Top Chef judge Gail Simmons never thought she’d have a career in food. Sure, her mom ran a cooking school in their home growing up. Yes, she worked in the kitchen on a kibbutz in Israel. And it’s true, she wrote restaurant reviews for her college paper. But was food really what she wanted to do? It turns out: yes. Once Gail snagged a job on that as-yet-unknown reality TV cooking competition, she never looked back. Now, ahead of the Top Chef season 20 finale, Gail talks with Dan about how she’s become a better judge on the show while letting go of judgment in other parts of her life.
The Sporkful production team includes Dan Pashman, Emma Morgenstern, Andres O'Hara, Jared O'Connell, and Nora Ritchie, with production on this episode by Abigail Keel.
Interstitial music in this episode by Black Label Music:
- "Can You Dig It?" by Cullen Fitzpatrick
- "Trippin" by Erick Anderson
- "Hot Night Instrumental" by Calvin Dashielle
- "Sweet Summer Love" by Stephen Sullivan
- "Pong" by Kenneth J. Brahmstedt
- "Summer Of Our Lives" by Stephen Clinton Sullivan
Photo courtesy of Shana Trajanoska.
Dan Pashman: Heads up, this episode contains one bit of profanity a few minutes in.
CLIP (TOM COLICCHIO): It’s like British halloween here.
CLIP (GAIL SIMMONS): Mm-hmm. Aero — peppermint.
CLIP (TOM COLICCHIO): I’m not a fan of the peppermint and chocolate ...
Dan Pashman: I watched the video of you and Tom Colicchio sampling a range [Gail Simmons: Yes!] of chocolate bars while you were there filming together for Top Chef in London.
Gail Simmons: Yup.
Dan Pashman: And you did something, Gail, that really — that caught my eye. It went by in a second. Most people probably noticed that you were eating a candy bar called a Wispa …
CLIP (TOM COLICCHIO): It's a Wispa.
CLIP (GAIL SIMMONS): It's just a Wispa.
Dan Pashman: Which is a chocolate with a big caramel ribbon in the middle. And you broke it in half and you pulled the two halves apart which created a long, stretchy caramel thread
Gail Simmons: [LAUGHS] Yes.
Dan Pashman: And you did this very deft maneuver where you just twisted your wrist a few times quickly to wrap the thread of caramel around the outside of the candy bar. It was almost like the candy equivalent of twirling spaghetti in a fork.
Gail Simmons: Yes.
Dan Pashman: And you did it so effortlessly that I thought, this is not the first time Gail has has done this move.
Gail Simmons: No. Let me tell you something, Dan ...
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS]
Gail Simmons: I am a professional, number one.
Dan Pashman: Yeah! [LAUGHS][
Gail Simmons: It's not my first rodeo, and I'm not going to waste good caramel.
Dan Pashman: This is The Sporkful, it's not for foodies it's for eaters, I'm Dan Pashman. Each week on our show we obsess about food to learn more about people.This week, as Bravo airs the season 20 finale of the cooking competition show Top Chef, I’m sitting down with Gail Simmons, who’s been a judge on the show since its inception.
Dan Pashman: And that role has made Gail one of the most “widely-eaten” people in America. Yes, I made that term up, it’s like being widely read, but much more delicious. As a judge on Top Chef she’s eaten thousands of dishes made by some of the best chefs in the country. And Top Chef films in a different city each season, so that means when Gail has days off she’s eating her way through cities like Portland, Honolulu, Paris, Macau, and Mexico City. And when she’s judging on the show, she’s taking all those past experiences, all of her knowledge of food and cooking, and training her critical palate on the dish in front of her.
[CLIP SEASON 20 EPISODE 3]
CLIP (GAIL SIMMONS): I will admit that when the plates came to the table, I did not think you had really understood "bangers and mash". And I discovered, though it took me a minute, that every flavor was replicated, especially when you drizzled that gravy on top.
Dan Pashman: Gail is so widely eaten, she told me people expect her to have intimidatingly high standards.
Gail Simmons: People always ask me, all the time Like when you go out to eat with your friends, are you a pain in the butt and you know, you can't just like go out to eat and not judge your food like an asshole? Am I allowed to say that word?
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS] Yeah, sure.
