Yesterday’s episode of Food Republic Today featured an interview with Top Chef judge Gail Simmons. She spoke about her new cookbook, Bringing it Home, why she won’t judge another burger competition and how she sees change can occur in the restaurant industry in light of sexual misconduct cases, namely that involving New Orleans chef John Besh. Besh was accused in October of sexual misconduct and later stepped down from his position of CEO at Besh Restaurant Group. He is slated to appear in the upcoming season of Bravo’s Top Chef, which was recorded prior to the scandal. Simmons also answered a question about her upstart production company, Bumble Pie, which she co-founded with partner Samantha Hanks in 2014, with a goal to help give women more of a voice in broadcast media. Below is an edited and condensed version of Simmons’ conversation with host Richard Martin on the podcast.
How does it feel on Top Chef now that you have to reckon with John Besh’s scandal?
I think it’s a lot of personal relationships regardless of the show. John is someone I love and admire for a lot of reasons. He’s actually been a really influential person in my life. I’m not going to take that away from him; that remains true to this day. We were talking earlier that it’s very hard to reconcile these things, when people you love and admire do things that are less-than-admirable. I think we’re all struggling to figure out our place in the landscape and make sure our voices are heard when there are important things to be said, but also doing the best work we can do.
I think on Top Chef, we’re very proud of the work that we’ve accomplished. We’ll just keep continuing to try to be the straight arrow in the industry. Tom [Colicchio] has been very vocal, thankfully, about the importance of leadership in the restaurant industry and how change will only really come when leaders — and specifically male leaders — in the restaurant industry, in every industry, quite frankly, can speak up and make change. Because as women we can band together, and we will. We will continue to make our voices heard. Thank goodness we’re able to open up these conversations right now and not keep them swept under the carpet. That’s for sure. But at the same time, we still need the leaders of the industry to vow to make changes where they know changes are due.
So it is slow-going, and it’s unfortunate how many people had to suffer along the way, but I really believe that we’ve come so far, and you really can’t forget that. When I was a young cook, when I graduated culinary school and I cooked in restaurants, almost 20 years ago, I was the only female at both of the major restaurants I cooked in. That was not uncommon. We’ve come so far. There were almost no women who were heads of restaurants just 18 years ago. There were certainly very few women who were cooking on the line steadily in a lot of restaurants. There were women in pastry kitchens and they were starting to come up through culinary school and smaller restaurants.
Certainly in certain parts of the country there have always been stronger female chef communities. California, for instance, has always led that charge, but we’ve come a long way. Now there are so many extraordinary, strong women who are leading restaurants all over this country. So you can’t forget that, and you can’t forget how far we’ve come in the process. We will continue to move forward and make it better. And don’t think that those women haven’t had to sacrifice a lot to get where they are.
How has it been for you with Bumble Pie so far? You had a show go up on the Food Network, right?
We did. It’s been great. My business partner, Samantha Hanks, and I founded the company in 2014 and our first show aired in 2016 on the Food Network, which was very exciting. It was called Star Plates. We were really proud of it. We partnered with Flower Films and Authentic Entertainment to make it for the Food Network. We have two shows now, that are in various stages of development, both with really strong female components.
It’s more for us, I think, twofold. One: finding projects where we can create opportunity for young women in the food space, unique voices that aren’t being heard. The second is so that we have a little more control on our own lives and schedules. I love being in front of the camera, I love my role on Top Chef and doing television and video and broadcast in a lot of ways. But I also want to be in control of the work that I take on, and I want to have creative direction and own that content in a different way. As women, I think that’s a very important piece to have your own business and make sure you can control those factors that allow you to be able to be a mother and to be a working person and set an example for our children. Samantha and I both have daughters and we are determined to show that we can succeed and keep doing all the things we love to do, while at the same time being there for them.
Listen to Food Republic Today, featuring Gail Simmons, below: