When Gail Simmons moved to New York City from her hometown of Toronto for culinary school in 1999, having a family wasn’t top of mind.
“I came on a mission to become an expert in food,” Simmons tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue, on newsstands Friday. The 42-year-old Bravo star trained in the kitchen of the iconic restaurant Le Cirque before working in magazines and eventually landing her role as a judge on Top Chef in 2006. “I knew I had to differentiate myself from all the other people who wanted to be food critics, so that was my focus.”
After marrying Jeremy Abrams, 41, in 2008, Simmons didn’t feel the immediate urge to start a family. “I never anticipated being on television, and that became so consuming and took a lot of hard work, energy, time and travel,” she says. “I didn’t want to succumb to the pressure of, ‘Oh, I’m supposed to have a kid now,’ when we financially and mentally wanted to do other things.”
But when the couple decided they were ready, they discovered the road to parenthood wasn’t as smooth as they’d imagined. “The old-fashioned way wasn’t working,” she says. “It was tough because I always knew I wanted a child. I was taught that if you work hard, you can get what you want. That’s not the case with making babies sometimes.” After four years of trying, Simmons gave birth to their daughter, Dahlia, now 4, in 2014, and welcomed a new son Kole, 5 months, in May. Both were conceived through in vitro fertilization.
“There are a lot of advantages to being an older parent,” she says. “I think it comes with more mental stability. We’ve continued to travel and have our careers and, when we threw kids in the mix, we were calmer and more prepared than we would have been when we were young.”
Her family, she says, has helped her stay focused as her career has taken off: Simmons released her first cookbook Bringing It Home in 2017, continues her role as Special Projects Director for Food & Wine magazine, a title she’s held since 2004, and is now on her 12th year of Top Chef (the new season premieres Dec. 2 on Bravo).
When she is on the road filming, her fellow judges Tom Colicchio and Padma Lakshmi have become her second family. “I would equate our relationship with that of siblings,” she says. “We’ve been through so much together. We’ve all had children, there have been marriages, divorces, deaths, and illnesses. But no matter what, we sit at that table and we have a real conversation about food because that’s what bonds us all.”
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Simmons brings that culinary passion back to her family’s apartment in Brooklyn, where she finds balance in the kitchen. “It’s hard to be healthy when you’re filming on location for six weeks, so when I’m home I try to find easy, fresh food to cook,” she says. But she doesn’t obsess over counting fat and calories. “When I’m off duty, I definitely think about eating more healthfully, but it’s not like I detox. Some people say don’t talk religion or politics at the table, but my two things are diets and workouts. I don’t want to hear about it.”
While Simmons has had some of the world’s most famous chefs cook meals for her, she says it’s sometimes the simplest foods she craves the most. “Right after I had Kole, one of our friends came over with a basic turkey sandwich with lettuce and mustard on whole wheat bread, and it was the best gift I was given after childbirth,” she says. “It made me so happy. That’s the stuff that keeps me going.”