Gail Simmons: And it's ... I am not. Food is joy for me. It is pleasurable and it is also not always the purpose of a gathering. Not that it's not always important as a part of it, but I am fully capable of going out and eating sometimes mediocre food and not caring and just enjoying the place, the people, etc. Also, when I have a great meal and I'm like off duty, I just love having a great meal because that's how I got into it in the first place.
Dan Pashman: Right.
Gail Simmons: So I really don't think I am jaded. I still get excited to go to a new restaurant or to go back to a restaurant that I love or to try a new thing.
Dan Pashman: Gail has actually been eating widely since she was a kid. She grew up in Toronto, but it was important to both her parents to expose Gail and her brothers to other places. Gail especially loved going to South Africa, where her father is from.
Dan Pashman: I gather you're a big fan of biltong.
Gail Simmons: Huge.
Dan Pashman: Which is like kind of like beef jerky? Is that right? I haven't had it.
Gail Simmons: Kind of, but far superior.
Dan Pashman: Okay. Okay.
Gail Simmons: I would say.
Dan Pashman: Yeah.
Gail Simmons: But I'm not judgmental at all.
Dan Pashman: Right. [LAUGHING]
Gail Simmons: Yes. Biltong is sort of like the national snack food of South Africa. It is, you know, traditionally dried beef, but then also comes in many, many forms of many different proteins that is salted and air dried to preserve it. And it's delicious. The difference between it and jerky, I would say, is that there's no sugar at all.
Dan Pashman: Gail and her family loved biltong so much, they’d smuggle it back to Canada.
Gail Simmons: The place we would get it in Cape Town, would vacuum seal it for us and wrap it, and then we would wrap it in our clothes and check it through. And we would arrive at JFK and there were all these dogs at JFK sniffing for, you know, bombs and drugs and meat. And so we were always petrified that the dogs at JFK were going to take it from us. But we would buy it in tenderloins, you know, a full piece about one or two feet long.
Dan Pashman: Wow.
Gail Simmons: So we would keep it in the freezer and just slice off a piece or two at a time and chew on it.
Dan Pashman: Now that’s not the only indication of how into food the Simmons family was. Gail’s mom, Renee, wrote a food column for the Globe & Mail, Canada’s largest newspaper. And she ran a small cooking school out of their home starting in the late ‘70s.
Gail Simmons: I have so many memories of sort of sneaking into the kitchen while she was holding these classes. And all my friend's parents were there. She once did a a dad's — a men's cooking class. And that was sort of a big deal, right, because men did not cook. It was sort of trailblazing.
Dan Pashman: And was her food column like more restaurant reviews or it was more like recipes? What was she writing about?
Gail Simmons: It was recipes and it was topics about food ingredients. You know, I remember her writing an article about comparing the Montreal and the Toronto Bagel, which is a hot topic to this day. I remember her writing a column about ingredients like chad or Swiss chard or, you know, ingredients that were just sort of coming into vogue that people were cooking with.
Dan Pashman: But for Gail, there were downsides to Renee’s job …
Gail Simmons: It made everyone in the neighborhood, all my friends parents think that we were really fancy. So when all my friends got to have like, mac and cheese and hot dogs and all those things, their parents assumed that I would never want to eat that because I grew up in this house that only cooked fancy food.
Dan Pashman: Right. Gail needs Swiss chard.
Gail Simmons: That's right. So I was never invited anywhere for lunch to my friends’ houses for lunch or dinner. And that made me upset because that's what I — that's all I wanted to eat.
Dan Pashman: In fact when it came to Gail’s mom’s work in food …
Gail Simmons: Oh, I was resentful in some ways.
Dan Pashman: Still, after high school when Gail spent a summer working on a kibbutz, like a communal farm in Israel, she ended up with the job of cooking breakfast for the hundreds of people working there. In college, she decided she wanted to write for the campus newspaper. Her pitch to them? She’d review local restaurants. Despite all these clues, Gail says it never occurred to her that she was following in her mother’s footsteps.
Gail Simmons: When I was thinking about the fact that maybe I wanted to work in the food industry, I believe that I came to this realization all on my own. And when I would tell people that and talk about it with my parents' friends, of course they all reacted in the same way and they all said, "Oh my God, you're just like your mother." And I was incredibly annoyed by that response because no 21-year-old in their right mind wants to be told they're just like their mother.
