Top Chef Judge Gail Simmons On The New Season And How To Make Healthy Eating Easy - Exclusive Interview

It's no surprise that trained culinary expert, food writer, and "Top Chef" judge Gail Simmons is passionate about cooking and delicious food. Simmons has co-starred as a judge on Bravo's Emmy Award-winning series "Top Chef" since the show began in 2006. She is also the co-host of "The Good Dish," a TV show that features easy-to-make recipes, money-saving tips, and effortless ways to eat healthily. 

Simmons spends her free time promoting how healthy eating starts at home and teaching others how to cook. She recently partnered with Juice Plus+ and food rescue organization Food Finders to feed almost 6,000 people at an event in Long Beach, California. Event participants left with free bags of fresh produce and Juice Plus+ products. 

In an exclusive interview with Health Digest, Simmons shares what she loves about judging for "Top Chef" and her version of the perfect meal, as well as tips for how you can eat healthily, even with a busy schedule. She also reveals that the next season of "Top Chef" is back with a whole new twist you won't want to miss.

Simmons opens up about Top Chef Season 20

"Top Chef" Season 20 premieres soon — on March 9, 2023 — and this season is different than any other. Instead of all-new contestants, this season features winners and finalists from previous seasons competing for the "World All-Stars" title. Can you tell us a little bit more about it?

It's called "World All-Stars" not because we're bringing winners and finalists from previous seasons [of the American "Top Chef"]. They will be almost completely new contestants to anyone. They are winners and finalists from different versions of "Top Chef" that air all over the world.

Because we've been on air for 20 years and we've been lucky to have a really incredible run, there are actually something like 29 versions of "Top Chef" all over the world. As well as our version, the original version, which airs in hundreds of countries around the world, there's also a "Top Chef Middle East," "Top Chef Italy," "Top Chef France," "Top Chef Poland," "Top Chef Canada," "Top Chef Thailand" — their very own versions that air just in those countries.

For our 20th [season], we wanted to go big, so we got together with all of the executive producers of all the other versions and selected 15 contestants representing 11 countries' versions and chose winners or finalists from those countries to bring them to us in London and do a "World All-Stars."

The stakes are much, much higher, and it is truly the most global season. In addition to the extreme level of cooking and professionalism and the amazing things we get to do with them, they all come from the four corners of the Earth. And English is generally not their first language, and they all cook in very different styles.

Even though they've all been on "Top Chef" before, they've never done our version of "Top Chef." In every country, there are differences, nuances, and tweaks to the formula, so it's a really amazing adventure.

Why Simmons loves being a judge

Congratulations on reaching 20 seasons of "Top Chef"! What keeps you coming back to be a judge for the show?

A lot of things — it's been transformative to my life. When we started in 2006, when the first season aired, there was no food competition at all. There was "Iron Chef" in Japan, and that was it. We've been, for 20 seasons, on the forefront of the evolution or revolution of food in this country. It's been so amazing to watch and discover these incredible talents who, now, 20 seasons later, are all humongous restaurant industry leaders in their own right. They all now have huge careers and restaurants, and they have transformed the economics of restaurants in America, and we are so proud of them.

The number-one reason I keep going back is the talent that we've met along the way and how exciting it is to find someone at that precipice in their career and encourage them and watch them grow into giants of the industry. That's been amazing.

The other two parts of it that I love [are] that at this point we're like a family. We're a crew of 150 people that travel the world. We never do a season in the same place. We go all over the world for our finales. Not only has it become this humongous part of my life — the people, my producers, Tom and Padma, my co-host, and the chefs we've been with along the way — but we've been able to travel the world together.

And such a huge part of travel is the experience of seeing another place through the lens of food, and that's what our mission on the show has always been. We've been able to change the conversation about food by doing that and introduce people to so many amazing things through taking everyone along with us for the ride.

What makes the perfect meal

I'm not going to ask you what your favorite meal on "Top Chef" is–

Yeah. It's not possible [to pick one].

Do you have a favorite location that "Top Chef" has brought you to?

Yes. It's hard to choose because the best thing about being on "Top Chef" [is] it's not like we just visit a city for three or four days and do the greatest hits and leave. Every place we go, we live for anywhere from four to ten weeks, so we really get to know a city. Wow.

