If you’ve ever watched an episode of Top Chef, you’ve likely fallen in love with the darling Gail Simmons. (editor’s note: she’s just as lovely in real life). Her journey to accomplished food writer, TV host and judge, and cookbook author started with some simple advice- do what you love. For Simmons, that was eating, writing, traveling and cooking. Now with (almost) three-year-old daughter Dahlia Rae in tow, she’s cooking up a storm, judging the new season of Top Chef Charleston, and traveling just about everywhere. She tells us about her upcoming cookbook, her favorite family restaurant and why moms just need to trust their instincts.
How did you get to where you are today?
My mother was a food writer and a cooking teacher. I had no idea what I wanted to do, but I loved great food, cooking and writing. I was completely lost, but I set out to make it happen. I grew up in Toronto and worked for a magazine and a newspaper there. I eventually moved to New York went to culinary school, cooked, and then went back to my love of writing. I’ve been doing it ever since.
How do you balance being a working mom and raising a toddler?
I don’t think there is any balance. Every day there are new challenges. Each day is a new set of unforeseen circumstances. You just cobble it together to make it work. You really have to trust your instincts and your child. My daughter is really adaptable. She always just seems to know when I need a little help getting through it. I’ve also re-prioritzed life a bit, reconfigured what it means to have a productive day. It’s really the most fun I’ve ever had. Children adapt to your lifestyle – as long as they feel secure and safe doing so.
What is your biggest superhero moment as a mom?
I had the privilege to cook for children in the White House and my daughter got to meet the president. Oh, and when we are outside and she has to go to the bathroom… and we actually make it to the toilet!
We were once in two connecting hotel rooms in New Orleans and we were in one and she was in the other with the doors open. She accidentally closed and locked the door behind her. We had put the chain on the front door since it was nighttime and couldn’t get in. We thought we’d have to call security and saw off the lock or unhinge the door. My husband was able to open the front door just 2 inches so they could see each other and he could coach her through unlocking the door between the rooms. He talked her through it and she flipped the lock and we were able to get in.
What is your favorite thing about doing Top Chef?
Every season brings its own character and personality. Over the years we’ve been able to create very separate seasons. This season in Charleston especially, this really comes through. Charleston has a really deep food culture, the food is exceptional, and there are a lot of unique ingredients. Half of the chefs this season are returning; half are rookie chefs which makes for a really great dynamic – an incredible challenge to see them cook together. We shot for five weeks and my daughter was with me for three weeks of it. It was the first season she was old enough where I could explore with her. She got really into the food and the city and she ate her weight in her boiled peanuts!
What can we expect from your cookbook next year?
I’ve helped write cookbooks before, but this is the first book that’s completely mine. It’s a compilation of my recipes for the past 20 years, including tips I learned at Food & Wine, and lessons from the industry, all boiled down to make at home recipes to be cooked for your family. Every recipe has a twist or trick. It’s really meant to bring cooking home. It also includes stories from my life and the show- a little bit of everything.
What is your favorite place to dine out with your daughter?
We love going to restaurants in our neighborhood, Henry Public is one of them. We love going there for early supper. They have a folk band every Sunday and my daughter loves to get up in front of the band and dance.
What advice would you give to a new mom trying to balance it all?
Give yourself a break. Everything as a new mom feels incredibly urgent. It feels like everything you do will impact your kid so greatly. I wish I could tell myself to be less hard on myself. You want to be smart but trust your instincts. Enjoy those moments more. I know it’s too hard to enjoy everything with being sleep deprived and overwhelmed, but try.