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS]
Gail Simmons: And my mother's reaction, amazingly, wasn't to say, I'm so proud. You know, I've molded her in my image. Her reaction was, "I think she should be a lawyer." And actually, to this day, her reaction is still sort of, you know, if this whole food thing doesn't work out, you can go to law school.
Dan Pashman: Sorry, Renee. The food thing seems to be working out.
Dan Pashman: Gail graduated and got some work writing about food. But an editor told her if she was going to go further in food writing, she needed more knowledge. She needed to be able to speak the language of restaurants and kitchens. So she moved to New York City and enrolled in culinary school.
Dan Pashman: She went to work in some of the top kitchens of the era. First, the French restaurant Le Cirque and then the Southeast Asian Vong. At the time she was the only woman working in each kitchen.
Gail Simmons: You know, I went in a little bit naive, which I guess is good, because it allowed me to do it. And if I had known more, I might not have agreed. These kitchens were incredibly physically taxing, regardless of gender, but I did see how so many of my male contemporaries were physically stronger than me. And the job is an incredibly physical job. I mean, you know, standing for 10 hours, 12 hours a day at a stove, chopping, lifting, frying, sautéing — whatever you're doing.
Dan Pashman: At Le Cirque, there was an open kitchen, so diners could see the chefs working. Gail was stationed right in front, one of the most visible spots. She thought that was because it was good optics for the restaurant to show that they had a woman on staff. And while working there, she had very specific tasks she was in charge of …
Gail Simmons: One was making crepes every morning.There was a dish on the menu that feels very 19 — well, I want to say 1985, but it was 1998 at the time.
Gail Simmons: It was a beggar's purse. It was a crepe that was stuffed with like shrimp and seafood and gathered at the top and tied with a chive like a little purse.
Dan Pashman: Right.
Gail Simmons: And there was this curry sauce that went on the plate. And so the first step in that dish was making the crepes that you would put the filling into. And my job every morning when I would get there would be to make, I don't know, let's say 50 crepes. And there was this one pan that was passed down to whoever's job that was because you want a really well-seasoned pan. And I would sit at the back stove of the prep kitchen, and I remember how hard it was and how I felt like I was chastised a lot if they weren't perfect. And I remember crying at the stove on numerous occasions, but the stove was so hot and my face would get so red from the heat of the stove that no one could tell if I was crying or not. So I felt safe crying at the stove. That’s a really sad story, but it’s true.
Dan Pashman: Being the only woman in the kitchen set Gail apart when the restaurant was open, and after it closed for the night. All the guys would go out drinking. That wasn’t really Gail’s scene. And it was usually after midnight, so it’s not like there were a lot of other friends for her to meet up with. But she needed some way to decompress after a day of hot-stove-crying.
Gail Simmons: And so I would go home and read. I would read any food book I could kind of get my hands on, would go back to my culinary school and get books. I'd borrow books from my parents, my friends, go to the library. There’s a bunch of great cookbook stores in NYC that I would scour.
Dan Pashman: One day, Gail found a book called The Man Who Ate Everything by Jeffrey Steingarten. Now, Gail didn’t know it at the time, but Jeffrey is one of the great food writers of the past half century. He’s been the food critic for Vogue Magazine for over 30 years. And this book was a collection of some of his best pieces from the magazine.
Gail Simmons: I stayed up all night for like three nights and read it and it just clicked. I mean, that book was the pinnacle of what I wanted to do. And I didn't know how to articulate it until I read that book.
Dan Pashman: What was it about that book?
Gail Simmons: Oh, God. It was everything. His humor as a writer is, I think, what everyone sees first when you read Jeffrey's work and then there is an enormous, vast amount of research that goes into his writing, and that's what he was known for. He didn't just take a topic and write casually. He went to the depths of the universe to get to the bottom of a problem or a question, or the origins of an ingredient or the history of a dish.
Gail Simmons: But what interested me the most was that through all of these essays, he had an assistant. And it was that assistant that I wanted to be. Because that assistant spent her days — and it was always her spent her days, you know, going to the green markets to get ingredients and then testing recipes and then going to the library. And I went back to my culinary school with the book and I showed the book as if no one had known in New York City what this book was or who this man was.
Gail Simmons: I was totally naive. And I took the book to my culinary school sort of career advisor and said, "This is my dream job." And the culinary advisor at my school, laughed and said, "It's really funny. I saw Jeffrey yesterday and he's looking for a new assistant."