I always say that my favorite location was Season 11 in New Orleans. Getting to live in New Orleans — we were there for eight weeks — was so much fun because it's one of my favorite places. It's such a unique city in this country, and it has such an amazing history. The music [and] the food are so, so unique and special.

If I had to think globally about the places we've gone to, Singapore, Tuscany, and then [for] Season 20, we filmed the whole season in London and our finale in Paris. That was a dream from a culinary standpoint for many, many years that we finally were able to realize.

In your professional opinion, what makes the perfect meal?

So many factors. It has so much to do with place and time, as much as it does [with] cooking. The story of what you're eating and where you're eating it is so informative to the experience. 

But if I'm just looking at a dish, I always want a mix of textures and flavors. I'm a really savory[-loving] person. I love dessert for sure, but [I love] something [savory that's] cozy and rustic and delicious [and] that is made with love. That could be anything from a beautiful bowl of pasta to incredible roasted vegetables with a delicious fresh sauce.

I love when food surprises me. I always want a little bit of everything. I want there to be spice and sweetness and sourness and creaminess. I don't know; it's hard to say. There's not one single food that makes my perfect meal because the beauty of being alive, as dramatic as that sounds, is that every three or four hours, you're hungry again, so it's a never-ending celebration.

How to eat healthily on the go

You must be incredibly busy when both filming and not filming. Is there a specific way you try to get your fruits and vegetables in on those busy days?

Yes, and it is a struggle. I don't profess to be perfect at always making sure I eat a balanced meal every time I sit down to eat because it just doesn't happen. I have so many travel days. I have long work days. 

I shot a dessert show for "Top Chef" many years ago, and I remember when I was shooting it, I would try not to eat a lot in the morning before we started shooting because I knew that the rest of the day I would be eating cupcakes and would be so full and sick by 4:00 p.m. But I realized very quickly that I wouldn't eat breakfast, I would then eat cupcakes and cakes and chocolates at work because that was the job, and by 6 o'clock when we would go to [the] judge's table, I felt terrible. I felt lethargic and nauseous, and my blood sugar was totally off, and I could tell that I needed help.

That was 10 years ago, and it was then when I really started thinking about how I need to make sure I'm getting my fruits and vegetables and my energy and my actual nutrients in the morning to start my day. I implemented that at the very least, I would take a great vitamin. I needed to have some sort of supplement vitamin plan that I could take in the morning. Since then, my family's been pretty good about it. Even my kids in the morning know they eat their breakfast and then right before they walk out the door, they get their chewable gummy.

That's actually why I partnered with Juice Plus+, because it's plant-based. It's all based in fruits and veggies and giving you what you need in case you're not able to get it during the day. It's a really easy way to make sure that at the base, I know whether I'm taking a quick shake on the go or two gummies that are vegetable- and fruit-packed. That's what they're made with. The ingredients are transparent, and I can read the label and know I'm getting what I need, no matter where the day takes me. The day often takes sharp left and right turns, and we never know where we'll end up.

A guaranteed way to get your fruits and veggies

Can you tell us more about your partnership with Juice Plus+?

I was really proud to work with them on a couple of things: developing healthy, veggie-forward, plant-forward recipes, whole-food recipes that families can make together that will be long lasting; [and] using ingredients that are pantry-based so that people can start thinking more about how to get your fruit and veggies and have food that's nutrient-dense and delicious. That's been a really fun project.

Last weekend, we were able to spend some time with an organization called Food Finders, which is a food rescue organization that focuses on global health and wellness, as does Juice Plus+. Food Finders rescues food all over Southern California because there's so much food that would otherwise go to waste that's perfectly usable and delicious and nutritious. They make sure that communities that don't have access to fresh ingredients can get access to them.

We did an event in the community in Long Beach, California, which was a beautiful, family-friendly event. I did my cooking demos for these recipes. I cooked vegan chili. I got kids involved, and we also were able to distribute thousands of pounds of food to a community that needs it and teach them something along the way.

The kids who cooked with me were amazing, and they loved my chili, and that's what you want. You want people to get involved in the cooking process and take pride in it so that they're able to do it more. [You want to] teach people simple ways because it's very daunting to get three meals a day on your table for your family. Teach people simple ways to use fresh ingredients combined with things in your pantry — things like canned tomatoes and canned beans, frozen vegetables that are often super nutrient-dense and often get a bad rap but are great to bulk up the value of your everyday meals.

