Behind the Scenes of Top Chef and the Art of Embracing Opportunities
Behind the Scenes of Top Chef and the Art of Embracing Opportunities

“I do believe the time I spent working as a line cook in the kitchens prepared me and allowed me to do everything that came after it. I don't think I could be a judge on Top Chef without that formative experience, understanding the urgency of a kitchen, understanding the language, the rhythm, the ballet of a professional kitchen and the speed.”

- Gail Simmons

Elizabeth sits down with renowned culinary expert and trailblazer Gail Simmons, best known for her role as a judge on the reality series "Top Chef." Gail shares her inspiring journey from writing down her love of food on paper to attending culinary school and working at iconic New York City restaurants. She details her invaluable experiences assisting renowned food critic Jeffrey Steingarten and managing special events for legendary chef Daniel Boulud.

Gail opens up about her role at Food & Wine Magazine and how a series of saying "yes" led her to "Top Chef." She shares a behind-the-scenes look at the filming process over the past 20 seasons and teases what's next for Season 21. Gail also drops the details about her favorite restaurants, must-have cookbooks, and her philosophy on embracing opportunities and keeping a flexible approach to life's plans.


    Elizabeth Stein 00:00
    Hi, everyone. I'm Elizabeth Stein, founder, and CEO of Purely Elizabeth. And this is Live Purely with Elizabeth, featuring candid conversations about how to thrive on your wellness journey.

    This week's guest is none other than Gail Simmons, trained culinary expert food writer, and dynamic television personality on Bravo's Emmy-winning series Top Chef. Gail is the co-founder of Bumble Pie Productions and sits on the board of several other nonprofit organizations, including Children in Conflict, City Harvest, and Hot Bread Kitchen. In this episode, Gail details her inspiring career journey and her early days attending culinary school working at the iconic New York City restaurants Le Cirque 2000, and Vong, assisting Vogue food critic Jeffrey Steingarten, and running special events for Daniel Boulud’s legendary restaurant group. Gail gained invaluable lessons that paved the way for her role at Food and Wine Magazine, where she organized the Food and Wine Classic in Aspen, which would eventually lead to her television debut on Top Chef. Gail shares so many inspiring tips about saying yes and being open to possibilities. It was an absolute honor to have her on the show. I've been a diehard fan from the very beginning of Top Chef, and I enjoy the show.

    Gail, welcome to the podcast. It's an absolute honor to have you. I'm such a huge fan of yours.

    Gail Simmons 02:33
    Thank you. It's a pleasure. I'm a fan of so many things you did.

    Elizabeth Stein 02:37
    Well, I'd love to start with your journey. I know you wrote down on a piece of paper- eat, right, travel, cook. Similarly, I wrote on a piece of paper- start a natural food company. So it looks like it worked out for both of us.

    Gail Simmons 02:52
    Yes, I love hearing that.

    Elizabeth Stein 02:54
    Let’s start with that moment and you wrote this down. And how did you go from there to eventually becoming a judge on Top Chef?

    Gail Simmons 03:03
    It's funny to think back to that moment because I guess I did manifest it in some way. The truth is I wrote those things down completely off the top of my head. I was actually challenged to write down things. I had graduated college, I had just moved home, back into my parents' basement after college, which was sort of a depressing moment for me, having no idea what to do with my career. My parents were a little worried because all of my girlfriends who are incredibly high achieving, all had plans, and they all had direction. They were all getting post-secondary degrees and graduate degrees and MBAs and medical degrees and social work degrees and art history masters and all these amazing things. And I really had no idea what to do. I loved to write, I loved to eat. But even those things weren't at all in my purview as actual job options, now think back more than 20 years ago. It was a moment when being creative wasn't as well respected. Not to say that there weren't a million amazing creators, but the internet was in its infancy. And so that sort of culture of being creative in the millions of ways that it has evolved wasn't there yet. My mom set me up with one of her best friend's daughters who had become actually a very talented, successful television producer. She asked me to just write down on a piece of paper things I'd like to do and to stop thinking about it as things that seemed like a job. Because I came from a place where there was more of a conservative idea of what is okay to do as a job. And she was trying to get me out of that headspace. Just write down what you love, like what are your hobbies? What are the things that interest you and excite you? Those are the four things I wrote down really not understanding at all and tell they were staring me in the face that they could actually come together and be a job, I would have never dreamed it because it felt like such a fantasy, really. So when she looked at the piece of paper and said, “Well, then what's your problem, I don't understand, you have it all right here. If this is the thing you love, let's figure out a way to make an app.” And it was really the first time I had put them all together in that way, positioning them as something that I could actually pursue as a career. And it was only then that I sort of allowed myself to daydream a little bit about what that would be like. From there, I started looking for writing jobs in the food space, but I was living in Canada, and at the time, media in Canada was sort of limited, especially in the world of food. But I got a job as an intern, I got an internship for four months working at the city magazine of Toronto, it's called Toronto Life. It's excellent and still is a real award-winning really well-written magazine. And when I landed that internship, I then felt okay, now I get it. All of these things, I want to be a journalist, I had just never put that into words before I wanted to write. And I think I want to write about food. But why don't I learn to be a journalist first and figure out where it takes me? Because at the time, media really meant print media, there wasn't this explosion of social media or online media the way it is today. And that's where it started. And it kind of just took off from there.