Dan Pashman: Gail got the job. And with it came all sorts of weird assignments. She searched for weeks for the best mortar and pestle to crush spices for Thai curry. She spent a month roasting goose after goose and coming home smelling like — well, goose. She loved it. But like with a lot of prestigious assistant gigs, it’s not the kind of job people stay in for a long time. After two years, Gail took a job at Food & Wine magazine.
Dan Pashman: And then one day in 2006, a small TV network called Bravo approached Food & Wine about collaborating on a new reality cooking show. They were testing out a concept and needed someone for the judging panel. Gail nailed her screen test. And a few weeks later, she flew out to San Francisco to tape the very first season of Top Chef.
Dan Pashman: Coming up, Gail tells us how she thinks the show has changed over its 20 seasons. And we’ll talk about what makes it different from other cooking competition shows. Stick around.
Dan Pashman: Welcome back to The Sporkful, I’m Dan Pashman. Last week to kick off summer right with a to Grace Church on Martha’s Vineyard. I consider their lobster rolls to be my personal favorites anywhere. Now, there’s no official written recipe but a guy named Roger walked me through how to make their lobster roll:
CLIP (ROGER MCGARRY): It’s a shake of the pepper. Mix up the lobster, shake a little more, mix it up some more. And then you put mayo and just to make it squish. That’s the formula. Make it squish. Once it squishes, you know you have enough mayo.
CLIP (DAN PASHMAN): Is there a sound you listen for?
CLIP (ROGER MCGARRY): Absolutely.
CLIP (DAN PASHMAN): I wanna — I’m gonna put my microphone close. I wanna hear the sound.
CLIP (ROGER MCGARRY): You won't be able — I don’t know if you’ll hear it. Let's try it.
CLIP (DAN PASHMAN): I’m cranking up the volume. All right. Let’s hear it.
CLIP (DAN PASHMAN): That’s the squish.
CLIP (ROGER MCGARRY):That’s the squish.
Dan Pashman: Beyond the squish, I learn the shocking secret that makes Grace Church’s lobster rolls so good ... and the science behind it. That one’s up now, check it out.
Dan Pashman: Okay, back to Top Chef judge Gail Simmons. Now, Gail has been a judge on Top Chef since its first season in 2006, alongside fellow judges Tom Colicchio and Padma Lakshmi, both of whom you’ve heard here on the show before.
Dan Pashman: And each season, Top Chef brings a group of talented and entertaining chefs to a different city and puts them through a series of challenges. In one, they have to correctly prep a bunch of different ingredients as fast as possible …
CLIP (GUEST JUDGE): For starters, peel and then mince 5 ounces of garlic, 2) finely dicing 2 quarts of onions ...
Dan Pashman: Another challenge asks the chefs to create a restaurant in 24 hours, complete with a coherent theme and menu ...
CLIP (CHEF CONTESTANT): Restaurant Wars is what 90% of the people who come to the competition crave. To me it just gives me flashbacks of anxiety of opening a restaurant, cause I’ve done it. It just makes me wanna vomit.
Dan Pashman: Gail’s role on the show is sort of the “Jewish aunt,” as the Daily Beast once put it. She’s firm in feedback, but encouraging, and fair.
CLIP (GAIL SIMMONS): It has beautiful mellow lemon flavor, a strange but really alluring pop of horseradish …
CLIP (GAIL SIMMONS): I love the really well toasted bread, and I really liked that smoked cheese. It came through…
CLIP (GAIL SIMMONS): The ideas of your dish were too big for the bowl. And that’s not because they weren’t good, it’s because you had too much to say.
Dan Pashman: I was excited to talk with Gail not just about her role on Top Chef, but also about what makes the show different from a lot of other cooking competition shows. For one, as I said to Gail, the show is more overtly political than most others in the genre. Last year, Top Chef did a season in Houston in the midst of a national conversation about abortion rights. Rather than avoid the topic on the show …
Gail Simmons: We cooked for, you know, the former. C.E.O. and president of Planned Parenthood — very, very, very intentional.
Dan Pashman: I think part of it is being on Bravo.
Gail Simmons: Yes.
Dan Pashman: Which is kind of already is like a — in particular, you've got Andy Cohen there, who obviously, you know, in terms of gay representation, I think has done a lot.
Gail Simmons: Huge.
Dan Pashman: But it feels to me like Bravo, as a network, kind of skews blue state.
