Almost 13 years ago a network called Bravo decided to revamp its programming from performing arts to pop culture. The network had been around since 1980 and introduced some of the country’s first reality programs in 2003. Bravo struck a cord in America’s hearts and began producing addictive and quirky reality television. Then they struck gold with the debut of Top Chef in 2006. Amid the cast of judges was a seemingly unknown, yet unforgettable, brunette.
Gail Simmons was making noise in the food industry long before she was a Top Chef judge. Food was her life, her nourishment, her vocation and her inspiration. Eventually, her career would reach a fevered pitch with the Emmy-winning show, but Simmons admits it was never a planned trajectory—naturally since no such show had ever appeared—but her entrepreneurial outlook allowed her to apply both creative and predictive logic. She never walked a traditional career line; instead she accepted every opportunity, staying focused on the end goal and furthering her knowledge of everything food, from its culture and history to its benefits and pleasures.
It’s easy to understand why the nuances of food are such an integral part of her life; it began at home in Toronto, Canada. Simmons’ mother Renée, who was a food writer for Globe & Mail, Canada’s largest national newspaper, taught her to be curious about food. Renée also hosted a cooking class in the family home for women in the neighborhood. She even hosted a men’s class—almost a laugh in those days, adds Simmons. The classes grew so large that she took over the home economics room of the local junior high school. After graduating from McGill University in Montreal with a focus in anthropology and Spanish, Simmons worked for over a year in Toronto for a magazine and newspaper as an editorial assistant. She tried not to follow her mother’s footsteps, but it’s hard to deny a passion.
“I came to New York City not knowing a single person in the food world. I walked into culinary school not knowing what I was going to do, but I knew I was going to love it and I was excited about it. From there, opportunities came. I think I had, to some extent, a level of confidence but not arrogance. I [was] humble in the kitchen and, more importantly, I was humbled by the kitchen,” says Simmons. “I feel very lucky that I was able to keep my eyes open and my mouth shut and let other people teach me.”
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