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Mark Feuerstein

Gail Simmons Biography

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Birth Name: Gail Simmons

Gail Simmons was born on May 19, 1976, in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, one of three children of Renee and Ivor Simmons. She grew up in a Jewish family steeped in culinary tradition, notably by way of her mother, a food writer for Toronto's Globe and Mail newspaper. The family's holiday traditions centered around Jewish delicacies such as latkes and brisket, and Renee even designed the family kitchen so as to host a boutique cooking school within its small confines. After graduating secondary school, Simmons went to Montreal to study Spanish and anthropology at the city's prestigious McGill University, writing restaurant reviews on the side for the school paper. She initially planned to work in international development, but after college and a six-month, post-grad jaunt to Spain, she found herself wondering what to do next with her life. She took an internship with Toronto Life magazine and began gravitating back to familiar subject matter, the epicurean imprint made upon her by her family life. Simmons contributed food-oriented stories to Toronto Life as well as the National Post newspaper, but eager to bolster her bona fides in the subject, she transplanted to New York City in 1999 to attend the Institute of Culinary Education. After cooking school, Simmons netted the plum, if demanding, entry-level job as an assistant to Jeffrey Steingarten, the influential food critic for Vogue magazine and later a judge on the cooking competition show, "Iron Chef America" (2005- ). After two years working for Steingarten, she immersed herself in New York's haute restaurant scene, doing time at the tony Le Cirque 2000 and Vong.

In 2002, Simmons took a job in public relations and event coordination for Daniel NYC, parent of the network of high-end eateries run by French-born, internationally acclaimed chef Daniel Boulud. Her experience there lay the groundwork for her jump to Food & Wine in 2004, where she took the title of special projects director, serving as an interlocutor between the magazine's editorial content and its sponsored haute couture events such as the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, CO. In 2006, the cable channel Bravo came knocking, seeking to leverage the magazine's prestigious imprint onto its new reality show concept, "Top Chef." The show's set-up was similar to other popular reality shows: start with a number of contestants and winnow them down show by show via a panel of judges. The chefs in "Top Chef" would vie for $100,000 and a write-up in Food & Wine. The magazine assessed its special projects director as a telegenic talent, so when the show's first season premiered in spring 2006, Simmons found herself on board as one of those judging the contestants' cooking alongside renowned chef/entrepreneur, Tom Colicchio. Curiously, though she balanced her assessments of the competing chefs with positive and negative feedback, producers decided they needed to gin up the "drama" of the show with a "mean judge," a la Simon Cowell on "American Idol" (Fox, 2002- ), and edited Simmons' comments to emphasize her more critical input. This emphasis would lessen with time, showing Simmons to be much more fair and sensitive than had initially been portrayed.

Still, her genuine tendency not to sugar-coat her opinions made her a fan favorite, and "Top Chef" soon became the No. 1-rated food-related show on TV, drawing 2.7 million viewers at one point; an impressive rating for cable. In late 2008, one episode even challenged the chefs to cater Simmons' bridal shower. Soon after, she married fellow Canadian expat, Jeremy Abrams, founder of Audiostiles, a New York company that tapped Apple's iPod technology to create custom soundtracks for institutional clients, including high-end eateries. Bravo, eager to make a franchise of its successful show, created a spin-off, "Top Chef Masters," in 2009, with its competitors drawn from the growing ranks of celebrity chefs, and extended the brand again in 2010 with "Top Chef: Just Desserts." This time, the network brought Simmons out of the judges' table and made her the host of the show, bolstering her camera time as she introduced and interacted with both judges and contestants, who were charged with working exclusively in sweet fare. Though continuing with the original "Top Chef," Simmons' increasingly busy schedule meant she scaled back her Food & Wine event work, even as she continued to contribute to the magazine's editorial content. Also in 2010, she introduced a less glam-centric side to her foodie ethos, becoming a contributor to AOL's website. A more dressed-down Simmons would become one of the site's leading draws in short how-to streaming video segments on the site.