Gail Simmons: It does.
Dan Pashman: And other networks that have food programming skew a little more red state.
Gail Simmons: You're right. That's fact. Don't forget, it's an interesting piece of Bravo history, our show grew out of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, the original version. Queer Eye was the reason that the network became what it is now.
Dan Pashman: Gail says before the original Queer Eye for the Straight Guy aired in 2003, the biggest show on Bravo was Inside the Actor’s Studio.
CLIP (JAMES LIPTON): In the past 10.5 years no one has been mentioned more often and with more respect by the other guests in that chair than to tonight’s guest ...
Dan Pashman: Back then, Bravo saw itself as kind of an arts network. Queer Eye was a big departure from that, both in its upbeat silliness and in putting gay men front and center. By 2003 standards, it was edgy. And it worked.
CLIP (CARSON KRESSLEY): Here’s a tip for you.
CLIP (KYAN DOUGLAS): Tell me.
CLIP (CARSON KRESSLEY): when buying the matching velous track suit — stop. Put it back on the rack.
CLIP (THOM FLICIA): If your apartment smells so bad you have to plug it in…. that’s a bad situation ...
Gail Simmons: For the next several years, everything that came out of Bravo was under those five pillars: pop culture, fashion, beauty, food, and interior design — because of those five guys. The first show that they made under that, those silos, was Project Runway, a competition show about fashion. It did really well and they spun it off to Top Chef.
Dan Pashman: How do you think the show has changed over its 20 seasons?
Gail Simmons: I think it's changed a lot, actually. I don't recommend you go back to season one and watch it — mostly for the hairstyles.
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS]
Gail Simmons: But, you know, our show became about young talent in the food industry and discovering those young talents and giving them this opportunity. And even in the first and then second season, we learned that our viewer was much less interested in the sort of home cook or the amateur cook, who wanted to be a chef, or the culinary school student. They wanted to see talent at a craft that they were not usually privy to. Right? We threw open the kitchen door and gave them insight into a world that most people weren't seeing at that time. Right, the world of the professional restaurant kitchen. And what excites people the most or was watching real talent at a craft that they could not do themselves, not unlike, in a way, watching professional athletes.
Dan Pashman: That's interesting. I do feel like Top Chef is different in some ways from some other cooking competition shows. And maybe that's sort of it, which is like a lot of them are kind of more about taking chefs out of the kitchen and putting them into, basically, like a game show environment that is a sort of a constructed world and that can be fun and entertaining.
Gail Simmons: Ours is constructed too to some degree, but it's about. Idea of the professional kitchen.
Dan Pashman: Right. It feels less like the chef has been, like, brought to you.
Gail Simmons: Mm-hmm.
Dan Pashman: You're also getting a window into their world.
Gail Simmons: Right. You're going to them. You're watching. You're going to fly on the wall.
Dan Pashman: Gail also says that audience feedback pushed Top Chef to focus less on extracurricular stuff, like storylines about the chefs in their shared house, or romantic subplots. All that was a big part of the show in the early seasons. Now ...
Gail Simmons: 99% of the drama that takes place on our show takes place in the kitchen or at the judges table. There used to always be like a villain and a nice one and a cute girl. It was so — it's like terrible, early reality television. None of that matters to our viewers anymore or to us. It's really just about the food and the chefs and what happens in the kitchen.
Dan Pashman: Right. Those are — a lot of those are very tired tropes.
Gail Simmons: They are very tired tropes. And I think as reality television evolved, as food competition evolved, as our show evolved, as the food industry evolved, as the food industry became a nicer place that we could talk about and then and we can poke holes in and be open about how people need to be treated, the improvements that need to be made in the restaurant industry, the culture of the restaurant industry, and how it traditionally did follow these kind of terrible tropes and and stereotypes, we were able to make our show a better place for it, and in turn I think it's reflected onto the industry and vice versa.
Dan Pashman: I feel like there have been a few chefs who've come through who kind of had a revelation about the kind of food they wanted to cook while they were on the show. And it was interesting to be like that these folks had restaurants at that time.
Gail Simmons: Mm-hmm.
Dan Pashman: They were cooking in restaurants. So in theory, they had the opportunity to go down a different path, but for whatever reason they had it and since they were on the show and it pushed them in a new direction.