    Elizabeth Stein 06:54
    Well, I think first of all, it's a great exercise for anybody hearing this too, they're unsure of what they want to do like just jotting down those things that interest them. Because, as you said, like look at how you can start to daydream and put those together. So as you were there, what then eventually led from being at the magazine to delving further into food, and certainly, again, it's so wonderful thinking back at the time, Instagram was not around Facebook was not around, we were not talking videos. So very different…

    Gail Simmons 07:27
    The network was barely around. And it was I guess, around, but it was mostly just professional chefs really only a handful of them cooking on television, doing cooking demonstrations, and a few other things. So again, none of the stuff that I do now was even being done. So it wasn't as if I had precedent or people I could look to that represented that looked like me, there weren't that many women, certainly. And that gave me any sort of pathway to what I wanted to do. But there certainly were a lot of women writing about food and a lot of great journalists in Canada. So I worked at this magazine for four months. And then I left and went to work at a big national newspaper that was launching in Canada, at the very beginning of, I guess it was actually at the end of 1998. God, I'm dating myself. But what was interesting about this newspaper that was going to be a big national newspaper, it was full color. And it had a beautiful weekend section, sort of like the New York Times Magazine that glossy colored magazine that came out on weekends. And I got a job through friends of friends as the editorial assistant on that desk. So I was working on a newspaper floor, which was fascinating, just to see how newspapers came together those massive open floors that you can imagine you see in movies, with the sports desk over here and the business desk over there and the politics over here and we had a little space sort of in the corner for this magazine. The magazine on the weekends was art, culture, and food travel. And I was doing a little bit of everything just assisting and supporting that team. And more and more I found myself being drawn to the food critic, which I'd also been drawn to in that previous magazine and worked for. And the more I realized that that was what I loved, to write about and learn about I started kind of following the food critic and the food writers around asking them to let me come on reviews with them asking me to talk to them about the city and restaurant criticism. But again, to me, food writing was really restaurant criticism at the time, more than anything. And what it taught me in the year that I worked there more or less was that I actually knew nothing about food, which was a bit of a slap in the face. Because I guess as a young adult coming out of college, you feel very confident in your abilities. And think everything grows, that really I knew how to write, I knew how to think analytically, I'd gotten a great education. But it hadn't prepared me for a tactical technical job. And if food was my beat, so to speak, my editor told me, quite bluntly, you don't know anything about food. You like to eat. That doesn't mean you know how to cook. You know how to talk about food, but you need to learn the language, just like anything, if you want to be a political reporter, you have to go to the Capitol. Want to be a war reporter, you have to go to the front lines. That's the only way to understand the media, you can't do it from your couch. And that was sort of the permission I needed, I guess, to quit the job, even though I loved the job. But to realize that the food part of the job was what needed my attention. And then I needed to become an expert. Anyone could write about any subject if they were an expert on that subject. So I left and moved to New York City and I enrolled in full-time culinary school, always with the aim to take that education and become a food writer with that, even though I had no plan on how I would do that.

    Elizabeth Stein 11:09
    Did you have any moments when you were in the culinary school of second-guessing that and thinking well, maybe I'd want to be a chef or…?

