our kids ownership. All those little actions really makes them feel like a part of it and this makes them better eaters all around.

 

Can you walk us through your daily routine?

 

 

When it comes to being a mom, what are you most insecure about? What are you most confident about?

 

As my daughter grows, the challenges of being a mom to a young girl become scarier and more complicated with things like social media, bullying, relationships, and friends. Navigating that as it’s changing so much is my insecurity. I think about how to do the right thing for her. I always want to make sure that I’m talking to her about these things in an open and honest way that doesn’t stress her out.

I’m most confident about showing my kids how much I love them. Also making sure that they know and value the important relationships in our lives.

 

 

Gail Simmons is The Everymom…

Coffee or Tea? Coffee

What is the best thing you’ve ever eaten on Top Chef? I eat hundreds of thousands of dishes so it’s impossible to say, but I can assure you that on every season, there are several dishes that blow my mind.

Have you ever been starstruck by a guest a Top Chef? Oh yes, everyone from Dave Grohl to Joel Robuchon to Jamie Oliver and more.

What is your favorite meal to make for your family? It depends on the time of year, but coming out of this winter, we’re big soup fans. My kids love soups and stews, and we like that they are packed with lots of vegetables, lentils, and beans.

What is your ideal way to spend a Sunday? A leisurely breakfast with friends and being in our pajamas and lounging around together.

Most embarrassing mom moment? We were in Charleston shooting Top Chef and my daughter was 2.5. It was my day off, and we got on a monorail through the swamps and didn’t realize it was an hour long. There was no getting off it, and she got antsy; it was just too long and she was hungry, and we thought it would be shorter. She broke down on this train ride and screamed and cried on the floor for half an hour, and there was nothing we could do. We tried everything. It was pretty awful.

Best mom advice you’ve ever been given? It’s hard to remember when you are in it, but everything is a phase. And know that you’re not in it alone. There are so many resources, more than ever now, to help.

What is your guilty pleasure? I call it an indulgence, not a guilty pleasure, but I really enjoy staying in my pajamas as long as I can in the morning. The older I get, the more I just want to linger and not get up and rush out of the house.

If you could have lunch with any woman who would it be with and why? I would love to have lunch with Oprah for her sanity and calming nature right now. I’d also love to sit down with Elizabeth Warren to gain the insights that she learned along the campaign trail. Regardless of political views and that she’s no longer running, there are lessons from the experience. And every time a female candidate runs for office, we get closer and closer.

Any insider info you can give us about the upcoming season of Top Chef? This is a unique season because it’s All-Stars, and all of the chefs have a significant businesses of their own.  They all left behind successful kitchens to come and compete. The stakes are different, and their drive is greater because they have more to lose. It makes for some enthralling cooking.

 

Be sure to tune into the premiere of Top Chef Season 17 on Thursday, March 19 (tonight!) at 10pm ET/PT on Bravo! 

 

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