Summer may get all the love for its long days and exciting nights, and New Year’s Eve has the reputation of being a time to set new routines, but fall just might be the most magical season of all if you’re looking to entertain and indulge in transformation.
As the leaves change color and the weather cools, kids head back to school and we all turn a little inward. For celebrity chef, food writer, cookbook author and Top Chef judge Gail Simmons, that means changing the what and how of what she eats, drinks, creates and celebrates.
The recently naturalized American citizen was born and raised in Canada, but has long made a home for her family in Brooklyn. She’s adopted Thanksgiving as her favorite holiday, loves to gather dinner inspiration at her local farmer’s markets, and knows just what wine to pair with a perfectly-roasted honeynut squash—but it’s not really fall until she makes her family’s favorite, simply known around her house as “the soup.”
We caught up with Simmons to hear all about her favorite fall things, and maybe we got a sneak peak about the upcoming 20-year anniversary season of Top Chef.
You grew up in Canada, so you definitely experienced the changing of the seasons.
Oh, yes. I love that I live in a place with four very different times of year. My view as I'm talking to you is the moment. September and October, then May and June are the absolute best months to live here because it's not cold, and it's not hot. It's like 55 to 60 degrees, and it's full-on sunshine. The leaves are orange and yellow. I'm looking at the courtyard of the building I live in, which is full of colors and covered in cotton cobwebs and jack-o-lanterns from our kids. I'm wearing a light sweater, and I can wear a light jacket if I want. It's perfect.
Are there other ways your family likes to honor the season?
We definitely get in the spirit. Honor is a much nicer word than we use, only because fall also signifies back to school. That is often a hard transition, coming from a summer of freedom and warmth, swimming and all the things the kids got to do. While fall is beautiful, it also means back to routine, so a lot of energy is spent on that, but we do things around here in little nuanced ways.
Last night, I made the kids their favorite soup. We just call it “the soup,” and we make it through the winter once a week, because my daughter will eat three bowls for dinner and a bowl for breakfast. It's so healthy and delicious. We made the soup for the first time this season because the temperature dropped into the high 40s. My whole family was so excited, and we were reinvigorated.
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Wow! What is this soup?
It's a vegetable, lentil and chickpea soup. It's a variation of a soup I made and published in my cookbook. In my book, the spices are a little more forward and I make chermoula, which is a North African green herb sauce that I usually drizzle on top. For the kids, I've modified it a bit. I take out the chermoula and go a little easier on the spices, but all the veggies, red lentils and chickpeas are there, and my children just devour it. Making the soup for the first time signifies a change of season in my house.
That goes for soups in general. I make a lot of soups and stews. It's my favorite thing to make in the fall into winter.
It's so cozy. You’ve got to have a warm bowl in your face.
There's other things. We had a Halloween decorating party on the weekend with all the other families in our small building. It's actually a converted old church, and all the families decorate this little outdoor communal space that we share. We decorated the courtyard over the weekend and carved pumpkins. I took all the seeds and made toasted pumpkin seeds, which is a snack everyone in my family loves. There's a lot of things I do in the kitchen that are a distinct change of season, and give a really fall feel around my house.
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In recent years, people are getting more in tune with seasonality. How can people take advantage of that in their home cooking?
I think the best indicator is going, if you can, to a farmer's market near you. That's where I get a lot of my cooking inspiration. Right now, we are seeing the end of that late summer harvest, which means peppers and end of season tomatoes into apples. We're starting to get a lot of beautiful, different grapes. Of course, the squash.
When I was at the farmer's market on Saturday, I picked up a beautiful honeynut squash, which looks sort of like baby butternut. They're even sweeter. I hadn't seen them yet this season, so I grabbed a few of those, and I roasted them in the oven drizzled with a little bit of cinnamon. I roasted them simply so the kids could eat them plain if they wanted. I've been putting them in my salads all week or my veggie grain bowls that I make for lunch.
What else changes in your kitchen this time of year?
My cooking technique. I'm bringing things in from the grill to the oven, roasting a lot and starting to braise as the weather gets colder. That's what I'm craving. The best thing about roasting tons of seasonal vegetables or braising, making stews and soups, is that's a really great technique for weekly food prep. I'm not braising one squash just for dinner that night. I braised three, and they're now delicious and caramelized, and I can keep them to use in all different ways. Or you make a soup that can be frozen or sits in the fridge. I make the soup, and even though there's only four of us, I make sure there's at least 10 or 12 servings, and we eat it all week long.