    Gail Simmons 11:17
    Yes and no. I definitely always knew I wanted to keep writing. And I made that clear at culinary school too. I love the education. I love being at culinary school, I felt like I'd found my people I'd found my industry. And I knew that this was where I belonged. I also obviously moved to New York City with wide eyes and just fell in love with living in New York City. I was 23 living in my friend's closet basically. Sidenote, I saw yesterday in the news that Mindy Kaling has sold a new show about a bunch of 20-somethings trying to make it in New York City. And they all live in Murray Hill. Because that's like the classic where everyone goes, losing your 20 because you can afford to live there, but still be. And that was me. I mean, that was me and my roommate. 23 years old and living in Murray Hill, I was living in his one-bedroom apartment, I had this kind of tiny little office closet that I moved into with a single bed and a tiny dresser. And he let me sort of squat there. While I was at culinary school, which was just the classic New York moment. And I loved school, I always wanted to be a writer through the whole process of culinary school. But when I graduated, I went back to my culinary kind of career services, people whose job it was then to place you in your next job in your kind of apprenticeship after culinary school. And I came in guns blazing being like, okay, I'm now ready to be a food writer, can you get me a job at Gourmet magazine? Or can you get me a job at Food Wine Magazine? And that was what I envisioned for myself. In New York, I could go and work at one of these glossy, beautiful food magazines for I don't know, six months a year. And then I could go back to Canada and be a big fish in a small pond having had all this New York experience, and what the career services people at my culinary school told me, which is, again, a bit of a blow but so appreciated was, you still don't know anything about food, you kind of cooked everything once you should not go to Gourmet magazine, or Food Wine Magazine or anything like that, you should actually go cook. Not that I wanted to be a chef. And they understood that. But they also really understood that in order to be trusted by the food community, and be an authority so that you could write about it, you needed to actually get some practical experience. School is a theoretical experience. It doesn't really emulate what it's like to work in a restaurant, especially a high-volume New York City restaurant. And he convinced me to do it. And I'm so glad I did. Because I do believe but the time I spent working as a line cook in the kitchens I worked in, I chose difficult kitchens that prepared me and allowed me to do everything that came after it. I don't think I could be a judge on Top Chef without that formative experience of understanding the urgency of a kitchen the language, the rhythm, the ballet of a professional kitchen, and the speed. So I spent some time as a line cook. I like to say I literally had my ass handed to me every day.

    Elizabeth Stein 14:30
    What were the restaurants that you were in?

    Gail Simmons 14:32
    I worked first at a restaurant called Le circa 2000. And then which in its heyday was... This was 1999 right till 2000. And every CEO of every bank, every celebrity, I remember Martha Stewart coming in for lunch the day that the media or company or media company went public and they're having this they were just rolled out the red carpet. It was owned by the Sultan of Brunei. And the prince would come in all the time. And I'd have to cook his favorite food for him because he only liked a few things. It was just this crazy 90s New York abundance and indulgence energy. It was an open kitchen so we could watch everything happening in the dining room, and they could see us cooking. And it was a huge kitchen. I was the only woman in the savory kitchen, which was really challenging, but also extraordinary.

    Elizabeth Stein 15:32
    What an incredible experience. And also what an incredible experience that you've got because of that advice from the school. I mean, you're so fortunate to have had that leadership from them.