The best vegan chili hands down

I am also a big fan of vegan chili.

You should try mine. I swear, it's so good. My daughter, when I first was testing the recipe ... My daughter's a good eater — she's 9 — but she likes to spite me in the kitchen. If she knows that I love something or really want her to eat something, she often smells my desperation and then will refuse.

I made this chili one day, and she was doing her homework at the kitchen table and asked what was for dinner, and I said, "vegan chili." And she turned her nose up and rolled her eyes and went back to her homework and was like, "I'll do something else." Then I came to the table with my bowl while she was doing her homework. She's like, "That smells good. Maybe I'll have a bite." I'm like, "Sure, have a bite." Five minutes later, she was getting her own bowl. She ate a bowl for dinner that night, a bowl for breakfast the next morning, and a bowl for dinner the following night. I was like, "Wow, that's the win." That's what you want. 

And you realize, don't force it; just have it there. A recipe like vegan chili or a nutritious vegetable soup or stew is the kind of thing you can make in a big batch. It tastes better the next day. You can keep it and eat it all week long, and then you always have a great meal in your fridge that you don't have to worry about [and] that your family will love. I was like, "Wow, I'm preaching to myself here. It really works." I was so proud of her.

Do you have similar events like the one you just did coming up in the future that should be on our radar?

I don't have another one specifically with Food Finders and Juice Plus+, unfortunately, although we hope to do more in the future. I actually sit on the board of an organization in New York called City Harvest, that's also a big food rescue organization. I do lots of things with them all year round.

I also do other cooking events and demos often all over the country. I know I'll be in a couple places over the next couple months. I'm doing some cooking demos at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen in June. I'm doing some cooking demos up in Canada for an event over the summer. Whenever I get a chance to teach and cook in a local community, it's always my favorite thing to do.

Healthy eating starts at home

What are some easy changes people can make at home to eat more healthily or get more fruits and veggies in?

For starters, as much as I want to say "always focus on getting your nutrients from whole foods," I eat everything. I believe in balance in eating. Eat whatever you crave, but also focus on fruits, vegetables, and whole grains when [you] can, as much as [you] can. I know that's really hard.

So there are a few things. Start your day with a routine, just like brushing your teeth. Pop your vitamin, your Juice Plus+ chewable, whatever it is, so you know that there's a baseline of what you can do for the day — you've had some nutrients.

Also, I always believe in, especially for families, getting kids involved in the kitchen. It's hard for all parents to raise kids who want to eat all their fruits and veggies, and no kid is perfect. We are bombarded by over-processed food and junk all day long in the world. At every turn, children see it, and why wouldn't they want it? It's marketed to them, and it looks cool and it's flashy. So the more time you can spend cooking with your kid, the more pride they take in the food they'll eat [and] the more open they'll be to try new things. That's something that I try to do as much as I can, even though I'm a full-time working mom and I sometimes get home too late to do it.

The other thing is thinking about ways to keep things in your pantry that are easy [to] access, that are affordable, and that can always add nutrients to any meal. That means I always have lots of canned beans, chickpeas, dried lentils, dried whole grains, dried beans, brown rice, and quinoa in my cupboard so that they're easy to reach for when I need some nutrients to go with anything else.

Often, I go to my fridge and I have a few things that are almost going bad and I need to clean them out, like I have a random half bunch of spinach and two carrots. Well, you add that to a can of beans that you sauté with that half an onion on your counter, add some dried spices and a little seasoning, and it's a delicious meal that can be made pretty easily without a lot of cost. It's about having the basics in your pantry so that you can build on them when you have the opportunity.

When it comes to food, savor the seasons

Do you have a favorite food?

Champagne? [laughs] No, I'm joking. I say my favorite foods are fresh corn on the cob and peaches in the summertime. Nothing makes me happier than that one month of the year when I can get them and they taste beautiful and I can buy them locally, but it doesn't happen often.

I kind of love everything. It's winter here in New York, and the pears are perfect, so I'm going to hold onto those as long as I can. I don't know; I love everything. Dark chocolate is also really important to me — just a bite before bed, my treat. ... Part of the adventure is always trying new things too. I'm the least picky food judge you'll ever meet.

Global wellness brand Juice Plus+ aims to bridge the gap between what you should eat and what you do eat. With bars, chewables, and protein powders, the product is your answer to a healthier family.

This interview has been edited for clarity.