Top Chef Judge Gail Simmons on Food, Farming, and Building Community

“I have the opportunity to raise my voice to help others understand the issues around food.”

gail simmons

Local Roots NYC is a for-profit Farm Share program that started in 2011 to build community and strong connections between New Yorkers and local farmers. Now serving 750 households in 22 neighborhoods, Local Roots NYC is dedicated to turning local food into a sustainable, profitable industry led by values of community, transparency, authenticity, and kindness.

Founder Wen-Jay Ying recently sat down with Top Chef judge and Local Roots Farm Share member, friend, and advocate Gail Simmons to talk about the ways food and farms enrich her life, how she’s inspired to help people think differently about food, and how she believes we’re all food activists.

Have you had a time in the kitchen that really changed your cooking style or connection to food?

gail simmonsWhen we were kids, being in the kitchen with my mom was part of the fabric of our lives. She was a really improvisational cook and it came so naturally to her; she had such a natural rhythm, used fresh ingredients, and introduced us to so many different kinds of cuisine at an early age. Every Friday night was the most important night in our house because she would set a beautiful table and we would share a big, delicious meal with friends and family around the table.

You were an anthropology major in college. Did you get to learn about other cultures through that experience?

People think it’s funny that was my major in school, but I think so much of my current work is related to anthropology. Cooking is the best entryway into someone’s culture—what they eat, their rituals around food, the ingredients they use, and how they cook. Even though many ingredients can be the same throughout the world, their applications are so different. The way one might use rice in China versus the way rice is used in Morocco or the American South. It’s unifying and so insightful into people’s lives.

Is there a food culture that really speaks to you?

I love the culture of sharing; it’s an ancient way of eating, to have big platters of food on the table and to mop it up with banana leaves, masa, tortillas … that really speaks to me about cultural community and the ways cooking can define tradition. I also love the street food culture of Mexico or Southeast Asia.

What are ways people in the public eye can work toward building a healthier food system?

Raise awareness. I’m grateful to have a platform to spread the word about things that are important to me and support organizations that I think are doing good work. I hope to inspire people to think about food differently or consider how they spend their food dollars. We’re all activists because every day we decide how we will spend our money, and that makes us all have a voice. Is it going to go to small farm producers and to fresh foods, or is it going to processed foods? I have the opportunity to raise my voice to help others understand the issues around food.

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In what ways has Top Chef changed the way our society views food?

I feel lucky that I’ve been part of a show that I think has changed the way America talks about food. When we first started doing the show, there were culinary terms that weren’t as commonplace as they are now. We’ve taught people about the restaurant industry, how hard chefs work, and how rigorous it is. People tell us all the time that their kids want to cook and they spend more time preparing meals together as a family. Because of the show, they’re willing to expand their palettes and try coriander or bone marrow.

What are ways you have seen farms develop culture?

Farms establish community—where there is farming, there is community because farms can’t run by themselves. You need people to grow the food, then distribute it and sell to farmers markets or CSAs. Farms connect people.

What are ways we can work toward a more sustainable food system?

I think access is the biggest problem in a sustainable food system. So many people are not getting the nourishment they need and it’s not because there isn’t enough food, whether it’s because that people live a two hour drive from the closest grocery store, the cost of food for them is too high, because government subsidizes go to big agriculture and does not sustain smaller producers… there isn’t access to the people that need it. There also can’t be a sustainable food system when not enough people are paying attention to the ways we take care of our land and grow our food. There needs to be a fair distribution system on many different levels.

How do foods and farms nourish your life?

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Food plays an important part in every aspect of my life. My main connection to farms are through chefs we work with and learning about the producers they source from; our family also loves to visit farms in Upstate New York and we have friends who work at urban farms in New York City. At least a few days a week I try to cook for my family with plant-based dishes. Cooking to me is creative; it’s a way to show the people I love that I love them. It’s methodical, rejuvenating, and a time in my day that I get to be in my own thoughts and purposeful. I love how accomplished you feel after you finish cooking; you can start with a blank cutting board and end up with beautiful meal that you can give to people.

On May 21, Local Roots NYC will host their annual Good Fest Mini-Conference in Brooklyn, NY. This year’s theme is How Foods and Farms Nourish, from the ways soil health on a farm is connected with gut health, to culinary techniques that can enhance a food’s nutrition.

Photos © Guerin Blask.

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