    Gail Simmons 15:49
    Absolutely. It's amazing, the specific person that gave me that advice, He then gave me another piece of advice, I'll tell you in a second. And then he moved on and took another job. And he's still in New York, but he works in the wine industry now. And I hadn't seen him in probably 20 years. I saw him a few weeks ago for the first time at an event at my school that I went back to I sit on the board now. So I went back for this event. And I walked into him when I saw him and I almost wanted to cry. And he is always like, “You remember me?” And I'm like, “I remember you. You are so fundamental to my story. I tell that story. To anyone who will listen and Steve, it's about you. I'll never forget the honesty and the guidance that you gave me, it was so instrumental.” So I worked in these kitchens. I went to Le Cirque and then I went to another kitchen called Vong, which was Jean-Georges Vongerichten, an extraordinary New York chef, his sort of Thai, French restaurant, very high and fine dining, beautiful restaurant, really the first of its kind that blended sort of East and Western technique and ingredients in his way. It's such a high level, and it was a very different kitchen. It was a great kitchen to work in. It was like a small little sort of band of hooligans. Really tough guys, again, I was the only woman, but they were great mentors, they taught me so much. I was exposed to so many ingredients that I'd never seen before. And it was an amazing organization to work for. Because we were one restaurant that was part of Jean George's sort of Empire, which has grown tenfold since then. But we had access to him a little bit but access to his other restaurants. And chefs who are coming back and forth through them have so much exposure to great cooking. I worked there for a while. And then I you know that itch came back to me that this original intention had been to write and to work in media and the thing about working as a cook that I'm not sure a lot of people sort of a lot of civilians understand because now when you see it on television, it's glamorized to some extent, is that when you are a young cook, not a chef. I was not a chef. I was a cook. And when you are aligned Cook, it's really manual labor. You are executing another person's vision, you're not the chef. You're not designing the food, you're not creating it, you're not part of the creative process. They give you 20 pounds of carrots to peel, you peel them, and you chop them the way they need to be chopped for the specific dish you're making. They show you how to make the dish, and how to execute it, it needs a four-minute pickup. And you have to do it 300 times a night. It is not like you're sitting around with artists created all day it is and you are in it from 5 pm until 11 pm Every night your head is down and you are executing you are not creating. It is meditative, to answer your questions. No one's ever asked me that question. It is meditative. When you're in the zone. When you're enrolling in it when it's working when the ballet is a ballet, not a rodeo. It is very meditative. And it feels great. I think that's why a lot of people are drawn to the kitchen because there's this amazing adrenaline rush. And it's so satisfying to crush it night after night. Not less sure that doesn't happen every night. Not every moment is being crushed. But you are in this rhythm as a team and you're kind of this one working organism. And so great kitchens are amazing that way and there is this great energy. But at the same time, you don't kind of use your brain in the same way that I really wanted to in terms of writing and the craft of cooking. I felt like I knew I didn't want to be a chef and in order to get to that place of being a chef. I would need to spend another 10 years in kitchens even more so as a woman because at the time there were far fewer women at that high level. So I went back to my culinary service, that guy who had given me such good advice previously. At the time I had done a ton of reading, I was finishing, I was keeping really late hours, and all my girlfriends had normal jobs. So they were asleep by the time I got home every night and often at work before I got up in the morning. And so I read a lot of food books, that was what kind of kept me going anything I could get my hands on. And I had read this incredible book, called The Man Who Ate Everything, by Jeffrey Steingarten, who was at the time the food critic at Vogue magazine and had been for 20 years. This book was a huge award-winning book, it won National Book Awards. I had never read Vogue, I had no interest in fashion, didn't know anything about the world of fashion. But his writing was so staggering and just enthralling and beautiful. I never had aspirations to be him. But what I was drawn to is that in the book, he talks about his assistants. His book is a compilation of essays from Vogue over the years. And he refers to his assistants all the time in his book. And he had this sort of line of women, young women, who did all the research for these very in-depth articles he would write on ingredients, on parts of the world, on dishes on whatever was in the zeitgeist of food at the moment, really beautiful, long-form journalism. And there was always behind him this young woman who was doing all the recipe testing and research and going out and getting all these esoteric ingredients for him. And I wanted to be that woman. What I wanted was to follow this man around and learn from him. Because I could only aspire to do half as good a job. So I went back to my career services director, Steve, with this book, and I was like, I didn't even realize how famous this writer was. Do you know this? Man? This book is amazing. Do you know anyone like him who I could assist? Who maybe could kind of give me that sort of training as my next step, to become a writer? And Steve laughed, and he was like, “Oh, yeah, I know, Jeffrey, I think he actually was looking for a new assistant.” And within a week, I got the job. And that sort of also was the next piece of amazing advice he gave me.

    Elizabeth Stein 22:24
    This guy is incredible. This really is the nicest guy. Everyone needs to have this guy in their life.

