It’s kind of impossible to think of Gail Simmons without thinking of food.
The Toronto native has forged a culinary career over the last two decades that’s touched on just about every possible aspect of the food world. She attended cooking school, toiled on the line inside the kitchens of fabled New York restaurants, worked for a world-renowned French chef, and has been on staff at Food & Wine magazine for the last 12 years, a position that has made her a household name: judge on the popular reality cooking competition TV series Top Chef.
Simmons’ introduction to the Coachella Valley came through not just any food, but the desert’s signature snack: the date shake. “I, from Canada, had never in my life heard of a date shake,” she says of the first time she learned of the creamy concoction. She wasn’t in America’s date capital at the time, but across the country in a Manhattan office building working for esteemed Vogue food critic Jeffrey Steingarten in 2000. After one of his frequent visits to Southern California, he returned to New York with plans to write a story about the iconic shake, which eventually evolved into a broader article about the date industry.
“All of a sudden I found myself recipe-testing date shakes. We were getting dates shipped to us on a daily basis … all different kinds from different date farmers around the area,” Simmons recounts. “And I was drinking date shakes every single day and fell in love with date shakes, but remotely because I’d never been to Palm Springs.”
Three years ago, when Simmons had the chance to visit for the first time, she went straight to Hadley Fruit Orchards in Cabazon for her first locally made version. “It felt like a real homecoming for me. It’s just something that had been on my bucket list,” she says. “I feel like it’s this very specific Palm Springs food staple that’s very special. And now I never leave Palm Springs without having one.”
With several visits to the valley under her belt, Simmons, 40, has fallen in love with a lot more than just ice cream flavored with dates. “I was enamored with it right off the bat, the landscape, the drive, which is so easy from Los Angeles. I remember driving around town and feeling really that this was a place I wanted to spend more time in,” she recounts. “It was quaint, but interesting and the people, you know, obviously the locals are really warm and it just kind of felt like I understand why this is such a lure for Angelenos as an escape.”
Simmons, who resides in Brooklyn with her husband Jeremy Abrams, owner of a music programming business, and their nearly 3-year-old daughter Dahlia, counts herself lucky that a few of her dearest friends who now live in Los Angeles also have homes in Palm Springs. After spending a lot of time in L.A. over the years, Simmons and her family now try to make at least one annual visit to Palm Springs. “It’s never enough,” she admits.
Their stays are filled with as much or as little as they feel like doing. But food is always involved. “We spend a lot of time catching up because these are people we only get to see a few times a year and we always love cooking and entertaining when we’re together.”
The brunch stampede in Little Tuscany. From left, host Brandon Creed, Los Angeles Magazine Food Editor Lesley Bargar Suter, Gail’s husband, Jeremy Abrams, and interior designer Leigh Herzig.
There are egg dishes and fruit plates in the morning, beautiful cheese spreads during cocktail hour, and everything from barbecued whole fish to charred lettuces to roasted radishes made on the outdoor grill for dinner. “Sometimes they’re really simple,” Simmons says of the meals she and her friends whip up together, “but they’re also big and generous and always focused on the delicious ingredients that you can get there.”
A typical visit might include a trip to the farmers market, a bit of antique and furniture shopping, and plenty of pool time. “You know,” says Simmons, “just playing out in the sunshine really.” And it’s that perpetual sunshine, she confesses, that’s a big part of what makes the place so enticing for her and fellow Canadians. “The weather in Palm Springs … it’s so completely contrasting to everything about Canadian weather. We don’t really have a desert. We have glacial tundra and that’s the closest thing we get to the desert and it’s not at all the same,” she explains. “There is something so striking and beautiful and that’s what I personally connect with and I have to believe that all Canadians are probably just drawn to it because it’s another planet for us. It’s just an easy, lovely place.”
VIDEO: Gail Simmons gives her opinions on why Palm Springs is among her favorite destinations.
Last year work brought her to Palm Springs, when she and her Top Chef crew and castmates (including Head Judge Tom Colicchio and Host Padma Lakshmi) shot two episodes in the valley for the show’s 13th season, when the competition traveled up and down the California coast. In Palm Springs, competing chefs had to cater a wedding reception for 25 same-sex couples as part of a challenge. It was a notable moment for Simmons and her team as they reflected on the show’s first season a decade earlier when contestants had cooked for a same-sex wedding in San Francisco before gay marriage was legal. “To come back to California and do it again and know that it was recognized by the state of California, it was really emotional for all of us because it just showed how far we’ve all come,” Simmons says. “I just remember thinking how magical it was that we were able to be there at that moment and have that experience.”
