Gail Simmons Is Always Learning From Top Chef

The Top Chef judge chats about snacking on set, her go-to summer meals, and whether or not a hot dog is a sandwich.

I've recently taken to rewatching all 19 seasons of Top Chef from the beginning. What started as a walk down memory lane to appreciate the show's lasting legacy soon turned into a sort of anthropological effort, witnessing the evolution of food trends, the changing ways in which people interact with the restaurant industry, and even a shift in the way people approach being on reality TV. Along the way, it feels like I—and the broader audience—have gotten to know the show's longtime judges pretty well.

Food writer and cookbook author Gail Simmons has been there from the beginning, and the show has been deeply integrated into her personal life. Chefs cooked for her bridal and baby showers, her mother was on an episode, and her genuine friendships with the other judges are a joy to watch. It was kismet timing that Simmons, who is currently promoting her partnership with Genova Premium Tuna, was able to answer my questions about Top Chef, summer dining, and juggling dishes as a home chef.


The Takeout: What are some of the biggest evolutions you noticed of Top Chef since you first started working on it 16 years ago? 

Gail Simmons: The show has evolved enormously since we began in ways that the audience may or may not even notice. From the behind the scenes, I saw so much growth during those first few seasons while we were figuring out what was resonating with our audience. We realized that they wanted to watch chefs at the highest level, and we have continued to attract chefs at higher and higher levels over the years. Not to say that the first seasons didn't have incredible talent, they're some of the most successful, but we continue to push that bar, which has been really exciting to witness.

We've also evolved judge's tables so much. Especially in the last couple of years, when COVID became such a major factor in how we and the world around us operate, we made a point to address that conversation, and we continue to address a lot of important conversations. We don't want to work in a bubble and pretend that we don't know what's happening in the world or the industry around us. We don't want to shy away from these topics, because the food industry is a diverse space and we believe strongly that it's important to address these topics through food and our work.

I'm really thankful for our incredible crew, fellow judges, Bravo, and our team of producers, who are so open to this continued evolution. I see Top Chef as a framework—not a formula—and every year, we have the opportunity to look back on what has worked and what hasn't, and find new ways to improve.

The Takeout: How has your experience as a cooking show judge inspired how you cook at home?

GS: My experience on Top Chef has inspired so much of how I cook. The chefs who come on the show are not only professionals at the highest level, but also do an incredible job of cooking outside their comfort zone. The outcomes are always inspirational in their innovation and creativity, showing us and the audience interesting ways to put new ingredients together. I learn something new on every Top Chef episode.

The Takeout: Are there any standout dishes from the show that have provided inspiration for dishes you make at home?

GS: There are thousands of dishes on the show that have inspired me throughout the years, but it's really the confidence, techniques, and ingredients that I take home and use in my own kitchen. On a recent season, for example, we asked the chefs to cook with an indigenous dried pepper berry form Tuscon, Arizona, that I hadn't seen before either! I was so excited by the flavor that I ended up bringing a jar of it home and incorporating it into my meals.

The Takeout: What do you hope viewers learn from watching Top Chef?

GS: I hope viewers learn how to take more chances with dishes in their own kitchen or when at restaurants, order something on the menu that you've never tried before and become a more adventurous eater. Try a new recipe! Get your kids involved in the kitchen! I also hope that viewers are inspired to support the restaurant industry and young chefs in their local area.

The Takeout: How do you prepare for those hours-long judging tables? Do you have any go-to on-set snacks?

GS: I want to come to the judges table hungry, but not too hungry, because then I fill up too quickly. Learning how to become a pro-eater has become as big a part of my job as as being a judge on Top Chef. As for on-set snacks, production knows what we like and is always prepared. I love eating black licorice, chocolate-covered almonds, and things that I can quickly have a bite of because we do get hungry at Judges Table hours after we eat at the challenges, especially with the long shoot days.

The Takeout: What are your go-to summer dishes?

GS: I tend to gravitate towards a more Mediterranean style of eating in the summertime. It's such a diverse and versatile way of eating with heavy emphasis on fruits, vegetables, and seafood. Right now, my go-to summer dish is a Tuna Romesco Salad Board. Romesco is a beautiful Spanish-inspired condiment made with roasted red peppers, almonds, tomatoes, and olive oil, all thrown in a blender. With it, I grill simple seasonal veggies and take marinated artichokes, olives, good quality cheese, and tuna to create a delicious spread that the whole family can enjoy.

I love using Genova Premium Tuna to help elevate the dish and bring high-quality protein to the board. It uses whole fillets of preserved yellowfin tuna, drizzled with just the right amount of really good olive oil, which is always my preference because it adds so much great flavor with no additives or preservatives. Just tuna, premium olive oil, and sea salt. This dish is so easy to put together, especially when I'm prepping to have guests over. I don't want to be stuck in the kitchen for very long. It's a great time saver to reach for those trusted kitchen shortcuts that help me bring high-quality ingredients to the table quickly.

I'm also loving anything with fresh tomatoes, corn and peaches this summer. I put them in a salad bowl along with mint and some radishes, lemon juice, and olive oil! It's the perfect summer bite.

The Takeout: Do you have any tips for home chefs juggling multiple dishes at once?

GS: Timing is what makes a lot of people nervous in the kitchen. When cooking multiple dishes at once, it's hard to figure out which dish to start with and how long to cook each dish. It takes a lot of practice.

My advice is to make sure that when you're crafting a menu, to incorporate dishes that all have different cook times and techniques, so that when you start a dish, you can move on to another, and then easily come back to that first dish after for final touches. For example, when roasting a chicken, you can prepare the chicken and put it into the oven, then have an hour to create a nice salad or pasta without feeling rushed to get everything done at once. This also allows you to have breaks in-between dishes, so that you can really enjoy the process.

The Takeout: There's one question The Takeout likes to ask everyone when given the chance: Is a hot dog a sandwich?

GS: When it was first designed, the purpose of the sandwich was that you could hold it on-the-go, between two pieces of bread, so yes, I think that a hot dog is a sandwich!

 

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