Walking up to Gail Simmon’s Brooklyn home feels kinda like being on a movie set (at least to this Texan.) Classic brownstones with crawling ivy and bright window boxes line the peaceful blocks of her historic neighborhood in Cobble Hill. The feeling continues as the Top Chef judge and renowned food writer, cookbook author, and recent mother of two welcomed us out of the rain and into her family’s home with open arms. Wearing skinny jeans and barefoot, Gail showed us into her charming open style kitchen, pointing out her favorite decor and parts of the cozy home by waving her “favorite mini spatula” in hand. Her warm energy made us feel as if we were old friends coming in to catch up and tell stories of our latest travels over coffee and pancakes.
The moment she stepped behind the island and started cooking up one of her favorite seasonal recipes, it was clear that Gail Simmons was born to shine in the kitchen. As she effortlessly floated around the kitchen, prepping a warm farro bowl, she spilled what it’s been like to work in food media for the past 20 years. “In my role as Special Projects Director at Food & Wine and as a judge on Bravo’s Top Chef, I’ve eaten my way through more tasting menus, late-night small plates, and street-food stalls than I’d like to admit!” she says. Following the brightest restaurant talents, traveling in search of great food, and eating alongside some of the world’s best chefs, Gail Simmons is a driving force of inspiration for women everywhere, as she continues to be the female face of success in an industry that’s historically been dominated by males.
Simmons released her first cookbook Bringing It Home in 2017, continues her role as Special Projects Director for Food & Wine magazine (a title she’s held since 2004) and is now on her 12th year of Emmy-winning television show, Top Chef (the new season premieres Dec. 2 on Bravo.), also making frequent appearances on shows like TODAY and Good Morning America. Just thinking about her schedule would make most people exhausted, but Gail handles her thriving career and demands of motherhood with an incredible grace, humor… and impressive organizational skills.
Despite her food world fame, Gail is a cook, first and foremost. “I spent 20 years cooking and in the food world, and that’s how I got Top Chef. It wasn’t the reverse. For me, it’s about the food first,” she says. Her lessons from chefs and food experts she’s befriended throughout her career can be found throughout her cookbook.
“My book—Bringing It Home: Favorite Recipes from a Life of Adventurous Eating, is a collection of dishes I love making for family and friends. Many are ideal for entertaining, something that’s very important this time of year. My hope is the book will encourage people to embark on their own cooking and eating adventures,” she says.
Scroll on for a peek at Gail’s entertaining tips and recipes from her perfectly designed home kitchen.
What’s your must-have entertaining tool?
Cocktails! My guests can always count on having a drink as soon as they arrive.
What’s your signature cocktail?
Depends on the season, but I generally like to drink tequila with ginger syrup and lots of citrus. While hosting, I like to have spirits, mixers, and plenty of lime out for guests to mix up their own cocktails.
The entertaining rule you never break?
As a guest, my biggest rule is to never show up empty handed. Before I attend a party, I’ll ask the host what I can bring that will be most helpful, such as an appetizer or dessert. Don’t just bring anything – make sure it’s relevant and useful.
What scares you about entertaining?
Being organized. I have to feel like everything is under control at all times for me to really relax and enjoy the party. I’ll cook as much as possible before guests arrive, so I’m not stuck in the kitchen feeling isolated and rushed. My advice: prep as much as you can, and if/when guests offer to help, accept it! People always like to congregate in the kitchen, so if someone wants to help, take them up on it.
Your signature dish for parties?
I’m always drawing inspiration from the seasons and my travels. Everywhere I travel lends inspiration and influence to the way I cook at home – whether I’m exploring a local market, visiting an acclaimed fine dining restaurant, or eating from a stall at the side of the road. The best part of my job is taking all I have discovered and bringing it home to my own kitchen to cook for my family and friends. Cooking with seasonal ingredients is an absolute must. In the winter months, I love making braises, soups, and stews, as they can feed a lot of people and are easy to make in advance. In the spring and summer, I’m serving lots of fresh salads with different homemade dressings.
Where did you learn to cook?
When I was growing up in Toronto, my mom was a cooking instructor and food writer. She made our kitchen a sacred teaching space, and we would spend hours cooking recipes filled with exotic-seeming ingredients together. The happy times I spent with her there helped make the kitchen a place where I’ve always found comfort and exhilaration. It was my love of the kitchen that drew me to New York City after college to pursue a career in food.
What’s your go-to source for recipes?
Food & Wine Magazine first and foremost, because it’s trusted and it’s my home. Some cookbooks that I go back to time and time again are Kitchen Sense by Mitchell Davis, Julia Turshen’s Small Victories for easy weekday meals, and Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone for meatless meals. Hugh Acheson’s The Broad Fork is also great goto for weeknight inspiration. Since I eat so much rich food and eat out for work so often, we try to be very vegetable-focused and eat meatless several nights per week at home.
Dinner party pet peeve?
I don’t want to listen to someone at the dinner table talking about their diets and workouts. I’d rather talk about politics and religion all day before hearing about your workout schedule and diet regime. It’s really boring dinner conversation, and makes other guests feel uncomfortable!
The perfect dinner party playlist includes:
My husband has a music marketing company where he creates playlists for commercial businesses, so music is a huge part of our household. My perfect playlist changes with the mood and type of party, but right now I would say Alt-J, Lord Huron, and Chance the Rapper—my 4-year old daughter Dahlia Rae loves him!
Go-to centerpiece solution:
Beautiful candlesticks. I never have too much clutter on the table because I like the food to be the focal point. Also, I feel like a moment when I became an adult is when I realized that you can use cloth napkins every single day, and you don’t have to be precious about it.
What’s always in your refrigerator?
My cupboards are packed with Canadian things like Coffee Crisp and Maple syrup (but I only buy it in Canada). I also use tahini in everything including salad dressings, hummus, dips, and little tahini and ginger cookies, which are great for the holidays!
Dream dinner guests?
Michael Pollen, Nigella Lawson, and Michelle Obama.
Fill in the blank: “It’s not a dinner party without ____________.”
Great tunes, and better cocktails!