    Gail Simmons 22:30
    Yeah, we’ll track him down for you. You should start with counseling. So he got me an interview. I went from work one day, to three hours with Jeffrey. It was a very intense interview process. He had me cook, he had me taste wine, translate from three different languages. Note to my young self, if you put it on the resume, someone's going to ask about it. Yeah, there you go, you say you speak Spanish will prove it. Thank goodness, I spoke enough Spanish. And I got the job. And I went to work for Jeffrey for over two years doing all those things. And it was an incredibly challenging job. But it really was, like, I felt like I was getting a master's degree in food writing in media. And so that sort of set me up on that path. But still no thought of television at all. And I feel like I'm belaboring this story. From there, after two years, a bunch of sort of things happened in New York City, the biggest of which was 911. And 911 affected everybody's life forever and ever. But for me specifically how it affected my work life was that I'm Canadian, and at the time, I didn't have my citizenship here. So when I was ready to leave Jaffrey that job really only had about a two-year lifespan until you were ready to move on. And Jeffrey had gotten me a visa, a student sort of post-school work visa that had lasted two years. When I was ready to move on and get my next job, I needed a visa to work on whatever I was going to do next. But post 911, if you remember the climate in America in general, no one was hiring an immigrant. Especially a junior, sort of entry-level-ish, young person who could easily go back to their country and get a good job. It wasn't as if I was a refugee. So the thought especially in the restaurant food industry of having to then sponsor someone's visa was really daunting. And not a lot of people were willing to take the chance. I went on a million interviews. I got offered a job at Timeout in New York, working in the food, in the restaurant, and kind of food writing section. But when I said I needed a visa, they were like, we can't, we just can't commit to doing that right now. Got a few other offers and the visa never worked. All this time, I finally went to speak. The good thing about Jeffrey working for him is he introduced me to so many incredible New York City restaurants, people, and real icons of the industry. And one of those people was Daniel Boulud, who is an amazing French chef. I mean, now he probably has 25 restaurants worldwide. At the time, he had three New York restaurants, but he really is one of the greatest chefs alive today. French chef, but really New York City has been his home where he's made his career, as an incredibly generous human being. And I went to him just to ask for advice, because I never thought, again, I didn't want to be a chef, I didn't want to work in restaurants again. But he'd been so generous to me that I just went to pick his brain because he offered. And I was like, well, if Daniel Boulud is gonna offer to sit down and have a coffee with me, then I'm gonna have a coffee with Daniel, and maybe he knows everybody like maybe he’d introduced me to those people that Food Wine Magazine that I three years before had wanted to speak with and go work for or who knows. And he did all that. But then he and his marketing director sort of stopped and they said, “We'll keep in touch. If things change, we'll just keep you posted. If we think of anyone we'll let you know.” And about a month later, called me back and said, “You know what, we want to hire you. I have three books that I have to write in the next three years, I'm opening for my restaurants, and our marketing director could really use a secondhand person who could do all those things. Help with public relations and special events, and writing the books and all of our press materials. And would you consider that as a job? It's not that exact track of staying in media, but it's great exposure to the food world.” And it was definitely a left-hand turn from what I thought I would take as my next position. But again, the net is when Daniel Boulud offers you a job, you just take the job. I didn't even care what I was doing because it was for him. And that was at a time when there was only sort of six people on his executive team. So I went and worked for him not even really knowing what I would be doing. But he is such a superstar and had been so kind and I loved this woman Georgette Farkas, who was his kind of marketing director and VP of Communications. And she was really the first female mentor I had in my job. And I went to work for them for two and a half years, doing all those things. And that was sort of like the NBA of my life, learning about the business of restaurants, really up close and personal with one of the greatest restaurant tours in America. And his whole team and what I learned there was that maybe writing wasn't for me full-time, because I learned that I was an incredibly social person. I loved the industry. I loved the people, every day spending time with all of the people in his restaurants, from the dishwashers to the finance department, to Daniel himself, to his regulars and customers, to all the chefs who came from all over the world to work in his kitchen. I loved making a family meal with the butcher, I loved doing his public relations and going to the Today Show with him to book a spring dish with him or to help him with the Press campaign. All of these things really invigorated me. So I started thinking, well, maybe traditional food writing isn't the only answer. But I still didn't know what I would do next. And through him, I came to know the people at Food Wine Magazine. And a job came up there that I took. And it was in the marketing department at first. So I went from Daniel doing marketing and public relations to Food Wine, doing marketing, and really loved that team. And here I was finally able to go to that glossy magazine. But in a way I hadn't anticipated. I was on the marketing side, and I had the cooking. And I had the experience of working with the chef and I could work for the publication but on the events side of things. Within a year of working there, two really big shifts happened. One was the woman who had been the director of the Food Wine Classic in Aspen, which was Food Wine’s biggest event of the year in Colorado. She had led that team for many, many years. She went on maternity leave, had twins, and decided not to return so they gave me the job. And so I took over as the event director of the magazine and within months of that happening, Bravo called Food Wine with this sort of crazy idea for a cooking show. They partnered with them on the show to teach them about the world of food and chefs helped them find the young town that went for the show, and gave them part of the prize for the show. And if they liked any of the editors, they would maybe put them on camera to represent the magazine on the show. It was all sort of loosely modeled off of Project Runway, which had just finished its first season on Bravo and had been really successful in that format. Nina Garcia from Elle magazine had represented the magazine. It was the first time in media that magazines and television figured out a way to work together. And it was a really successful organic partnership, it allowed the magazine access to a much broader television audience. And it allowed the television team access to the really high-brow affluent readership of a high-end fashion magazine, and in our case, a high-end food magazine. And so there was this real shared learnings and shared knowledge they could pool to make it a really serious show about food versus all of the reality television that had come before it, which 20 years ago was things like Fear Factor, Big Brother, this was like a real turning point in competition. This was about true talent and finding the next great person in that realm of skill based on their professionalism, not on sort of, they're aspiring to live on an island and survive off of rocks and coconut leaves for three months or whatever, which are all amazing shows also, like still on the air a lot. It was just a big shift in television, and viewing and what readers and viewers wanted. And so they sent me for an audition. And I had no idea about doing television, certainly not reality television. But after a week or two, after I did this sort of screen test with Bravo on behalf of food and wine, they called and said we're flying into San Francisco to shoot the first season of this show called Top Chef, and we really never thought it would be anything more than a first season. Here we are. And that was almost 20 years ago. That was 2005. That is that's a really long story.