Gail Simmons: Abso — I think that's happened to a lot of the greatest of our chefs. They've had a lot of self-realization on the show. It is sort of like a very cathartic situation in ways. And most importantly, because what we're looking for is your point of view on the plate, it forces you I think it forces the contestants to really think hard about their voice. I think about contestants like Nina Compton and Shirley Chung and Gregory Gourdet, their specialty were cuisines that were not at all from their heritage. And I'm not saying you can only cook the cuisine of your heritage at all, but for them in particular, Gregory was cooking Asian food, but he's a first generation Haitian. Shirley was cooking Italian food, but she's Chinese. And they came out of the show with this realization that, like, why are they ashamed to cook the food that they grew up with, the food that they love, and that they can now have this voice, this point of view, and show it to the world in the most beautiful way and tell the story of their people, of their culture, of their journeys, of their families, and give it their own spin.
Dan Pashman: Shirley Chung, for instance, now runs a Chinese American restaurant called Ms. Chi Cafe. It features dishes like kung pao cauliflower and cheeseburger pot stickers, right alongside tea smoked duck. Shirley's bringing together the foods of her heritage with the influences that come from living in America. The result is a menu that’s unique and true to her experiences.
Dan Pashman: But until she was on Top Chef, Shirley hadn’t been encouraged to figure out exactly what a menu based on her life would look like. In fact, her cheeseburger potstickers came out of a challenge on the show. These kinds of personal revelations have happened more and more in recent years, another key part of Top Chef’s evolution. I asked Gail how her approach to her own role on the show has changed over the years.
Gail Simmons: A lot. In the beginning, reality television competition was so new and we didn't know what we were doing. We truly, Dan, didn't know what we were doing. I didn't even know what a competition show was except for Survivor, and that seemed like a bad idea in the food world.
Dan Pashman: Right. [LAUGHS]
Gail Simmons: And so it took a long time for us to sort of, let's say, find our voices and our distinct point of views and have confidence in what we were doing as a show at all. And at the beginning, there was this conception, this perception — excuse me — that everyone on the judging panel in every competition show had to have this like very specific role. You know, there was the Paula Abduls and the Simon Cowells ...
Dan Pashman: Right. You needed to have like the nice one and the mean one ...
Gail Simmons: Right.
Dan Pashman: And quirky one.
Gail Simmons: And you had to be like really divisive either way and whatever it was.
Dan Pashman: Right. It had to be like — it was a cable news approach to the competition.
Gail Simmons: Very black and white. Right. And after a few seasons, we would get feedback and listening to the viewers, we realized that they needed to trust us. And if they didn't like us and they thought we were mean and unfair — which we weren’t necessarily ever unfair but we were edited to be a lot more harsh. And I came to understand that what my role was on our judges panel was to really sort of be the connection, the through line between the cheffy chef world of Tom and the contestants, and the viewer, who was listening to Tom and the chefs talk in this language that they didn't fully understand. What does it mean if something has acid? Or what do you mean a julienne of something? Or what is that spice that I've never heard of before? And I sort of think that I resonated with people because I could be a bit of a translator. I was accessible, I was a normal person. I wasn't a chef, but I dwelled among them. I spoke their language, but then I also was a diner. Just like you, just like anyone.
Dan Pashman: But also like, the harsh, imperious food critic isn't really your style.
Gail Simmons: No, and also our viewers come to us because they — not only do they trust us, but they look to us to explain and translate for them in a way that doesn't feel condescending, but that, you know, teaches everyone a little bit. Teaches me a ton, too.
Dan Pashman: No matter what Gail thinks of the food the chefs cook, she says she often finds herself identifying with them, and the pressure they put on themselves. In one episode this season, a talented young chef from Mexico, Gabri Rodriguez, was in the bottom, after making a molé dish inspired by his dad. Gail got a little emotional at the judges table.
CLIP (GAIL SIMMONS): You know sometimes the weight of things we put ourselves under gets the better of us. It’s hard when it's not what you want it to be and it's for someone so important. I think that’s it. It’s hard.
Gail Simmons: He had made that dish, I believe, for his father. And his father passed away. And how the pressure to make this dish in this person's honor and how weighted that felt. And, you know, I understand that feeling. I lost my brother a few years ago and I don't cook for him and that it's not necessarily the cooking, but that feeling, that pressure of wanting to live up to someone.
