‘Top Chef’ judge Gail Simmons talks fighting hunger, starting a female-led production company and being judged on her appearance
“Top Chef” judge Gail Simmons gets served her fair share of backhanded compliments.
The 41-year-old mom, cookbook author and judge on Bravo’s Emmy-winning series says fans often make unintentionally sexist remarks about her appearance when they recognize her on the street.
“People often tell me how much prettier, thinner or younger I look in person,” Simmons tells Moneyish. “I know they mean it as a compliment, but they’re funny things to tell someone you don’t know very well.”
Simmons works alongside celebrity chef judges such as Tom Colicchio and Graham Elliott. But she’s learned that her male colleagues can’t relate to some of this questionable feedback that she gets from fans.
“A question I get a lot is, ‘How do you eat all that food?’ — meaning quantity of food, and not getting fat,” says Simmons. “Interestingly, I have this conversation with Tom Colicchio often, and he doesn’t get that question as much as I (or other female chefs) do. We’re supposed to be much more concerned about how we look (than male chefs).”
“My answer is usually quite honest: You don’t have to finish your plate; you just taste. We learn to taste and pace ourselves,” explains Simmons, who basically eats for a living. “I’m one of the lucky ones; I know where my next meal is coming from. I don’t need to eat everything all of the time and be afraid that I won’t have dinner tonight.”
Simmons has grown used to giving constructive criticism and feedback to professional chefs on the cooking competition that she’s hosted for nearly 15 seasons, but there was a time early in her career as a line cook when she felt like she was the one being judged — and for being a female chef, at that.
“One night I was working, and I burned my hand quite badly. I picked up a steel platter that I didn’t realize had just came out of the oven,” she said. “When I yelped out in pain, the line cook beside me said, almost instinctively, ‘Take it like a man.’ That was the first time that I felt like the line cooks around me didn’t necessarily respect me the way they thought of each other; that they looked at me different, that they looked at me as weaker than them.
“I remember feeling really low, and determined to prove them otherwise,” she says.
Many restaurant kitchens are still boys clubs, unfortunately. Women represent about 19% of chefs and less than 7% of head chefs, according to Bloomberg. And overall, 68% of women believe that there is discrimination against females in America today, a 2017 poll from NPR showed.
So the Toronto native started her own production company, Bumble Pie, with her business partner Samantha Hanks (a casting director on “Top Chef”) in 2014 to give women a greater voice in the lifestyle and food space. Their first series, “Star Plates” — a collaboration with Drew Barrymore’s Flower Films and Authentic Entertainment — premiered in Fall 2016 on the Food Network.
“We’re all waking up to the realities of the fact that there’s still a great disparity, not only in pay, but in opportunity for women’s voices. There are still very few women’s voices, especially in primetime TV,” says Simmons. “It’s something that has always frustrated me. There’s so many great young emerging voices who are doing great work in food.”
And being exposed to such a surplus of food in the industry has motivated Simmons to join the fight against hunger and food waste, something she has always been passionate about. One in 6 Americans in the U.S. face hunger, and 49 million Americans struggle to put food on the table. And in New York City alone, where Simmons resides, nearly 1.3 million people have difficulty getting food.
So she teamed up with food rescue and distribution non-profit City Harvest, which collects food from farms, restaurants, grocers and manufacturers and delivers it to soup kitchens and food pantries to families in need for free. They’re working together on its annual “Skip Lunch, Fight Hunger” campaign from May 14 to 18, asking people to give up a meal and donate the money they’d spend on lunch to City Harvest. The goal is to raise $1.1 million dollars — enough to help feed 50,000 kids this summer. A $15 donation is enough to help City Harvest feed 60 hungry kids.
“It definitely makes you conscious of how we all eat,” says Simmons. “It’s not just about checking how lucky I am to have food, but for me, it’s also about thinking more deliberately about what I put in my mouth every day, (and) the decisions I make. Those decisions affect my body, my family and the bigger world. The economics of food and me spending my money becomes a political act, like if I’m buying lunch at a fast food chain verses from a small, family-run business.”
Giving back is an important value Simmons is already trying to instill in her four-year-old daughter, Dahlia Rae.
“The best way I find is to talk about it at the table. There’s the lesson of ‘you need to finish your plate because so many people don’t know where their next meal will come from,’ but she’s almost too young to understand that,” says Simmons. “It’s more about understanding the value of sharing a meal together, and appreciating how lucky we are to have delicious fresh food everyday.”
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