If we were to equate the world of food media with one of those old Hollywood production companies whose films you watch over and over again, then Gail Simmons would no doubt be one of its recurring stars. And not just one who drifts in and out of the “pictures,” as they used to call it, but rather the type you’d literally go and see the movie for (think Rosalind Russell, Myrna Loy, the list goes on and on).
So you can imagine how excited we were at finding out Simmons was coming out with a cookbook this month – Bringing It Home: Favorite Recipes from a Life of Adventurous Eating– that is comprised of her cooking philosophy and 100 recipes she has absolutely perfected. Before you bite into it, you’ll need to dive into this incredible interview with her: It’s here that she discusses her battle with Internet Trolls, her 12-year journey as Guest Judge on Top Chef, the importance of not comparing oneself to others and what to do when you put too much salt or sauce in a recipe (there’s a way to backtrack people!)…
We’ve already asked you what your ideal food day is, so now I’ll ask, what’s a typical food day look like for you on a weekday, then a weekend?
In my life and job, there are no typical food days. My diet depends on if I am shooting or traveling or not, if I have meetings and events, if I am recipe testing in the kitchen, catching up on work and emails at my office or if I have the day to myself with my family.
Weekdays always start by me making breakfast and eating with my family. My 3-year-old daughter Dahlia loves to make eggs of all kinds, smoothies, oatmeal with lots of fun toppings, pb&j or avocado on toast. We always eat fruit and I drink an Americano with a little steamed milk. If I am at the office for the day, I try to bring my lunch with me when I can. I am a big believer in leftovers and love making big batches of veggies, grains or salads and eating them throughout the week. A few days a week, I will go out and grab a salad or sandwich or have a lunch meeting and get to eat somewhere delicious. Dinner probably two nights a week is out at a restaurant or work related event, but most nights I try to cook something simple at home. We belong to a weekly CSA called Local Roots NYC that delivers veggies, fruit and eggs every Tuesday evening, so there is always something to cook. I love that it’s a bit of a challenge not knowing what we are going to get each week and having to think on my feet and cook out of it on the fly. Last week was eggplant, plums, pears, kale and radishes. We cooked the eggplant slowly with tomatoes and spices, baked a plum cake, made a salad with kale and radishes and ate the pears on their own.
Weekends, I operate at a totally different pace. If we are home and hanging out for the day, we make a more elaborate breakfast or brunch and often have friends over. I’ll make pancakes, scones, baked or poached eggs, a big frittata or we get bagels and smoked salmon and make a few easy salads. Lunch is usually later and often eaten out with friends or we grab something small on the go if we are playing in the park or running errands. We usually eat out one weekend night with friends and spent the other night cooking at home. Sundays we like to go for an early dinner at one of our favorite spots in our Brooklyn neighborhood, but I also try to spend time cooking on Sundays in preparation for the week, usually a big batch of roasted vegetables or a hearty soup that we can eat during the week.
How important was food to you growing up?
Food was a major focus in my house growing up. I am from Toronto, and my mother was a cooking teacher and food writer for the Globe & Mail (Canada’s largest newspaper). She designed our kitchen so she could teach from it and was always cooking and entertaining. She didn’t have professional training but was incredibly confident and spontaneous as a cook. She also loved dragging us all over the city to find ingredients. Our fridge was always packed with exotic foods. We were known as they house in the neighborhood that was “fancy” and some friends didn’t like coming over because my mom would insist they eat things like zucchini or arctic char. Of course, all we wanted was what our friends ate, hot dogs and mac and cheese or pb&j sandwiches. But as we grew up, we realized what a privilege and rarity her cooking truly was. We also travelled a lot because my father is from South Africa, and my parents loved to explore. We ate our way around the world together and so many of my fondest memories revolve around our family food adventures.
What’s been your favorite dish ever made on Top Chef? Why was it so good?
I could not possibly pick one favorite dish from Top Chef. The show has been on the air for over twelve years and I have been on it since the first episode (including fifteen seasons, and four separate spin-offs). I have eaten literally THOUSANDS of dishes and, in full honesty, I can’t remember most of them at this point…but every season there are at least a few that really stand out. At this point in the show’s history, the chefs are so good that our job is made more difficult. Picking the best gets harder and harder every year. One dish I remember vividly was made by Paul Qui in Season 9 (Texas). It was the last episode before the finale, and the chefs had to cook for their mentors. Paul made a seemingly simple sunchoke and dashi soup that he poured over a bowl of raw vegetable ribbons. I remember thinking the dish was going to be far too simple for the challenge we had given him, but when I tasted it I was blown away. It had so much flavor and nuance, so much texture and was seasoned perfectly. It was much more complex than I could have ever anticipated. I love that he undersold it, and of course, over delivered.
When you cook, do you follow the recipe exactly, or improvise? Why or why not?