Dan Pashman: Yeah. You also said in that moment it's challenging when you mess up, when trying to impress your peers.
Gail Simmons: Yeah. Well, I think also because you're doing it — don't forget they're not just doing it in one of their peers, they're doing it on national television. And failure is so hard. I also think, you know, often people like, how do you do that? You know, it's terrible that you just stand and look them in the eye and tell them terrible things about what they did. We try not to be terrible.
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS]
Gail Simmons: But it's not as if we invented the genre of criticism.
Dan Pashman: Right. [LAUGHS]
Gail Simmons: Criticism, as it happens ...
Dan Pashman: Right. Right.
Gail Simmons: All over.
Dan Pashman: Yeah, it happened before reality TV, also. I mean ...
Gail Simmons: Right, it was just in a newspaper or in a magazine.
Dan Pashman: Right. Right.
Gail Simmons: There's art criticism and food criticism ...
Dan Pashman: Yeah. As long as people have been making things, other people have had opinions about it.
Gail Simmons: That's right. There's always opinions. And actually, I think there is something very truthful about the fact that we actually do it to their faces and give them a chance to respond. Most of the time, as a chef, if you are the head of a restaurant, you will be reviewed and you will be critiqued and it will never be perfect. And that's really hard on the ego. And when it's done in a newspaper, that's even harder because you have zero control. Someone comes in anonymously, you sometimes don't even know they're there. And then they write about it for the world. And that could really damage you. And we actually — unless you're the one person eliminated, we do. We really do give a lot of feedback, for better or worse, and give them a chance to explain themselves. And if they aren't eliminated to start fresh the next day.
Dan Pashman: So when Gail judges your cooking, she does it to your face. When the cameras stop rolling, as she said, she isn’t so judgy. Meals aren’t so high stakes, and it’s not always about the food. But she admits getting to this point has been a process. She wasn’t always so easygoing at dinnertime.
Gail Simmons: I used to put a lot of emphasis to check all the boxes anywhere I went, especially when I was traveling. You know, to do enormous amounts of research and and then, you know, make my list of all the places I really want to try and then systematically go through and check off that list. But what I realized and actually I realize that on my honeymoon with my husband, Jeremy, we had this very ambitious list of places to go. We went to Vietnam on our honeymoon. And top of that list was one restaurant in Hanoi. And we tried going several times and we struck out every time. We can't make a reservation. The line was too long. They closed the door. It closed by the time we got there, it was like we were like hitting a wall every time. And partially, maybe because of jetlag, I just, like, broke down on the third try and lost my mind and cried for, like, the better part of 12 hours on my honeymoon.
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS]
Gail Simmons: And I'm sure Jeremy wanted to divorce me, you know, five days in.
Dan Pashman: I have a feeling he knew what he was getting into, but still ...
Gail Simmons: Well, he did. Yes. We were together a long time, but this was like a real level of WTF.
Dan Pashman: Yeah. Right. [LAUGHS]
Gail Simmons: You know what I mean? And, and then I like woke up the next morning still puffy and had to like give it a really good think and then like let go of it and realize — I mean, just saying it out loud, it's ridiculous. It's okay. You dob't — not everything has to have so much weight. Not every meal has to be exactly what you were prescribed to do or has to be perfect or has to be the place.
Dan Pashman: And as Gail says, if a meal doesn’t pan out the way you hoped, just wait …
Gail Simmons: And that's what's so beautiful about eating, is that no matter how full you are or how good or bad your last meal was, in 5 hours from now, you will be hungry again.
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS]
Gail Simmons: It's just the nature of being alive.
Dan Pashman: That's right. We can put it on our tombstones.
Gail Simmons: Yep. Always hungry.
Dan Pashman: We'll be hungry again in 5 hours.
Gail Simmons: That’s right.
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHING]
Dan Pashman: That’s Gail Simmons. The season finale of Top Chef: All Stars airs this Thursday, June 8, on Bravo. Don't miss it. And for more of Gail's work, check out her books. There's her cookbook, Bringing It Home: Favorite Recipes from a Life of Adventurous Eating and her memoir, Talking With My Mouth Full: My Life As A Professional Eater. Get ‘em wherever you buy books.
Dan Pashman: Next week on the show, we’re talking about food smuggling. You know, like when Gail would smuggle biltong into North America. We'll find out why people smuggle food into America and we'll meet the people trying to stop them. That's next week.