Even before she was a restaurant critic, a food writer, or Top Chef judge, Gail Simmons’ world, in many ways, revolved around food. She grew up with a food columnist and cooking teacher mom and pickle-maker extraordinaire dad before diving into the world of gourmet herself. But when it comes to instilling that same love for food and cooking in her two children, Dahlia, 10, and Cole, 5, Simmons takes a delicate approach. “Sometimes I worry that my kids smell my desperation. That can work really against you as a parent,” she tells Romper.
Her advice? Model good eating habits; make a wide variety of foods and kitchen opportunities available to them; and perhaps most importantly... “You need to back off a little bit,” she says. “Don’t talk too much about it, don’t make a big deal. Them seeing me cook every day [encourages] them wanting to help. And this is absolute facts: The more they are involved, the more they will take pride in those results, and the more they’re apt to eat it.”
For Romper’s Family Dinner series, Simmons chatted with us about all things cooking, eating, parenting, and, of course, Season 21 of Top Chef.
Are there any foods you strongly associate with your childhood?
A lot of the things in my cultural Judaism and my traditions. My mom’s brisket and matzah balls. The plum cake that she used to make in the summer. My dad is not a cook in any way, but he’s a maker, and there were a few foods that he would make in mass quantities and we would eat them year-round. He made this applesauce using the skin of the plums, which turned the applesauce a bright fuchsia color. We always ate that drizzled with cream for breakfast, as an after-school snack, and at Hanukkah with our latkes, which my mom makes, which are I will still say the best latkes of all time, bar none.
He also made pickles. The best pickles. Every late August, he would get bushels of Kirby cucumbers and make pickles and we stored them in our cellar. Full sour, heavy on the wild dill and dill seed, and the delicious coriander seed caraway spice mix that he would put with it… I’ve never had a better pickle.
Now, do your kids enjoy spending time in the kitchen?
They do! They’re really good in the kitchen. My daughter is at the age where she’s starting to really do things herself, and I think the kitchen is a place where you can show a lot of independence, but also be supervised. She wanted to use the blender the other day, and that was a challenge I got really worried about. I have this super powerful Vitamix that I had to stand very close by, more because I just didn’t think she’d remember to put the top on. But she’s great! She loves to cut up her own vegetables. She loves to make eggs for herself and her brother. She loves to bake, so we do a lot of baking projects.
Her little brother, who’s only 5, loves to be in the kitchen with me. He always says, “Mama, can I help you?” We make eggs together and we make smoothies and he helps put things in the bowl. He loves to stir. He just loves to participate.
Have you had to deal with picky eating with them?
Generally, I think they’re great. But again, they are their own people. I think as parents, you don’t realize until they stop being fed exclusively by your decision-making and take on their own decision-making in food ... You don’t realize it, as with anything in parenting, you cannot force them to be you. And the more you do, as I said, the more they will rebel against it.
I do not claim to have children that are those perfect gourmets, who will sit quietly in a restaurant and eat a bowl of bouillabaisse and slurp down the caviar and order their steak tartar. They are normal, amazing kids. And I will say they are good eaters, but it depends on the day and it depends on what’s happening in their lives. There are so many days where Dahlia will eat something one day, and the next day I’ll go to serve it and she’ll throw it in my face, not literally, and be like, “No. I’m not eating that. That’s gross.” I’ll be like, “What do you mean? You ate three bowls of it yesterday.” Or she will decide that she likes something that a week ago I begged her to eat and she wouldn’t touch. You just have to roll with the punches. There’s some days where I can’t for the life of me get her to eat anything but one thing. Cole too.
Are there any foods you have tried in good faith and would prefer never to eat again?
There’s very little I won’t eat. Obviously, if there were a long list of things that I won’t eat, I would be a lawyer. I couldn’t do the job if I wasn’t open to really trying everything. There is nothing that I won’t eat professionally, barring things that are purely shock value, just to be provocative. That’s not my thing. But there’s really nothing otherwise, if it’s made with love and care, I won’t try.
That said, there are four things that I will never choose to eat when I’m in my home life: I have an aversion to black beans. Kidney and tripe are not really things I’m interested in. And I hate root beer. Saspirilla, not a thing that I enjoy. But these are all things to very easily avoid. They don’t come up that often, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t judge it properly and work with it properly. I think as a professional, that’s what you do.
Tell me about Season 21 of Top Chef!
We are done [filming] the bulk of the season, we just haven’t shot the finale. We’re in Wisconsin exclusively, but we’re all over the state and it feels decidedly Midwestern, which was really fun, I have to say. Because it is a part of the country that I really didn’t know and I think a lot of people overlook.
I think a lot of people, when they think Midwest, they think hot dish and Lutefisk. What do people get wrong about the Midwest?
Wisconsin is an amazing produce and agriculture hub for the country and it also is on the Great Lakes. It’s on Lake Michigan, so I think that informs a lot of the way it eats. It has the most amazing, award-winning cheesemaking. Incredible beer-making: I’m talking about artisanal, really at the highest level world-class brewing. And the sausage making! Amazing and delicious, and also an artistic pursuit: it’s not an easy thing to do really well.
Also, there’s a lot of really fun stuff there that I didn’t understand until I got there. Like frozen custard. We ate a lot of frozen custard. Turns out frozen custard is pretty amazing. And the Saturday Farmer’s Market in Madison, Wisconsin is unlike anything else I've ever witnessed. I think is one of the greatest, biggest, most engaged, extraordinary farmer’s market I’ve ever seen.
I’m excited to watch because I love learning about food cultures and traditions you don’t expect.
Right! You think about the immigrants that settled in this part of the world and how it informs the way they eat and the way they cook.
The indigenous populations, absolutely. And then, the German settlers and the Hmong settlers and the Serbian settlers and immigrants and the pathways that they create. I had the best Serbian food in my life in Wisconsin… not that I’ve eaten an enormous amount of Serbian food, but I can’t stop thinking about it.
What is an MVP pantry item — snack or ingredient — that you always have to have?
Oh my God, there’s so many. It’s hard to have just one. I guess nuts. Nuts get used a lot. They are snacks. They get chopped in salads. They get toasted and put on roast vegetables. We’re lucky there’s no nut allergy in our family! There are always hazelnuts, cashews, almonds, and peanuts or peanut butter products around.
Everybody hates when I ask this question, but I have to ask: What is an ideal meal for you?
Oh, God. Yes, I understand, because people usually ask it as, "What’s your last supper?" And I’m like, "Well, first of all, I don’t want to think about my death." That’s a whole other question! *pensively* An ideal meal… Oh, God. There’s so many. The answer is usually based on, “What was my last travel destination?” “What season is it?” “What am I obsessed with?” All these things come into play.
God. An ideal meal… I love spicy, slurpable ramen. That’s a pretty great meal. If I want to just go all out, I love sea urchin pasta. There’s nothing that could be more decadent and delicious than a spaghetti with sea urchins and chili flakes. It’s what I want to eat all the time, if it existed in a bubble: where you don’t need vegetables, you don’t need to think about the environment, you don’t have to think about anything. Sea urchin pasta, a grilled porterhouse with smashed potatoes, and butterscotch pudding for dessert. I don’t eat that every day, but a girl can dream.