After an endless New York City winter, Gail Simmons is looking forward to spring for a few reasons: The new seasonal vegetables, Season 16 of “Top Chef,” and of course, the birth of her second child. Simmons, mother to 4-year-old daughter Dahlia Rae, is expecting another with her husband, music executive Jeremy Abrams.
“I’ve had some physical difficulties—pregnancy is not easy on the body for sure, and I’m four years older than I was the first time around—but I’m lucky that my body generally has felt really good and I haven’t gained too much weight: It’s all really in my belly,” Simmons says. “I’ve just been able to give myself a bit of a rest and not be so hard on myself mentally, not worry so much, and let myself rest when I need to rest.”
The Toronto-born—and now Brooklyn-based—culinary expert, 41, is best known for her 15-season run (soon to be 16!) as a permanent judge on Bravo’s Emmy-winning reality competition “Top Chef.” On air since 2006, it’s the network’s longest-running reality show and the top-rated food show on cable TV—and it remains a critical and popular success. But Simmons, who represents Food & Wine magazine as its special projects director (a role she’s held since 2004) on the show, has done far more than critique aspiring culinary stars for the past decade: A graduate of McGill University with professional culinary training from the Institute of Culinary Education and experience as special events manager for renowned Chef Daniel Boulud, she’s been immersed in the food world for decades. She has also lent her expertise to the Judges’ and Critics’ Panels on “Top Chef Masters” and “Top Chef Jr.,” acted as host for the pastry spinoff “Top Chef Just Desserts,” and co-hosted “The Feed” on the FYI network in 2014.
On top of all that she’s had on her plate—literally, in terms of dining “Top Chef” contestants’ creations, and metaphorically, as a working mother with many hats to wear—she’s published two books: Talking with My Mouth Full: My Life as a Professional Eater, a memoir, in 2012, and, most recently, Bringing It Home: Favorite Recipes from a Life of Adventurous Eating, a cookbook that ruminates on her global experiences with food, in October 2017. As the title hints, Bringing It Home takes all the lessons Simmons learned and adventures she’s had in her culinary career and brings them to the reader’s very own table. She’s also traveled extensively—both for work and for pleasure—and educated herself on culinary traditions all across the world.
With all the adventures she’s had, she can’t pick a favorite. “I think life is sort of a sum of all its parts. I feel lucky that I have been able to do a whole bunch of things that have formed who I am and how I cook and my life and my travel,” Simmons says. “The travel part of my job is definitely one of my favorite parts of my job—[I love] that I get to go to all of these wonderful places, and be and cook with these people, and have these experiences.”
We’ve known Simmons was a superstar mom for years now: You may have seen her on the January 2015 cover of New York Family Baby’s parent publication, New York Family. Back then, she was navigating new motherhood with a 1-year-old; now as she prepares to welcome her second child this May, she tells us about what’s changed. With everything that’s in front of her—a new “Top Chef” season, further travels, and more, Simmons certainly has her priorities in order. “[I’m] going to focus on having a baby first, and then worry about the rest,” she explains.
Luckily, her second pregnancy has been a bit easier than her first. For example: Simmons hasn’t been suffering from morning sickness like she did with Dahlia. But there have been other challenges, of course (one of them being the fact that, with her present pregnancy, she has Dahlia to look after). “The first time around, I could relax a little more and nap when I wanted to, and that just isn’t an option anymore because I already have one [kid] at home,” Simmons says. “You don’t get to sort of bask in the glow the second time around.”
While it may not be easy for Simmons to “bask” because she’s always on the move with a jam-packed schedule to navigate, she also happens to love being busy and finds it difficult to cut back on her plans and activities. “The hardest part is just knowing when to sit down and sit still and put your feet up,” she notes. “It’s very hard for someone like me to do.”
As a second-time mama, Simmons isn’t as cautious about her daily activities because she’s more confident in herself: “The first time around I had a hard enough time getting pregnant, and so I was so afraid of losing the baby that I was much more cautious.”
But this time, she’s been working out more and been worrying less about what she eats than when she was pregnant with Dahlia: In short, she’s focusing on being healthful, exercising often, and indulging the occasional craving. In her current pregnancy, candy has been the most significant temptation. “This pregnancy, I actually have some cravings for candy, like straight up candy, which is something that [I don’t eat much]—I eat candy from time to time, but not very often. So the fact that I would want a bag of Swedish Fish or something like that is sort of funny,” Simmons laughs. “I found myself really wanting to eat candy, and not healthy candy.”