    Elizabeth Stein 32:20
    That is such an incredible journey, Gail. I think one of the things that really resonates with me and hearing it is all the times throughout your career when you didn't know where the future was going. But you just were really open and said yes. And really, I think it takes a lot of courage to be able to do that. Do you think that you are someone who always had that sense of courage? Or like, what advice do you give to someone to be open? Because I think it's really hard for people, you know that you are nervous to do the next thing and you're just like stuck in your zone. And you're obviously someone who's not that way.

    Gail Simmons 33:03
    It's funny, I don't think of myself as not that way. I like structure. And I like having a plan. But I've never had a plan is the truth. And I'm not saying you shouldn't have a plan. But I don't really believe in the five-year plan. Because if I had had a five-year plan in 1998, 2004, 2010, and 2015, in 2020 and 2024, I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing because it requires dedication and interest. And it required me to have a focus. But there's such a big difference, I think between having a focus and having a plan. Sometimes I feel if you have a very narrow plan, an image of where you see yourself or an image of what you think you're supposed to do to get somewhere. What are the conventional steps, and you just focus on looking straight ahead, you miss the things on the left and the right, I would have never worked in a kitchen, I would have never gone to work for Daniel Boulud, I would have probably never taken the chance of going on television because I had no aspirations. So content, I had found my dream job at Food Wine, running the classic in Aspen. And it was the best job with the best people in the best place. I mean, it was all the things I had worked for, a culmination of everything. I got to work with chefs around the country, I got to work at the best magazine that I loved. I got to write a bit. I got to lead this event. I got to work with food every day. And when my publisher sent me the screen test, I was literally horrified. All I could think about was how am I gonna say this to my mother. He doesn't know what reality television is. She's gonna think I'm, I don't know, out of my mind. So I believe in saying yes, but they're pretty calculated yeses. There are risks but, especially the risk of going on top share If I had the privilege of doing it from a very safe space, I'll never forget my first day on set. Top Chef season one, episode one, we're in San Francisco, I sit down at the judge's table for the very first time. I'm seated next to Tom Colicchio. I know we've met many times before, I actually worked with him and his assistant on a big project when I was at Jeffrey Steingarten’s office. And I had become very close with his assistant who I'm still close with. I was just at her wedding a few weeks ago, actually. And so he knew who I was, generally. But I'm a few years younger than him, 18 years younger than him. And certainly, I wasn't like on his radar as a journalist. And I sat beside him. And I remember saying, “Why are you doing this? What's in this for you? If this is a huge failure? Because I'm doing it? I can do this. No one knows who I am.” I mean, yes, I carry the reputation of the magazine. So obviously, there was pressure on me as a representative of Food Wine, that if this was a failure, it would reflect poorly on food and wine, but I could then just like, go back to my desk job the next day, forget the whole thing. I'd still have a job working for a big company with health care and benefits. And it was like a very safe way to take that risk. Sure, I'll try this television thing for you guys. What do I have to lose? But for Tom, there was a lot more at stake. And he explained how he had actually said no to doing the show for a long time. He had no interest in television. And he will tell you because I heard him tell the story just last week, that he was fed up with the fact that any chef ever in New York City Tom is like the New York City chef's chef. He was running Fantasy Tavern, a legendary restaurant groundbreaking restaurant he had just opened craft, also groundbreaking, beautiful restaurant. And every single person in New York knew Tom Colicchio because they knew these restaurants. But out of New York City, he would go to events around the country to sign cookbooks or do demos. And he'd be sitting next to Bobby Flay or some other kind of Food Network person. And they were selling 500 cookbooks, and he was selling 15. And he was like, I just need a more national presence. And the only way I know to do that is on television. And these people, the Magical Elves and Bravo had really presented the only format on television that he felt would enable him to keep his integrity and wouldn't take an entire year of his time, because he didn't want to be doing this full-time. He was running his restaurant every day on the line very seriously. And he knew this could be a short-term thing. But that was a great avenue really, because it's all just about getting, as we say, in the food industry, getting asses and seats. At the end of the day, it's a means to an end to keep your business going to grow the restaurant business. He wanted to open Kraft in other cities around the country, you can't do so if no one knows who you are. And so it was like, for me, I felt actually a relief that I was taking a risk. But I had the support of my magazine behind me. And I just assumed I do this one thing. And then I would go home and go back to my life, which was lovely, and I was really excited and happy to be doing it. So when we got the call that it was coming back and doing a second season, that's when things got a lot more. Because all of a sudden, it just started taking over my life a little more until the point where obviously became difficult for me to do that other job full time and Top Chef, and then all the things that top chefs want, which we could have never anticipated at the time. So I left that job, and stayed with Food Wine though, for another 10 years doing videos writing a column, and doing events for them all over the country. I worked with them until the end of 2019 actually, in some capacity, but more as the editor at large.

