Gail Simmons Dishes On 'Top Chef,' Picky Eaters, & Food Insecurity

It’s wild to think, but it’s been 18 years since Top Chef first premiered on Bravo back in March 2006. And while the world has changed in more ways than we can count — and the show, too — there’s one thing Top Chef fans can always count on: Culinary expert Gail Simmons is going to tell it like it is, tempering her trademark honesty with kindness and humor.

In “real life” (aka a 30-minute Zoom call squeezed into our busy schedules), Simmons comes off much the same. She’s direct but thoughtful, always measured but never guarded. She’s the type of person I’d imagine would be in my mom circle if we existed in the same orbit.

So, like old friends catching up, we chatted about everything from longtime Top Chef host Padma Lakshmi leaving the Emmy-winning series (“She’s still in my life,” Simmons reassures me) to the mom-of-two’s favorite tips for picky eaters and more.

Here’s what Simmons, who slides into an executive producer role for Season 21, had to share.

Scary Mommy: Congrats on another season of Top Chef! What makes this season stand out?

Gail Simmons: This season really felt like a big reset in a lot of ways. The most obvious is that Padma Lakshmi, who was our host for 19 seasons, decided to leave. So, we have a new host, Kristen Kish.

While we’ll miss Padma, coming back from an international season just gave us a big chance to reevaluate the game and change a lot of things … It’s helpful to have people come in who want to evolve the show and do it their way.

SM: What else is different?

GS: You’ll see a lot of changes this season to how people are used to seeing the game played. Specifically, we always used to give out immunity in quick fires so that you’d have immunity going into the elimination challenge every episode … we’re no longer doing that. You only now get immunity in the elimination challenges for the following episode. You’ll see how strategically that really changes how people think about the way they’re cooking, how they’re cooking, what they’re cooking, why they’re cooking, and the sense of urgency that they cook with.

There’s one other big change in that Tom and I start coming to the quick fires much more regularly. We realized that we never judged the quick fires in terms of who had to pack their knives and go every episode; we only based it on the elimination challenge in front of us because Tom and I weren’t there. So, halfway through the season, Tom and I start playing a much bigger role in the quick fires, which will change the conversation at the judges’ table a lot.

SM: And you’re headed to the Midwest this season, right?

GS: Every season, we explore the cuisine of a different part of the country or the world. We’re in Milwaukee, and at first, I was a little hesitant about what that meant coming off of London and Paris. But the interesting thing is that we’ve never really tackled the Midwest. We were in Chicago in Season 4, and while Chicago is a massive city in the Midwest, it’s only a small piece of what it means to be in the Midwest.

SM: As a mom, I know it’s tough to be away from your family, but as someone who loves to travel, I’m sure it’s always exciting for you, too. How do you honor each of those conflicting feelings?

GS: It is conflicting. I always say that the travel component of our show — because we never shoot in the same place, and we’re almost never shooting in the city where I live — is the best and the hardest part of the job in equal measure. We get to live, not just stay for a few days, but hunker down for six or eight weeks, in different cities all over the country or all over the world. [We] get to know what it would be like to live there, get to know the people and the place, and really feel like we are investing in this incredible opportunity for travel.

At the same time, of course it’s difficult, and it’s gotten more and more difficult since becoming a mom. Even more so as my children get older … But the amazing part about it is that my kids actually have come with me, at least for part of a shoot, every single season except one, in all the years that they’ve been alive while the show has been on the air. I think travel is the best way to grow as a citizen, to understand what other people eat, how other people live, and that the world is not all like you.

It’s been such a formative experience, not just for me in my job but for our family. It’s been a challenge because there are big stretches when I am away from my family, but I’m very lucky: I have a partner, my husband, who is incredibly supportive and involved, and he really picks up the slack when I’m gone.

SM: What are some of your go-to hacks for getting your kids excited about what you’re feeding them? I’m sure you’ve introduced your kids to all kinds of food.