Generally when I cook, I improvise in the kitchen. But I always refer back to solid recipes that I know and love for specific techniques or classic dishes. I love finding inspiration in new recipes and then tweaking them to make them my own. That comes from years of cooking both for my family and professionally. I really believe you first have to understand how to properly read and follow a recipe exactly, and comprehend why recipes and dishes are built in certain ways to ensure successful outcomes, before you can riff on them with integrity and confidence. Respecting the way a cook wants you to make their food is important. Only once you have learned this, do I think you can really and truly start cooking well spontaneously.
Is there anything you have issues cooking, no matter how hard you try or how many times you try?
Not really, but there are things I prefer not to cook. I have no interest in cooking tripe, for example. Kidneys are on the list, too, and I generally don’t cook or eat a lot of veal. If it is served to me as part of my job, I am fine to eat it.
What are the five things in your kitchen you cannot live without?
A quick solve/trick if you do the following…
If you add too much salt – Add more fat!
If you add too much sauce – Add more of everything else!
If you overcook pasta – Make Spaghetti Pie (find the recipe in my new book)!
What’s your cocktail?
An Old Fashioned with rye.
Can you tell us one thing you used to be insecure about and how you drew confidence and moved past it?
When I first started working on television, it was easy to get caught and be hurt by all the trolls and haters, and the multitude of negative voices that exist in popular culture. Choosing to suddenly be a more public person came with all sorts of complications I hadn’t anticipated, and it made me feel awful about myself and second guess my own instincts. Listening to those voices can lead you down a dark hole, and I’ve seen so many people succumb to its pressures, changing who they are based on what they think the world wants them to be. It took a while for me to learn to tune out all the noise and realize that for every one negative comment, there are usually one hundred positive ones and that many more people want you to succeed than want you to fail. I also came to understand that if people are responding to what I do, regardless of if it’s in a positive or negative way, it means I am impacting them in some way and making them think, which is a good thing. To get to that place I definitely leaned on the many strong and supportive friends and mentors I have in the food and media worlds who have had the same experiences and found strength and confidence in the macro picture of the positive and purposeful work I have been able to accomplish.
What advice would you give women struggling to be self confident?
I read this line recently and it resonated with me: Someone else’s beauty is not the absence of your own. In other words, there is plenty of space in the world for all of us to shine. Stop comparing yourself with others. You are your own unique person and what other people do, or how other people look has little or no bearing on your own life and worth. There is so much pressure on us all to be perfect and it is easy to get lost in these unrealistic demands. Focus on the work and light and positive energy that you contribute, be proud of your accomplishments and surround yourself with people who lift you up and value who you really are.
How do you balance eating professionally and staying healthy?
I think overall these two points are not as connected as people think. I love eating, cooking and exploring new food, and I have healthy relationship to what I do for a living, in that it is not the only thing that defines what I do. When I am working, I don’t need to stuff myself. I don’t need to finish everything on my plate. I have learned to taste. I look after myself and my body because I want to feel my best and live a long time for my family and loved ones. So, I exercise regularly and consistently, but not obsessively (because I don’t care what anyone says, it’s boring and so is talking about it too much.)
I don’t eat a lot of processed food or junk or fast food. I balance meals out or on set with simple, healthy foods cooked at home. I eat a balanced and healthy breakfast every morning. I care about our food system, which includes the choices I make every day when grocery shopping, eating out and cooking at home. Most of all, I really and truly don’t believe in food shaming and guilt. Food is nourishment. It connects people in ways that nothing else can and it’s what gives me the fuel I need to do the amazing things that I get to do every day. It’s also one of life’s greatest pleasures. We have to eat at least three times a day to survive, so my theory is, life is short, may as well make it delicious.
What’s your personal definition of good content?
Quality research + constructive thinking = good content.
What inspired you to write your new cookbook? Tell us about it!
It took me two years to work up the courage to write this book and another two years to actually finish it. For a long time, I wasn’t sure if I had a point of view that was interesting or different enough from anyone else out there to write a whole cookbook on my own. Over the years, I have worked with so many incredibly chefs and food experts, traveled to so many far-flung and wonderful places and spent time in kitchens all over the world, all the while taking copious notes on the flavors and recipes I love most, and bringing them home to my own kitchen to make for my loved ones. I came to realize that I had more than enough ideas to share and that finally the time was right to do so. Bringing It Home: Favorite Recipes from a Life of Adventurous Eating is all of this and more. It’s my cooking philosophy, sprinkled with over 100 recipes I have perfected from every corner of my life. Each recipe has an element of the familiar, but also always includes my own spin or tip or piece of cooking knowledge to help make you a better cook. There are recipes in the book for cooks of all levels. I hope it provides inspiration for people to not just cook more, but to bring their own food adventures home, too.
Which food trend do you find overrated? What ingredient always makes a dish better?
Instagram food is overrated! Since when are unicorns and rainbows edible? Chilies, pickles, or mustard make everything better.
What are your favorite restaurants in New York, Paris, London, LA and Brooklyn right now?
In New York, there are far too many to count these days and I rarely get to visit any of them more than once, but a few at the top of the list at this very moment are King, Atoboy, Nur, Nomad Bar, ATLA, and Miss Lily’s.
If you could create a quote of the day right here and now, what would it be?
When in doubt, just keep cooking!