    Elizabeth Stein 38:59
    It's incredible. So here we are now at season 21. You obviously never thought it would be season 21 I definitely have watched all the seasons. I didn't watch the cheese bun yet.

    Gail Simmons 39:14
    I was there, but I haven't watched it too. I haven't had a chance to watch it this week. It's good. I mean, there's a lot of cheese.

    Elizabeth Stein 39:20
    So what in this season are you surprised about if anything?

    Gail Simmons 39:26
    A lot of things actually, which is a pretty great feeling. I credit my producers, that production company we've worked with since day one, the Magical Elves are such pros at what they do. And they have a really personal interest in evolving the show every season and there are sort of pieces to Top Chef by no coincidence that allow us to do that. So the first premise of the show is that we never shoot two seasons in the same place, which gives us a backdrop to start fresh every single season. And it's a big country. It's a big universe, we've obviously gone abroad several times, but we're still making our way across the US. And this season, we're in Milwaukee, which felt at first a little bit random, when we were told that's where we were going. But when you look at a map of the country, and if you were to plot in little pins into all the cities we've gone to, we've actually never been in the heartland. We've never been in the Midwest, we did a season in Chicago, in season four. And Chicago is amazing. And I actually would love to go back there for a season. But Chicago is a massive city. And it's one thing that makes part of a very big swath of what makes up the Midwest of America. And it's also very urban, and Chicago is a lot like New York in a lot of ways. So it felt really great to be in a part of the country we've never been in before culturally, from a geographic and historic standpoint, from a population standpoint, and also from a food standpoint, there was a lot to discover. And that it's great that we get to do that every season. Being Canadian, I can tell you that most of, I don't know what percentage, but a good part of the cities that we have shot in over the last 20 years I had never been to until we went there with Top Chef. Not all, but many. I'd never been to Charleston, I'd never been to New Orleans at the time, I'd never been to Denver, I'd never been to Milwaukee. I'd actually never been to Chicago until Season Four in Chicago. Now I've been back to places many times over. But for me, it's allowed me to discover America and my new homeland. That's been really great, because we do really deep dives, all through the lens of food. So that's like, obviously the thing that keeps the show on its toes every season and allows us to keep going because there's always so much more to Taste and discover and see everywhere we go.

    Elizabeth Stein 42:10
    So take us behind the scenes a little bit. Tell us something that we would be surprised to learn.

    Gail Simmons 42:17
    Let's see, there's a lot. The first is that it takes two to three days to shoot every episode of our show. And you have to do it chronologically, obviously. And you have to do it all in one chunk. We don't break. So everyone's like, how many weeks does it take you to shoot what you see as a viewer over the course of 15 weeks? We shoot all of that in eight weeks. And we shoot almost every single day, six days a week, more or less. I'm not necessarily shooting six days a week. But there is shooting happening for the show either a quick fire, an elimination, a cook day, or an interview day. And so we shoot every episode, over two or three days, we have a dark day we started again. And so it's very condensed because it's reality, the chefs are living in a house together, you can't let them go for the weekend. You can't send them home and then come back on Monday and expect them all to be there. And also we need to control the variables that they have access to so that it's an even playing field for the competition. So it's very controlled. They live in a house without their phones, without cookbooks without access to the internet, except when it's supervised by our production. Meanwhile, Tom our host, Kristen, and I are living in that city. And we have some downtime. So we get to go out for dinner every night together. We get to really explore the city.

    Elizabeth Stein 43:53
    Are you even hungry for dinner?

    Gail Simmons 43:55
    Interestingly, we are. The funny thing about being alive is that we eat and four hours later, five hours later, we're generally hungry again. We've learned to taste we don't finish our plate. There are some days I get up from the table and I am so stuffed and I can't eat anything until the next day. There are other times you get up from the table, we break, we go to the judge's table, judge's table takes four or five hours. You see seven minutes of it. That's another kind of amazing thing. People used to take seven to eight hours we have made it much more efficient over the years. But it's still a really long conversation, which is edited down to 8 to 12 minutes and half and quarter of the show. And then when the judge's table is done, sometimes it's about eight or nine o'clock at night. And Tom's like, “Hey, where are we going for a drink?” Kristen’s like, “Hey, I'm hungry.” So go get a burger. So we go out for burgers and cocktails. Not every night. But yeah, there's an end because of what we do for a living. We all sort of approach the city wanting to get to know it through its shafts through its restaurants and food people. So we want to explore even if I'm not going to eat a course tasting menus out at restaurants where we are, we definitely want to go and check things out and understand the scene.

