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So What Do You Do, Gail Simmons, Host of Top Chef: Just Desserts?

'You have to understand food beyond just liking to eat'

By Blake Gernstetter - November 17, 2010
"Pack your knives and go." Gail Simmons did just that -- and hasn't stopped since. Fresh from college, all she wanted was to be a food writer. But the Toronto media scene was lacking, so she packed up and headed to New York. Her ambition propelled her through culinary school, two grueling kitchen jobs, a 'stars aligning' stint as food critic Jeffrey Steingarten's assistant, and a job handling events and PR for chef Daniel Boulud -- and no regular bylines. But when her behind-the-camera experience with Boulud helped her land a role at Food & Wine back in 2004, she couldn't have anticipated the next course: a screen test and a plane ticket to San Francisco to judge the first season of soon-to-be Bravo sensation Top Chef.

Fast forward a few years, and Simmons is a household name and host of her own show, Top Chef: Just Desserts. Ahead of tonight's season finale, we caught up with Simmons to discuss whether every magazine needs a TV presence to compete, her plans to pen a book, and her tips for a stress-free Thanksgiving.

Name: Gail Simmons
Position: Host, Top Chef: Just Desserts; special projects manager at Food & Wine
Resume: Got her start as an intern for Toronto Life, then wrote for a newspaper in Toronto before moving to New York to attend culinary school. Worked as a commis at Le Cirque 2000 and Vong. Served as food critic Jeffrey Steingarten's assistant for two years, through whom she met chef and restaurateur Daniel Boulud. Worked as Boulud's special events manager for almost three years. Joined Food & Wine in 2004 as special projects manager. Became a judge on season one of Top Chef, and began hosting Top Chef: Just Desserts in 2010.
Birthday: May 19
Hometown: Toronto, Canada
Education: McGill University in Montreal; the Institute of Culinary Education (formerly The Peter Kump New York Cooking School)
Marital status: Married
First section of the Sunday Times: "I would say the Style section. But, really the Wednesday Times is more important to me."
Favorite TV show: 30 Rock
Last book read: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. "The book I'm reading now is called The Last Fish Tale by Mark Kurlansky."
Guilty pleasure: Spicy chicken wings. "In New York, when I'm having a craving, the best I have found are at this place Wogie's."
Twitter handle: @GailSimmons

What do you think makes a good food writer?
It's all about the research. If you do your research really well, it will sort of write itself. It's not just about just going to the library, but research means tasting, and tasting, and tasting again. And trying, and learning, and being adventurous, and keeping your eyes and ears open, and knowing both sides of an argument, and retasting. And then retasting again. I don't think that anyone can write about food without knowing about food. I'm not saying that there's one way to become a food writer. There are so many ways, especially in this amazing age of digital technology, and so many ways to go about a job, or getting a job. But you have to understand food beyond just liking to eat.

How has your role at the magazine evolved since the franchise with Top Chef has really taken off?
It's totally changed in every way. When I first started Top Chef, my role at the magazine really was running the event department, which means I was directing the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen. After three or four seasons of juggling both the Classic and leaving for large periods of time to film Top Chef, we realized that that didn't make much sense. My role at Food & Wine has really become more of an ambassador for the magazine because Top Chef in all of its incarnations takes up so much of my time. But I still do a lot of other appearances for Food & Wine. I do a lot more cooking demos and on-camera stuff for them, not just for Top Chef but the Today show, The Early Show. I work really closely with the editors on a number of content projects. I try to write a little bit for Food & Wine, as much as I can and time allows.

"You can't just live on a piece of paper, just like a chef can't just live behind a kitchen door anymore. To really expand, you need to be multi-dimensional."

Do you think that magazine brands now need to have a TV presence to compete?
I don't think they need it; there are certainly many that don't. No matter what your brand is, whether it's a magazine brand, whether it's a restaurant brand, whether it's a product brand, I don't think that in this moment you can be two-dimensional in any way. You can't just live on a piece of paper, just like a chef can't just live behind a kitchen door anymore. To really expand, you need to be multi-dimensional. Food & Wine isn't just a magazine anymore, it's a brand. Obviously there's our big TV component, and we've been so grateful for that relationship with Bravo, and how well that's translated.

Bravo really was the first network that really successfully, at least as far as I can remember, integrated magazines into the television experience in a really organic way that gave Bravo credibility and gave the magazine credibility and didn't feel forced. Food & Wine, from a publishing standpoint, had to become not just two dimensional, not just three-dimensional by adding that TV layer, but four, five, six-dimensional in that now there also needs to be an incredibly strong online presence, an incredibly strong iPad application, which we just launched and we're super proud of.