My favorite way to entertain this time of year is to braise something or make a stew or soup, and I can make it the day before or that morning. All you have to do is reheat it, and there's very little in-the-kitchen time, so I'm not scrambling to cook when my guests come over. That kind of warm, cozy cooking lends itself well to the holidays.
I also change the way I'm drinking. That means putting away some of the rosé and spritzes I was drinking all summer long, and moving into the toastier, warmer spices that I'm cooking with. For cocktails, I'm wanting toasty or warmer things, too, but for wine; I'm changing to light reds that are great for Thanksgiving, and also light to medium bodied reds that go well with all of those roasted flavors. I have partnered with Diora Wines, and that's when I break out their pinot noir, because I know it's going to go with all those fall flavors that I'm craving and cooking with.
I love that you mentioned Thanksgiving. Do you stick to a traditional Thanksgiving spread, or do you play around with the format?
I have adopted it as my favorite holiday, because it's a completely non-denominational holiday that everyone can celebrate by spending a day in the kitchen and integrating their own personal heritage, cultural flavors and origins into what has become the most quintessential American meal. Because I don't have these generations of traditions, I don't have to spend Thanksgiving with my family in Canada, which gives me license to do whatever I want and create traditions that will become my American children's traditions for years to come.
We’ve done different things over the years. We've cooked the whole traditional Thanksgiving. We've had Friendsgiving with huge potlucks. We go to friend’s of ours who live in the city, and the husband would grill the turkey on the barbecue; really smoke it low and grill it for hours. I would do all the sides and bring the pie. Some years that meant giving the side dishes a Middle Eastern or Israeli spin. Some years it meant more Asian flavors; just experimenting in the kitchen, because that was what I was craving.
The last couple of years, we've gone out to a friend's farm in Vermont. They moved during the pandemic to their family's dormant apple orchard. They moved up there permanently and revitalized it. It's this incredible project, so we spend a few days there cooking and hanging out, doing all sorts of things with apples.
It's now a nonprofit called Radical Apple, and all the proceeds go toward the Vermont food bank. It's a fully closed loop of giving, so it's a great example for my children. Thanksgiving has to mean something. They need to remember what we're doing.
That feels like absolutely the right way to approach the festivities. You've been so blessed to travel and be exposed to so many different cultures of cooking.
I don't claim to be an expert, but experiencing the food of other cultures allows a window into that culture and leads to an understanding and appreciation of diversity. That to me is the ultimate goal of travel; to better understand the world and have a broader perspective. I think that really translates to the table.
You don't need to get on an airplane to taste and understand the origin of another culture. How we eat is how we experience the world in my house; through the kitchen, and by talking about the cultures that we're eating from. I think it's just the most beautiful thing about food. It is completely universal and a never-ending exploration. You don't have to love everything, and sometimes I fail miserably at my attempts, but it helps you understand and appreciate where other people are from. We can all use a little more understanding these days.
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You were just in London filming the next season of Top Chef?
Yes! We shot the whole season. We were in London for almost two months and it was extraordinary. This is a very exceptional season for us. It's our 20th anniversary of the show, and we work really hard to make it better every season. This season was our first shot completely abroad. London is halfway between East and West, and the season is made up of contestants who are either winners or finalists from their version of Top Chef all over the world.
There are 29 versions of our show, and they all are a bit different. We were the original, and now there is Top Chef Italy, France, Germany, Poland, Thailand, Middle East, etc. We brought 16 contestants that represent 11 countries of origin to London to compete against each other. It is truly a global season, and I think London is the best place possible to do that because it is such a global city. The food and immigrant influence in London is so fascinating, and so different than America in a really pronounced way.
It was nice to do a version of Top Chef that felt truly global and was just a different narrative, and the contestants were just—I'm in love with everyone. They were fascinating and brilliant.
Anything else you’re working on that you can share?
My ongoing partnership with Diora that I'm really proud of. They have really accessible, really delicious wines. I love having the chance to be inspired by their story and create recipes that go beautifully with their wines, and I do that throughout the year for all seasons.
To create a portfolio of recipes that inspire people to get back in the kitchen every season, do something different, make it delicious and pair it with a great wine? Wine pairing doesn't have to be complicated and fussy. You don't have to break the bank to have a really great quality product both with what you're eating and what you're drinking.
Follow Simmon’s on Instagram for more delicious inspiration and to follow her ongoing culinary journey; and visit Diora Wines online to try her ever-evolving seasonal recipes. Her cookbook Bringing It Home is available via gailsimmons.com, and Top Chef: World All-Stars is set to air in early 2023. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Photography by: Will Ragozzino/BFA.com; Gail Simmons; Chad Kreig