    Elizabeth Stein 45:19
    Yeah, absolutely. We're gonna move into some rapid-fire Q&A. Three favorite restaurants right now. It could be anywhere.

    Gail Simmons 45:35
    In the world?

    Elizabeth Stein 45:38
    If you want to make it New York that's easier.

    Gail Simmons 45:41
    No, I kind of don't. I love New York and there's 10,000. But I also hate saying the name of one place because I don't even get to eat it in most places twice. I would say right now, my favorite restaurants, are Cafe Carmellini in New York, and Anajak Thai in Los Angeles. It’s so hard to think in the world. I'm just gonna keep it in America. Because we've been talking so much about Milwaukee, I would say Birch in Milwaukee, which was one of the best meals I had all year and I was really excited to find it in Milwaukee while we were there.

    Elizabeth Stein 46:26
    I love that. I fly into Milwaukee to go to our co-packers. Next, I'm in LA, I’ll go there.

    Gail Simmons 46:32
    Well, I will email you my full list. Definitely go to Birch. Where is your co-packer?

    Elizabeth Stein 46:38
    In Madison.

    Gail Simmons 46:43
    Oh, yeah, I mean, sure. We were there too. I can give you a list of Madison too. We go there next episode.

    Elizabeth Stein 46:45
    Oh, amazing. Most underrated US city for food.

    Gail Simmons 46:51
    I mean, to say Milwaukee again would be redundant. I would say Denver actually. Shooting in Denver, I was really surprised and in the best possible way. Had so much of the great food there. And it was a really interesting place to eat.

    Elizabeth Stein 47:07
    If a quickfire challenge was to create your last meal, what would you make?

    Gail Simmons 47:12
    Okay, my last meal. It's funny. I thought about this a lot. I could say anything because I'm a true omnivore. I want to eat everything. If I really could use anything in the world, I would have a bowl of sea urchin and chili pasta. I would have a porterhouse steak from Keens in New York. I would have a big bowl of butterscotch pudding and a warm chocolate chip cookie. I don't know, it doesn't even have to be dinner. I could eat anything. I could eat a really perfect breakfast sandwich. Like eggs, pickles, avocado, tomatoes, and sharp cheddar cheese. My favorite things.

    Elizabeth Stein 48:01
    A favorite cookbook in addition to your own.

    Gail Simmons 48:06
    I look at cookbooks all day long. I have stacks and stacks at my house. And the thing about cookbooks is, you use them, and then you switch them out and forget about some and then they come back into rotation. So it's so hard to choose just like a cookbook that is the one seminal book in my life. But I will say in the last year, a book that has really excited me and sort of changed the way I think about cooking is Bricia Lopez, Asada book, a Mexican grilling cookbook. She is the restaurant owner of a restaurant in LA called Guelaguetza. And it's an Oaxacan restaurant. She's in third generation running that restaurant in her family. She lives mostly in LA and in Oaxaca. And she wrote this grilling book. And it's sort of like the grilling book we need at this moment or like the young cook learning how to cook Mexican food in an authentic way. It has such amazing energy. It's so direct, every single recipe in it makes you want to cook.

    Elizabeth Stein 49:22
    Wow. All right, I gotta pick that up. And lastly, what is your number one non-negotiable to thrive on your wellness journey and feel your best?

    Gail Simmons 49:35
    I guess I would say truly just keep moving. Make space and time to keep moving. I don't always practice what I preach. But generally, I feel my best, my head is the clearest for mental health or physical health, like walking, running, climbing, anything I'm doing, getting outside, breathing fresh air, and moving my body and I'm not saying I'm running triathlons. I'm certainly not. But I think it really is the most important piece to making everything else run smoothly in my life. I'm a better mom. I'm more efficient during my work day. And I sleep better. I eat better. I'm more motivated if I know that I've been moving and taking care of myself in that way physically.

    Elizabeth Stein 50:30
    Love it. Well, in closing Gail, what is next?

    Gail Simmons 50:33
    Oh my god. I don't know. Because I don't have a plan. I have things. I'm working on a new book. I'm working on two other TV projects, which I hope towards the end of this year and into next year will be all out in the world.

    Elizabeth Stein 50:50
    Amazing. Well, we will stay tuned and it's so great having you on today.

    Gail Simmons 50:54
    Thank you so much. It's great to talk to you too.

    Elizabeth Stein 50:57
    Thanks so much for joining me on Live Purely with Elizabeth. I hope you feel inspired to thrive on your wellness journey. If you enjoyed today's episode, don't forget to rate, subscribe, and review. You can follow us on Instagram @purely_elizabeth to catch up on all the latest. See you next Wednesday on the podcast.

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