Gail Simmons extols the virtues of canned pumpkin in this video from The Pantry Project on Try her recipe for Pumpkin Cheesecake with Honeyed Walnuts, a Thanksgiving favorite.
Bravo puts a lot of effort into engaging all of its fans on Twitter. How do you use it to connect with your audience, to promote your projects?
It's an amazing tool to have this live, real-time experience with people who are looking to you for information, people who are interested in you. And it's so reciprocal, right? Because there's people that follow me but there's also people I'm following, and I am following all of these people for the same reason that people are following me. My kind of test is, well, what do I want to know from my favorite people who I follow? And how can I give people who follow me that experience? I really try to only use it as a tool to connect with people who aren't living in New York City, necessarily, and want to know like, "What's Gail doing?" I give information I think is relevant and interesting, and obviously if that means I'm going to be making a public appearance I want people to know because if they want to join me, I want to have them there. If I am in an article that I think is relevant, or if I'm doing some kind of event or a charity, if I have a product or a brand. Ultimately I'm hoping to do a book.

Like a memoir?
Well, I can't really discuss it yet. We're just at the beginning of figuring that out, and so obviously -- if people are looking for information from me in the short format, I hope that they'll want to know more in the long form when that comes out.

Let's talk about Top Chef: Just Desserts. What was going through your mind when you landed your own show?
We just felt like the time was right. We'd had so much response from our viewers and from pastry chefs coming to us saying, "When are you going to let pastry chefs show people how to make a good dessert, for once?" We were all talking about it, and Bravo said, "We'd like you to think about hosting it." It just seemed like the right progression for me, too, because after so many seasons of doing Top Chef, my role in the show had been well established, and I've worked really hard at creating for myself a voice that the audience can trust; a voice that's somewhere between our viewer and Tom [Colicchio], that translates the kitchen experience for every person who isn't a professional.

"Everybody who applies for a job with me has their own food blog. That shows they are committed and interested, but how do you differentiate between 65 food blogs? You need to have a point of view."

I wanted a challenge, and it was just a perfect way to move to the next step and to try hosting, but hosting in a way that for me, felt really safe. Because it was the brand I knew, the show I loved, same format, same producers, and it was for Bravo, who have basically become my roommates. I knew I had support, but that I also could go into a new role with a new formula, with a new show that I could also make my own.

So many of the competitive reality shows want contestants to showcase their personality. What are your tips for someone who wants to show their personality through their work?
You need to have a point of differentiation. What makes you unique, especially because we are so saturated in the media world with content. Everybody who applies for a job with me has their own food blog. That shows they are committed and interested, but how do you differentiate between 65 food blogs? You need to have a point of view, but that point of view also has to be open to other people's experiences and open to you learning every day, and you can't hold too tight, just like a chef on the show. When chefs on Top Chef hold on too tight to an idea and aren't able to adapt that concept, ultimately it always fails, because if they don't execute it perfectly, and they're not able to adapt it to the specific challenge, their dish is going to fail.

Is there a season two lined up for Just Desserts
I do not know that; that is a question for Bravo. So if you get the answer, will you let me know?

If there is a season two, was there anything that you would change about your approach? Or are you totally satisfied seeing yourself on TV?
I blog about the episodes and I work with Bravo on a lot of content for [them], so I certainly have to see them. As much as I would be happy not watching them sometimes, I'm not one of those people who can say, "Oh, I never watch myself." I don't have that choice. And I can get nitpick-y, but from that kind of macro level, there's not much I would change. I'm really proud of [the show], I'm so proud of the characters, and that's the X factor in any reality show: the casting. We really struck gold.

What are your tips for a stress-free Thanksgiving?
Full disclosure: I'm Canadian, so I haven't been celebrating American Thanksgiving all of my life, but it is certainly my favorite adopted holiday. Stress-free is being organized. That includes, you know, days before plotting out how many dishes you're going to need, what the menu is, where is it coming from, buying your ingredients a day or two in advance if you can so that you know you have it, so that the day there's no disasters because you run out of limes and all of the stores are closed. And asking for help; I recently overcame that fear. I was one of those people who entertain at home and want to do everything myself. Then you're spending your whole day in the kitchen, and you miss out on what the experience of Thanksgiving actually is, which is being with all the people who you are thankful for in your life.

NEXT >> AvantGuildHey, How'd You Use Social Media to Crowdsource A Cookbook, Food52?

By Blake Gernstetter.

© WebMediaBrands Inc. 2010. All Rights Reserved.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. The foregoing is the sole property of WebMediaBrands Inc. The opinions and views expressed in the interviews and/or commentaries are solely those of the participants and are not necessarily the views of WebMediaBrands Inc., its affiliates or subsidiary companies.

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