When asked about her stellar rise to fame, Gail Simmons, a celebrity judge on the reality show Top Chef, says the stars were aligned when she started out as a food critic.
The Toronto native was at the right place at the right time. “I could never have predicted this career. I happened to come of age when food and pop culture intersected.”
She attributes this “food revolution” to the creation of the Food Network: through the television exposure, chefs and culinary experts became media stars.
This year, Simmons, 37, is adding some glitter to the Canadian reality competitive cooking show, Recipes to Riches, which features home cooks. She is one of three judges who will decide which recipe will win the $250,000 prize. The contest’s grand finale airs April 2 at 9 p.m. on CBC.
“I was thrilled do a project for the CBC,” says Simmons, who has been living in New York City for the last 15 years. “What I love about the show is that it is so Canadian. The stories and the food are wonderful.”
And she has enjoyed working with her fellow judges. “We have such a good time together. You never know how the chemistry will work.”
Judging home cooks is a very different experience than the professional chefs she is accustomed to on Top Chef, she says.
She has been with the show since its first season in 2006, and she was the lead critic on the spinoff, Top Chef: Just Desserts, which ran in 2010 and 2011. She also works as a special projects director for Food & Wine magazine and is a regular on American network television shows. “I am often invited to talk about the latest food trends,” she says.
In December, she took on a new role – motherhood – when she and her husband, Jeremy Abrams, who’s originally from Montreal, welcomed their daughter, Dahlia Rae.
Simmons traces her interest in food to her mother, Renee Simmons, a culinary expert in her own right. She ran a cooking school out of her home and she wrote a food column for the Globe and Mail in the late ’70s and early ’80s.
“Food always played a big part in our home. My mother cooked seven days a week. Everything was fresh and homemade. My mother was ahead of her time.”
When Simmons was a student at McGill University, she wrote restaurant reviews for a campus newspaper, and when she graduated, she got an internship as a food writer and restaurant critic at Toronto Life. “My mother tried to discourage me from having a career in food… I was always drawn to food criticism.”
She left Toronto for New York in 1999 to attend the Institute of Culinary Education. For the last 10 years, she has been working for Food & Wine. When the idea for Top Chef was conceived, Bravo approached the magazine, she recalls. “The network wanted us to help promote the show.”
At the time, there were no shows about celebrity chefs, she says. “Nobody was doing a serious food show about professional chefs.
“Food & Wine sent me do a screen test. It was frightening. I was already doing television. I was going on talk shows to talk about whatever we had in upcoming issues of the magazine.
“I was very nervous. So many reality shows had failed. Television is so fickle. It was a big risk.”
Eight years later, the show is still very popular and it has been renewed for a 12th season. Top Chef has garnered many Emmy Award nominations, and in 2003, it won for the best reality competition show. There have also been spinoffs like Top Chef: Just Desserts and Top Chef Masters.
Two years ago, Simmons published her first book, Talking with My Mouth Full: My Life as a Professional Eater (Hyperion, 2010). She says the book focuses on what it’s like to work in food media. There’s even a section on how she maintains her weight, because it’s a question she gets asked very frequently.
She says she takes care of herself by working out regularly, eating healthy food, and when she is judging the chefs, she only tries a small portion of their food. “I don’t eat every thing on my plate. In New York, I walk everywhere. There’s a real culture of walking.”
Despite her busy television schedule, Simmons continues to work for Food & Wine. “I represent the magazine to the media and I work with various chefs on a variety of projects.
“I am now a brand ambassador for Food & Wine. I love the magazine and all the people I work with.”
TOASTED CHOCOLATE COCONUT MACAROONS
Simmons and her husband usually go to Montreal for Passover. They spend Rosh Hashanah in Toronto with her parents, Renee and Ivor Simmons, her two siblings and their families. Below, Simmons shares her recipe for chocolate macaroons, one of her favourite Passover desserts.
3 egg whites
1/2 tsp. cream of tartar
1 tbsp. sugar
1 14-oz. can kosher for Passover sweetened condensed milk (recipe below)
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 tsp. lemon zest
20 oz. sweetened shredded coconut
7 oz. dark chocolate (60-70% cocoa), coarsely chopped
Preheat oven to 325. Beat egg whites in an electric mixer on low. Once whites are broken up, add cream of tartar and sugar. Increase speed to medium and beat until whites are frothy.
Shut off mixer and fold in condensed milk, vanilla and lemon zest. Add coconut and mix until well incorporated. Let mixture sit for 2-3 minutes. Line 2 cookie sheets with parchment paper. Drop 12 heaping tablespoons of the batter on each tray, spacing them apart evenly. Bake for 20-25 minutes. Let cool. Melt chocolate in a double boiler over low heat or in the microwave. Dip half of each macaroon into the chocolate. Place on tray and allow chocolate to set. Serve when cooled. Makes 24 cookies.
KOSHER FOR PASSOVER CONDENSED MILK
If you can’t find kosher for Passover condensed milk, which would be milk that is not sweetened with corn syrup or barley malt, you can make your own.
The following Internet recipe, a substitution for 1-1/4 cups sweetened condensed milk, comes from Pesach Recipe Substitutes on the Orthodox Union (OU) website.
1 cup instant nonfat dry milk
2/3 cup sugar
1/3 cup boiling water
3 tbsp. margarine
Blend all the ingredients until smooth. To thicken, let set in the refrigerator for 24 hours.