Shalom Life | March 22, 2015

Top 20 Under 40 - Gail Simmons

Toronto's Simmons is a judge on Bravo's 'Top Chef' and special projects manager at Food & Wine.

By: Ashley Baylen

Published: March 19th, 2015 in Culture » Food » Interviews

Top 20 Under 40 - Gail Simmons

Shalom Life is proud to present our 5th annual Top 20 Under 40 list. Over the next 20 days, we will showcase 20 individuals of diverse talents and backgrounds that have made a significant contribution to their field both locally and globally. From entrepreneurs to philanthropists, entertainers to doctors, this list places a spotlight on a small sampling of the spectacular, innovative, and passionate Jews that call Toronto home.

Top 20 Under 40: Gail Simmons

Age: 38

Toronto’s Gail Simmons is best known for her judging role on Bravo’s ‘Top Chef’, as host of ‘Top Chef: Just Desserts’, and as the author of the 2012 memoir ‘Talking with my Mouth Full’… but ultimately, she’s a food lover that works tirelessly to share her unique perspective on that lifelong passion.

Growing up in a traditional Jewish family, Simmons was the youngest of three children. Her mother, Renee, first ignited her love for cooking and the culture and community surrounding food. Renee was a food columnist for Globe and Mail and conducted cooking classes out of their family home.

Simmons always knew that she wanted to combine her interest in writing and media with her passion for food. While studying anthropology and Spanish at Montreal’s McGill University, she began writing about food for the McGill Tribune. Following her graduation, she began writing for Toronto Life and the National Post before making the big move to New York.

“When I graduated I realized I wanted to write about food and be in food media. Back when I graduated, food media meant a few very simple things. It does not mean what it means today. The Internet was in its earliest stages. So there were no bloggers or tons of food websites. It basically meant being a writer for a big magazine or newspaper,” Simmons shares during a phone interview from New York City.

“So I went to work for different magazines and newspapers and each time just starting following food people around. When I really decided that that was exactly what I wanted to do, they all suggested if you really want to know about food, you have to learn how to cook… so I moved to New York, went to culinary school, worked as a cook, and then slowly but surely found my way into a number of jobs that taught me how to combine my love of media and writing with my love of food.”

So, in 1999, Simmons enrolled in culinary school at what is now the Institute of Culinary Education. While studying, she trained in the kitchens of Le Cirque 2000 and Vong, before landing a job as a research assistant at Vogue, under the mentorship of food critic, Jeffrey Steingarten. Immediately afterwards, Simmons became the special events manager for Daniel NYC’s chef Daniel Boulud.

“I learned to cook and worked in restaurants so I could understand that world, and I think that being a strong cook is integral to doing what I do, but I would never call myself a chef.”

Fast forward a few years and several jobs in the food and media industry; Simmons becomes the special projects director at Food & Wine magazine, working with marketing and editorial departments to put on special events such as the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen.

Simmons’ new gig at Food & Wine came at just the right time. The television network, Bravo, soon partnered with Food & Wine for a new competition series called ‘Top Chef’. After a screen test where she shared a story about her worst restaurant experience, she secured a spot as a regular judge on the show.

As they say, the rest is history. ‘Top Chef’ is now going into it’s 13th season and in 2010, Simmons began hosting a spinoff series, ‘Top Chef: Just Desserts.” In that same year, ‘Top Chef’ won an Emmy for Outstanding Reality-Competition Program, beating out shows like ‘Amazing Race’, ‘American Idol’, and ‘Survivor’.

Simmons was obviously thrilled with the win, but believes the acknowledgement had a much larger implication in the world of food media.

“It was incredible because it said to me that the television and media community was embracing food as part of everyday television and part of our culture in a really important way, not just as a niche or side cute thing that is a trend and not here to stay,” Simmons explained.

In addition to her food writing (she’s currently working on a second book) and television roles, Simmons recently took on a new important role: mother to 15-month-old, Dahlia.

Simmons and her husband, Jeremy, look forward to exposing Dahlia to the same Jewish family traditions she believes shaped many aspects of her life… namely the importance of sharing a meal around a table and Friday night dinners.

“The flavours of my heritage, I can’t avoid. I put horseradish and dill in everything. There’s nothing I love more over the holidays than making traditional dishes exactly like my mother did or like my grandmother did before her,” says Simmons.

Simmons is an active supporter of Common Threads, a nonprofit organization that works to teach children how to cook healthy, inexpensive meals. She also works to raise funds for sustainable agriculture through the initiative she co-founded, Grow for Good.

Find out more about Gail Simmons at her official website, www.gailsimmons.com

Follow her on Twitter @gailsimmons.

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