How Top Chef’s Gail Simmons stays healthy, no matter what’s served up at work

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Photo: Gail Simmons
For the last 15 years, Gail Simmons has worked on the food front lines—from assisting Vogue’s head food critic being a judge on Bravo’s Top Chef. 

But even though she’s all about the envelope-pushing combinations and unique ingredients when she’s deciding who has to pack up their knives and go, open her refrigerator at home and you’ll find that the Canadian-born Brooklyn-based foodie is all about simple, fresh ingredients in her own life.

“When I was younger, I used to eat out for most of my meals, but now that I have a daughter, I’m all about cooking at home and spending time creating things for our family,” she says. “And shockingly, my two year old doesn’t love crazy, complex meals.” (She’s possibly the only person in the world who would turn down free gourmet meals from Simmons—but, hey, she’s young.)

Instead, Simmons is all about farmers’ markets and smaller, local supermarkets, where she stocks up on spices, sauces, and the freshest fruits and veggies of the season. “I usually stick to a veggie-heavy diet, since I tend to eat so richly and heavily for work—whether for Top Chef or recipe testing for my upcoming cookbook,” she explains. Her favorite go-to meal for dinner? Tons of roasted veggies with some kind of farro or quinoa on the side.

And don’t think that this Top Chef is above a little week-long meal prep: “I’m a huge believer in leftovers,” Simmons says. “I think it really says something about who you are as a person if you don’t like leftovers.”

Luckily for Simmons, her next project is a little less focused on eating on-camera—this time she’s behind it, as the producer of a new show called Star Plates. The Food Network show, which debuts September 27, has super-famous celebs taking on the role of line cook at their favorite restaurants (think Mindy Kaling taking on orders at the Red Rooster in Harlem).

Wondering what the ultimate Top Chef always keeps stocked? Keep reading to take a peek inside Gail Simmons’ refrigerator.

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Photo: Jenna Cantagallo

How would you describe your cooking style?

The main pillar of my cooking style lies in a solid foundation of knowledge. Even though I generally don’t plan a shopping list when I’m at the market, I really never “wing it”—I come from a very formal training background. That said, I’m a mom, so my meals follow a home cooking style—I always listen to cravings and let the ingredients we have dictate the meals. But with my formal training, comes that emphasis on fresh and delicious whole ingredients.

What does a normal day of eating look like for you?

It always changes and looks different because of my work, but I love my kitchen at home—when we moved, I basically built my dream kitchen—so anytime I can cook at home, I do. Instead of the traditional family dinner, our family is all about the family breakfast. We don’t make anything super crazy, but we’ll test out different kinds of eggs, pancakes, yogurt with different add-ins, or tons of different kinds of toasts. My daughter is super into peeling eggs right now, so that’s a really easy thing to make for the week with some veggies or fruit on the side. Other than breakfast, my day is all over the place—testing new recipes, eating on Top Chef, or attending different events or dinners.

How do you stay healthy when eating is literally your job?

The more I cook at home the healthier I eat, because I pay much closer attention to what ingredients I’m using. When it comes to eating at work, balancing quantity has been my real secret—and struggle. I’ve learned over the years how to not eat my whole plate, but just trying bites to get all of the flavors—that’s the only way not to feel so stuffed after work. (But it’s seriously an occupational hazard because the food is always so good.)

I also make sure to stay really active so that I can focus on enjoying the food, rather than stressing. I’m constantly chasing after my toddler, which helps, walking is my biggest form of transportation, and I’m a big runner and SoulCycler. Whenever I can be active, I try to work it in—whether it’s biking, taking the stairs, or popping outside between takes.

Alright, let’s get into the fridge! First up, the top shelf—Can you tell me about that ceramic pitcher? And is that fermented foods on the right?

My moose pitcher! That’s filled with the most delicious maple syrup you’ll ever have. I bought it from Montreal—I was born in Toronto, so proud Canadian here and I’m obsessed with maple syrup. I add it to a bunch of my cooking and baking. On the right is all of my fermented foods. I sometimes pickle my own kimchi, but that’s bought from a market upstate. There are turnips picked in beet juice from a local Middle Eastern market, sour dill pickles in that jar, and preserved lemons behind that. We love to add them to meals or just snack on pickled foods—my daughter loves to sing this song about pickled foods right now.

So cute! Let’s move down—what’s marinating on that plate?

That’s a recipe that I was testing for my cookbook that’s coming out next year—beet-cured salmon. I just added beets, salt, dill, a little lemon zest and was just about to slice it after this picture. It ended up turning out so beautifully—a really cool ombre pink color—and tasted delicious.

The rest of the shelves look to be pretty filled with different individual fruits and veggies—is it normal for you to have a ton of fresh ingredients ready to go?

Usually, yes—although end-of-summer really is the magic month for me. The local markets are filled with such delicious produce that we just hoard fruits and veggies. A picture in February would look a lot different! There are cucamelons in there, which I was so excited about, because they are usually only perfect for about one week every summer—they have a great sour, citrus note to them. I have sugar snap peas and celery for snacking, figs underneath that I roasted and added to yogurt, and some eggplants that I roasted with mint, chile pepper, salt, and chopped with some cherry tomatoes, oil, and lemon. There’s usually always some berries or watermelon in there, some green beans and carrots for a quick dinner. I have some papaya in there—which I actually don’t love, but bought for a recipe I was testing—and my daughter ended up eating the entire thing right there.

She sounds like a fruitarian! I notice iced tea—are you not a coffee person?

I love iced tea. I generally just do coffee first thing in the morning and mostly water throughout the day, but iced tea is my not-so-guilty pleasure. I’ve worked with Pure Leaf for years, but it’s such a great partnership because I truly do love their tea, plus it’s made from real tea leaves, so it just really works.

Photo: Gail Simmons

Time to move to the door. So many sauces and condiments—which one is your favorite to cook with?

Ooh, good question—I have so many. I love mustards and hot sauce so much, I even have specific sections for each one. I also really love to use tahini in my cooking. The tahini I have here is from Seed + Mill in Chelsea Market [in New York City]—it was started by three young women and they hand-press the sesame seeds, it’s really incredible. My organic maple butter is also one of my favorites—I’ll drizzle it on ice cream or smear it on toast and it’s so good.

What is your go-to meal to serve when friends or family come over?

This is hard for me to answer. First of all, it totally depends on the season. Recently, we had friends over and I grilled halibut filets and made fish tacos. I had these amazing corn tortillas I had gotten from Austin, Texas, and made a huge salad with juicy tomatoes, green beans, and corn. Earlier in the summer, I roasted fish stuffed with lemon and herbs for one dinner party and made a pasta with sauteed swiss chard and fresh mozzarella for another.

If it’s a little cooler out, I love to make big stews or soups—something easy. I obviously want everything to taste good, but the most important thing is that it’s easy and I can prep beforehand—I want to be able to enjoy the company, not spend the whole night in the kitchen.

Are you all about a great breakfast too? Try this delicious low-sugar porridge that will make you want to wake up in the morning. Or learn how to meal-prep like a Top Chef with this wellness expert’s tips and tricks.

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