GS: And plenty of them they have thrown in my face! (laughs) At the end of the day, kids don’t care what I do for my job. I’m their mom, and they don’t want to eat what I want to force them to eat.

I think that’s an expectation that moms put a lot of pressure on themselves about. Everyone wants their kid to eat nutritionally, to eat well, to eat a diverse diet, to get all their vegetables.

It often doesn’t even have to do with how delicious food is; it’s just about the fact that children’s lives are controlled at every second. You tell them when to get dressed, when to do their work, when to go to school, when they get screens, how to live, when to go to the bathroom. You know what I mean? Children try to be independent, and the struggle at the kitchen table is often a place where that plays out.

The advice I always give parents is twofold: One, get your kids involved in the kitchen. You have to cook as a parent so much. Three meals a day is a lot, even if you have some childcare support. If you’re going to spend so much time in the kitchen anyway, it’s a great time to have quality learning moments and fun with your kids. The more they spend in the kitchen, the more they see what goes into cooking, and the more they appreciate it, the more they will take pride in it if they’ve contributed.

“At the end of the day, kids don’t care what I do for my job. I’m their mom, and they don’t want to eat what I want to force them to eat.”

Having kids in the kitchen is a hazard. It is stressful. They make a mess. They don’t listen. They don’t follow recipes. It comes with a lot of letting go and patience … but I have seen such an amazing transition in the way [my kids] eat and love food every time I put them to work in the kitchen.

They also love responsibility. They want to feel like they have purpose. They want to feel like a grownup. You have to remember that sometimes our work or things that feel like chores to us is their play. That’s why there are mini kitchens. That’s why they make mini vacuum cleaners for kids. I don’t want to vacuum, but kids want to emulate adults, so that’s their play and imagination time. Giving them jobs in the kitchen empowers them. It lets them play at being an adult, which teaches them a lot of lessons — and cooking is certainly one of them.

SM: What’s your other go-to piece of advice?

GS: Stop forcing your kids to eat different things. [Don’t say] things like, ‘You can’t leave the table until you finish your broccoli,’ or, ‘You don’t get to dessert unless you finish the food on your plate.’

I find I have much more success with them trying new foods — or eating things that you want them to eat but they’ve been resistant to — if you just put it on the table and then pay no attention to it. Normalize those foods in your house. The more they see you eating it, the more they see that it’s in the fridge or on the table, but you’re not focusing on it and obsessing over it; the more I see my children, then just take it in their own time and on their own terms.

I feel that really improves their relationship with all those foods that most kids associate with being yucky or don’t want to eat, like green vegetables.

SM: Eating healthily almost seems cost-prohibitive right now. What advice do you have for parents struggling when it comes to feeding their families?

GS: It’s gotten so much worse since the pandemic, and the cost of food — nutritious food, good quality food — is cost-prohibitive. It’s exorbitant, and it’s really upsetting. Truthfully, this is not an issue that can be addressed fully at our level, at the level of a regular citizen. This is an issue of policy of agricultural subsidies at the highest levels of government.

My advice is always to use all the resources you have. School lunches are an incredible privilege in this country, certainly in New York City, where I live, [where you can get] free school breakfast and lunch (although I know it’s not universal). It’s worth finding coupons and going, if you can, to places where you know you can find deals and make the most of your dollar.

There are certain little hacks in the kitchen that I would say are important to use. There was a time when I would turn my nose up at frozen fruit and vegetables, but they’re superheroes in the kitchen. Frozen spinach, frozen peas, frozen broccoli — they’re flash-frozen at their peak. They are so great to put into soups and stews and pies and to use in so many different ways. Same with frozen fruits, which are really great resources and cost a lot less than [fresh].

Those are things that are great to keep on hand. My children eat sweet peas twice a week because it’s their literal favorite thing to eat, with butter and salt. Keeping a bag of frozen peas in my freezer is always my last-minute resort that I know they’ll eat and that I know they’re eating something nutritious.

Top Chef Season 21 premieres March 20, at 9 p.m. ET on Bravo.

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