How 'Top Chef's' Gail Simmons Made It to the Top of Her Industry -- and You Can, Too
If you're a foodie or a reality TV junkie, you already know and love Gail Simmons, a judge on Bravo's Emmy-winning series Top Chef. Before becoming the media personality she is today, Simmons was a trained culinary expert and established journalist. She is also a bestselling author and recently released her second book, Bringing It Home: Favorite Recipes from a Life of Adventurous Eating. In 2013, she was appointed entrepreneur-in-residence at Babson College, a mentoring role where she works with student entrepreneurs, helping them develop food-related social enterprises. In 2014, Simmons and business partner Samantha Hanks founded Bumble Pie Productions, an original content company featuring new female voices in the food and lifestyle space. Their first series, Star Plates, premiered in fall 2016 on the Food Network.
Many entrepreneurs can relate to Simmons' story. She found herself post-college, with a degree (in anthropology) she couldn't really use and didn't really want to use. As her friends were heading off to law school, medical school and entry-level corporate jobs, she wanted to forge her own path. She wrote out all that she wanted to do and be and was left with the question, How do I make a career out of writing, cooking and eating? This was before food blogs and YouTube channels, so she had to get creative.
If you can see the ideal goal for your business or career, but aren't sure how to get there, you will enjoy these top six lessons from my recent chat with Simmons on the set of Top Chef Junior.
Just get a foot in the door.
Simmons surveyed her options and, having decided writing might be the best place to start, landed an internship with a local lifestyle magazine. From there, she went to a national newspaper, working as an editorial assistant. In both positions, she found herself drawn to the food sections. She often joined food editors at restaurants and helped them with their research. Getting her foot in the door as a writer, though not in the food section, ended up solidifying for her what she wanted to do. If you're trying to combine many passions into one business, career, product or service, focus on one area first, jump in and start learning.
"I found myself following around the food editor and asking him to let me write for him, and slowly he let me write little stories here and there. After about a year, I came to him and said, 'Well, this is what I really want to do. How do I become a food critic or how do I become a food writer?'"
His advice led to my next point.
Decide to go pro.
So, Simmons got serious. She moved to New York to attend culinary school, but even that wasn't enough.
"I understood that just because I had gone to culinary school, that doesn't make me all of a suddenly know everything. You need to go into a real kitchen and experience practically what it's like to cook on the line. I did that for a while, and it was only after I had done that for a little bit and felt like I'd honed my skills and I understood the kitchen, the professional kitchen, that I felt like I could then leave it to [go back and] pursue the writing part because I now had the knowledge and the expertise to do that."
Before joining Food & Wine magazine in 2004, the position that led to her Bravo screen test, Simmons trained in the kitchens of legendary Le Cirque 2000 and groundbreaking Vong restaurants. She landed a job as the assistant to Vogue magazine's esteemed food critic, Jeffrey Steingarten. She worked as the marketing manager for Daniel Boulud's prestigious restaurant group.
I have learned many key lessons through interviewing multimillionaires on The Pursuit, one of which is this: Dabblers don't dominate. Simmons stopped dabbling and committed to learning all of the different parts of the industry and the craft before trying to position herself an "expert."
Listen and learn as much as you can.
I love Simmons' famous line: "Keep your mouth shut so you learn how to listen, but open it enough so you learn how to taste." She credits a large part of her success to absorbing as much as she could in each of her positions along the way -- which, by the way, means she wasn't rushing through each part of the journey.
"Understanding how to listen, and how to absorb that information, and take it with you, and then implement it into whatever you do next. I really do believe, especially the first decade of my career in food, it was spent with my head down, and my eyes and ears open, and I only opened my mouth when someone put food in it."
Pay attention to what you love most.
Though Simmons never saw herself as a media personality, she started to hone in on the parts of the work that she loved most. This meant she wouldn't stay a writer forever.
"I was really good at the social aspect of restaurants and I loved the events, and I loved understanding the marketing, and the business, and how it all came together, and I loved that every night was theater, and the adrenaline of a restaurant. So, going to sit at a desk alone and write all day wasn't what I wanted to do anymore exactly."
Force yourself to be patient and learn each part of your industry, or each different passion you want to weave together, so you can find your sweet spot. Doing so will ensure that you are successful when you "niche down."
Set yourself apart by being you.
Simmons is successful as a television food critic not only because of her expertise but also because she is genuine and honest -- which leads to trust from the audience. Favor from the audience explains why she's been on the show for 15 seasons.
"You have to own and differentiate yourself, and take the time to learn to do it well. If that's being the host of a TV show, if that's being a chef, if that's being an expert, if that's being a musician or if you're an expert at whatever it is that you feel passionate about, the only way the people will trust you, identify with you and connect with you as an audience and as a viewer is if they believe what you're selling."
At this point, I get surprised when a guest -- no matter how established -- doesn't mention learning and continuing to stay teachable as a key to her success.
"With anything, no matter what field you're in, you never know everything. There's always more to learn. You can learn from everyone. I mean I'm shooting Top Chef Junior with 13-year-olds who are teaching me something new about food every single day."
This kind of self-awareness and genuine humility explains why audiences love her. Make sure that you continue to stay open and teachable as you weave your passions together and become an established expert in your field.
Watch in-depth interviews with celebrity entrepreneurs on The Pursuit with Kelsey Humphreys
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