‘I believe that parents have a right to eat well, too’

Welcome to So Mini Ways, Yahoo Life’s parenting series on the joys and challenges of child-rearing.

People have a lot of opinions about whether or not children belong in restaurants. As a mom of two and a culinary queen who has dined at the world’s best restaurants in her 20 seasons as a Top Chef judge, Gail Simmons is the perfect person to ask.

“It’s a tricky thing,” Simmons, who shares daughter Dahlia, nearly 10, and son Kole, 5, with husband Jeremy Abrams, tells Yahoo Life. “I want to eat out with my children. I want to civilize the feral animals that are my children and teach them manners, and also how to interact with the world and socialize. [They should] understand how to interact in a restaurant and out in the world, and I think you only do that by modeling that behavior.”

She and Abrams take their kids to restaurants, but she understands that there are compromises involved. On a trip to Italy two summers ago ahead of filming Top Chef: World All Stars in London, the couple soon realized the folly of dragging jet-lagged kids to restaurants and instead leaned on childcare and home-cooked bowls of pasta instead.

“We try to do it in a way that doesn’t disrupt other diners,” Simmons says. “We eat early with them. We bring games. We don’t bring screens, and sometimes that is hugely challenging. Like, we’ve definitely had moments when we’ve realized, I really wish we weren’t here. We just need to get out. The anxiety that I’m provoking in myself from my children’s behavior, because they are, like, being total monsters, is horrendous.

“But I also just try to ingratiate myself if I’m in those situations,” she continues. “Tip big, be nice to everyone. Try to make your requests and substitutions and issues about ordering for your children at a minimum. Pick places that make sense for your children. I don’t bring my children when I eat out at fancy tasting menus — which I actually don’t even do that often anymore — but I also do bring them out in the world for sure, and I believe that parents have a right to eat well, too.”

 (Shana Trajanoska)

(Shana Trajanoska) (SHANA TRAJANOSKA)

Herself the daughter of a food writer who taught cooking classes at home — “I spent my whole childhood in our kitchen” — Simmons feels lucky to consider her children “good eaters” who are for the most part open to trying new and diverse foods. But like any parent, she has her challenges.

“I’m not saying that they, like, slurp down caviar on demand, and they’re certainly not going to eat everything,” the Canadian cookbook author says. “And some days, my 10-year-old, because she’s a tween, loves to tell me how disgusting something is, even though she ate four bowls of it yesterday. You know what I mean? Every day is a new journey. But on the whole, they eat well. They like to eat. They are happy to cook with me, and they appreciate the food. They’re not children who, you know, eat two things and survive on a diet of chicken fingers, although I know plenty of people and plenty of chefs whose children are that way.”

Having kids who are generally flexible and excited about food and experiences is especially important given Simmons’s work. Traveling for Top Chef — which is currently on a break from shooting its upcoming Wisconsin-based Season 21, its first since host Padma Lakshmi left — is the “best and hardest part of the job, which Padma and I talk about all the time.” Shooting last season in London with Lakshmi and fellow judge Tom Colicchio, for example, marked “the very first time in 20 seasons that all three of us had our children on location at the same time,” notes Simmons, adding that the experience gave her Brooklyn-based family the chance to “pretend that we lived in London.”

Things get more “complicated” when kids reach school-age, however. Ahead of announcing her departure from Top Chef this spring, Lakshmi spoke about the struggle of being apart from her daughter, Krishna, while filming in London. Similarly, Simmons has had to juggle traveling back and forth and calculating how long the kids can be on set before school starts up, not to mention factoring in pandemic-related challenges. (While her family joined the protective bubble of Top Chef Portland because Dahlia was in remote school, Simmons saw flying the kids to and from Houston the following year as an unnecessary risk.)

“Every season is a different challenge from a parental standpoint,” Simmons says. “Every season becomes a bit of a jigsaw puzzle of how and if and when and where the children will come into play. When Krishna and Dalia were babies, when they were first born, it was simple. You literally just throw ’em on your back and bring ’em with you for the whole time.”

When Dahlia was 3 months old, a caregiver helped Simmons on the set of Top Chef Duels, which was followed shortly by Top Chef Boston. “We would take breaks on set when I needed to breastfeed,” says Simmons, adding that production also built a nursery for her baby.

“The amazing thing about Top Chef is it is run by women,” says Simmons. “The four heads at the very top of the food chain are all women. And not only that, we’ve all been together for 20 years, so we’ve all been through a million things. Many of the people — men, women — are all parents on our set. The head of our art department, our director has three children and on and on, so many of our crew. So everyone is super -understanding.”

Season 21 – whose finale Simmons will soon shoot – is her first as an executive producer on the show. She’s excited to take a larger role in contributing to the show’s legacy of “supporting and creating a culture where women can thrive, where parents can thrive.” She adds, “The topic of maternity and paternity leave and health care and normalizing what it takes to be a parent and make a living in our industry are very transparent on our set.”

One example would be the production’s support of still-breastfeeding World All Stars contestant Sara Bradley, by covering the costs to ship her pumped breast milk from London to her baby back home in Kentucky. While Bradley was frequently shown pumping between challenges on the show, Simmons says that she and her fellow judges weren’t privy to the full details of her postpartum journey in an effort to keep them unbiased.

“I would’ve tried to stay neutral, but you know what I mean?” Simmons laughs. “She was putting out double the calories and doing almost double the work that every other person in that kitchen was doing, from the mere fact that she was also sustaining another human while she was just casually cooking a dish for a Quickfire [challenge]. Because I have breastfed two children, I know the physical demand of your body when you do nothing but sit and do it on your couch, let alone do it while overseas. … It’s miraculous and I cannot cheerlead it enough. And I’m so proud of her.”