Cocktails before brunch were mixed with SelvaRey Rum handcrafted by friend Seth Gold.
Simmons has not taken for granted the travel experiences she’s been afforded thanks to her years on the show (which usually shoots most of a season in one U.S. city or region before ending in another). She estimates Top Chef has taken her to 35 locations over 14 seasons, from Miami to Chicago to Boston to Charleston, South Carolina, where she recently spent a month shooting the show’s upcoming season. “It has afforded me the opportunity to really see this country. We just don’t flop down somewhere for two days and then leave. We live in the city.”
When she entered McGill University in the 1990s, Simmons couldn’t have imagined that she’d eventually get paid to travel the world eating amazing food and judging the cooking of hundreds of professional chefs. At the time, she’d given no thought to making food a career, despite the fact that her mother had worked as a cooking teacher and food writer for a local newspaper. It wasn’t until Simmons started cooking regularly for herself during college that she realized her mother had empowered her with a lot more food knowledge than she’d realized. She began writing restaurant reviews for her college paper. “I was going to the cheap college joints,” she shares. “I wasn’t reviewing in a fancy way. This was like real beginner stuff, but really fun.”
As a student she also started devouring food magazines and expanding her recipe repertoire — calling home frequently to confirm what was in mom’s matzo ball soup or to get detailed instructions on how to properly layer lasagna. Her mother had promised her a trip as a college graduation gift. Simmons wanted to make a culinary pilgrimage of sorts. She had trouble deciding between the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen (“The idea that the Classic in Aspen was even on my radar in college is kind of funny because I ended up being the director of the festival for many years,” she notes) and a tour through the restaurant meccas of San Francisco and the Napa Valley. She ultimately chose the latter and realizes that that particular adventure changed the course of her life. “I was so taken by that trip and the food I experienced that when I came back it had solidified in me that I wanted to write about food.”
After an internship at Toronto Life magazine, Simmons landed a job working as an editorial assistant for the food editor at Canada’s National Post, all the while nursing a growing fascination with chefs and the inner workings of restaurants. Although she knew she didn’t actually want to be a chef, Simmons did want to learn all she could about the craft of cooking and improve her skills so she could speak the language of the kitchen. She moved to New York to attend culinary school full time for a year before working as a line cook at Le Cirque and Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Vong.
“I got my butt whipped every single day and it was the hardest work I’ve ever done in my life, but it gave me such new respect for chefs and for cooks and the world of kitchens,” she recalls. Simmons then returned to the writing side, taking the job under Vogue’s Steingarten.
When she went to work as special events manager for French chef Daniel Boulud, she got what she dubbed an “MBA” in the restaurant industry. “Until then I had just worked in a kitchen where I was given a bag of carrots to chop. I didn’t know where the carrots came from or how much they cost or how they affect the bottom line or how the restaurant even filled their seats at night,” says Simmons. “I was working for one of the greatest chefs in a four-star restaurant in Manhattan and it was an incredible education.”
Through that role she made contacts at Food & Wine magazine, which, in 2004, offered her a job in the marketing department. “It was an opportunity to go work for this publication that I had revered for so long and really finally put together all those pieces to work in publishing again,” says Simmons, who still directs special projects for the magazine. She soon started doing media appearances on behalf of the magazine. In 2005 cable TV network Bravo approached the magazine about partnering to do a chef competition TV show. “Reality television was in its infancy and Bravo said, ‘Well, if you have an editor who we like, we’ll camera test them and there’s an opportunity for them to represent you.’”
The Roasted Tomatillo and Baked Egg Chilaquiles involved the novel approach of creating “nestling spots” in the tortilla chips and tomatillo salsa mixture to bake the eggs.
Eleven years later, Simmons is still representing. “I was always worried that it would force me to compromise how I talked about food,” she admits. “I’ve found it is just the opposite: It gives me a platform to talk about food in an authentic way and to reach more people than I ever thought possible.”
She says that part of her job is to pay attention to developing culinary centers around the country and that she’s been impressed with Palm Springs’ growing restaurant scene. “ I love that’s happening in Palm Springs in a really organic way.”
Simmons isn’t sure when she’ll be in Palm Springs next, but whenever it is, it will be hard to top her last visit. That’s when daughter Dahlia marked a big milestone: her very first date shake. It won’t be her last.
The Grilled Strawberry, Ricotta, and Pistachio Parfait begins with ripe strawberries sealed in tinfoil and set directly on a medium hot grill until the juices literally burst out.