When it comes to preparing for birth No. 2, naturally, there are pros and cons to having prior experience; while she knows what to expect, she also knows what’s to come.
“Definitely there are moments when I’m more anxious because I know what’s around the corner with delivery and the first few months after childbirth, and how challenging that can be, but I also just feel like I understand the process more and so I’m calmer about that,” Simmons says. “[My husband and I] have a system in place, we have help, we have our home already equipped, we have all the basics that we need, and we know and understand we don’t actually need that much.”
She adds that it can be tough to chase Dahlia around the house as she—Simmons, that is—gets bigger and bigger, and there are certain things she can’t do anymore: She can’t carry Dahlia anymore, and Dahlia no longer fits on her lap when they read together because of her burgeoning baby bump. Simmons also says she now gets tired from walking up and down the stairs in her home. That said, Dahlia is excited to meet her new sibling (Simmons and her husband are electing not to find out the gender of their new addition until the big day comes), which makes all the aches and pains worth it.
One thing Simmons hasn’t taken a break from during her pregnancy is her passion for all things food. Simmons tries to make sure she and her family eat well by storing soups in the fridge and preparing many meals ahead of time. Though Dahlia may not be a foodie just yet, Simmons says that her daughter loves vegetables and, as far as she knows, might have never eaten a chicken nugget. As Simmons says, Dahlia’s only picky when she has certain foods pushed on her.
“We try to give her choice enough that she feels like she’s making her own decisions and she’s empowered in what she eats,” Simmons explains. “But [at the same time] I’m not running a restaurant, so I’m not making 50 meals depending on her whims.” For Simmons, a quick meal might mean a rice bowl or vegetable bowl: Bringing It Home is a great example of what she’ll make for her family on a given night, and what she’s learned to make from her parents and grandparents. Several recipes feature backstories of why the dish is included in the book, from her grandmother’s Matzo Ball soup to any number of dishes she sampled with her husband while traveling abroad.
In fact, the content of her cookbook lifts the curtain and shows us the link between Simmons’ personal and professional lives: It reveals what she tastes off screen and in between takes. The cookbook, with its descriptions and sentimental backstories, takes what might seem complicated and simplifies it, explaining the dish plainly. In both her work on “Top Chef” and at Food & Wine, as well as in her own kitchen, Simmons works as a bit of a “translator”—she takes the professional food world and its many nuances and transcribes what may sound inaccessible or fanciful into terms and instructions anyone can approach.
“On ‘Top Chef’ and in a lot of the work that I do, [being a translator] has sort of become my default job, and I’m really excited about it. I love that I’m not a chef but I live among them, so to speak,” Simmons says. “I speak their language, I am the translator, to break down all of the different things that the chefs have been talking about, how they’ve been cooking, the different techniques they’ve used, and I make sure that the viewer and audience really understand and can then bring it into their own kitchen.”
Though she’s learned much of her culinary prowess through her travels and the people she’s met as a special projects editor for Food & Wine, “Top Chef” judge, and on her personal food-focused vacations, Simmons emphasizes that people who aren’t able to travel—whether for financial or other reasons—can still cook and learn just as much as she has: In fact, it’s easier than ever to learn about new recipes and methods what with TV shows, the internet, and social media (note: You can follow Simmons on Twitter at @gailsimmons and Instagram at @gailsimmonseats).
“I think that’s the beauty of cooking: You don’t have to go anywhere,” Simmons says. “You can do it all from your kitchen, from your own home kitchen. You can get ingredients from all over the world in every neighborhood… You don’t need to travel to the Middle East to understand how to make a great hummus.”
Simmons will be taking her practical-magic approach to food on the road once more—after her new baby arrives, of course—when the next season of “Top Chef” gets under way. Season 16 of “Top Chef” will film in Kentucky and explore the rich culinary heritage of the region; production starts this spring, and the season’s premiere date will be announced to expectant fans soon.
Right now, Simmons is looking at the smaller things, like how her hardest daily task is picking up toys her daughter leaves lying around. “I feel like I have to bend down every two seconds,” Simmons laughs. Beyond that, she’s just trying to care for herself and Dahlia as best she can, both physically and mentally. She emphasizes that mental health is just as important for expecting moms as physical healthy, if not more so.
“I’m not good at sitting still very often,” she says. “Carrying a child is a lot of physical work for your body… When you’re not sleeping as well, that rolls into the rest of your life, you’re tired, and that’s the beginning of the end because you’re just going to get more tired from here on out when the baby comes. It’s just being conscious of those things and giving yourself the time that you need to recuperate.”
To learn more about Gail Simmons, visit gailsimmons.com!