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Five Miles Up with … Gail Simmons

December 11, 2012

"Eat. Write. Travel. Cook." A young Gail Simmons wrote these four to-dos when fantasizing about her dream career. Today, she's a judge on BRAVO's "Top Chef" and the special projects director at Food & Wine magazine. Though many have witnessed the eat, write and cook aspects of Simmons, her travel side has been out of the spotlight. What one would discover — as travelers go, Simmons is a bit of a daredevil. She went skydiving at 19. Deep-fried larvae don't make her flinch. She's even known for smuggling certain items through customs.

What's something you never fail to pack in your suitcase?
A good cozy scarf to wear on plane because I'm always freezing; my portable hand-held steamer; and some dark chocolate for an emergency snack.

As a Top Chef judge, what's your take on airplane food?
I've rarely had good airplane food, although in some places it's getting better. On my honeymoon I had great bibimbop on Korean Airlines. It's a fried rice dish with vegetables, fried egg and spicy Korean sauce. On Singapore Airlines, I've also had great airline food. In general, airline food is consistently bad. If it's a long flight I need to eat on, I order vegetarian, which doesn't mean it's going to be edible, but at least it's a little bit safer.

Carry-on or check-in?
I try to carry-on, but it's often not that realistic. When I travel for work, I'm often at events or shooting, in which case I need multiple outfits. The goal is to always carry-on, but I've given up stressing or making myself feel bad about it.

Window or aisle?
Window. Always. I like to curl up and put my head against it. I find it more private because I don't have people walking past me and I'm not exposed to the aisle.

What's your idea of the perfect vacation?
Being as far away from my real life as possible with a good book, my husband, warm weather, a little bit of culture and a beautiful beach.

Tell us about a vacation you've taken that's come close.
Two and half years ago, my husband and I went to Bali, which was pretty much paradise. It was thousands of miles away from my regular life and one of the most beautiful islands on Earth. There was so much to learn. The food was great. We were in a very remote part of island, so it was really private and quiet. We took day trips, went hiking. We felt like we were on other side of the Earth.

We had a guide one day take us on a full-day bike trip through all the small villages surrounding Ubud. It was amazingmiles and miles of rice paddies, taro fields and ancient villages. There were beautiful, ancient temples covered in Hindu mosaics and outside were offerings of bright, fresh flowers. We felt like we were in an "Indiana Jones" movie. It was a great way to see countryside.

What's the worst vacation you've taken?
Many years ago, before my husband and I were married, we traveled to meet my parents, who'd rented a house in Italy. Our luggage was lost, so we were without clothes for a few days. Then, the house my parents had rented was not as advertised. It was really unpleasant, dark, in the middle of nowhere, smelled bad and was under construction. We left to find another house, but couldn't, then got lost and slept in a fleabag hotel for the night. The next morning, we realized it was time to leave my parents and go out on our own. We ended up having a great time and now look back and laugh.

What's the most decadent souvenir you ever came back with?
I always smuggle back food — stinky cheese from France you can't get here, biltong from South Africa (where my father's from), it's a sort of dried beef jerky specific to that part of the world, and dark chocolate from all over the world.

Ever try a food that you wished you hadn't?
I'm always happy to try anything, even if I don't like it. That's how I learn. There were things I would have preferred not to have — really stinky fermented tofu, Szechuan style. I once ate fried larvae from Thailand, but they didn't bother me because they were deep-fried and tasted like salted popcorn.

What's your favorite hotel you've ever stayed in?
Saint Cecilia in Austin, Texas. It's in middle of a great city, but the way it's set up, you feel like you're in a rural oasis, a quiet plantation away from everything. It's on a huge amount of land and the rooms are villas that are appointed so beautifully. There are record players in every room, and you can borrow records from library.

Outside of the U.S., my favorite is the Hotel La Belle Juliette in Paris' 6th Arrondissement. I love the location, the rooms. It's small, pretty comfortable. Otherwise, The Nam Hai in Vietnam is one the most extraordinary hotels in the world I've ever stayed in.

What's the biggest regret you've ever had while on vacation?
When I was 19, I went skydiving in Australia and told my mother afterwards and wished I hadn't. She was so mad at me and didn't let me live it down for years. The only other regret is feeling like I had to get back to work and not staying longer.

The one thing you're willing to splurge on above all else.
A really good massage and food. Really trying to find the best meal and experiencing the best food a destination has to offer. Sometimes it can be cheap at local places, but once in a while splurging on a special restaurant in a place I know I'll never get to again.

What's on your travel playlist?
My husband is in music industry and has a company that builds playlists for businesses. He keeps my iPod pretty stocked. Right now I'm listening to The Lumineers' Ho Hey, Los Campesinos' By Your Hand, and Of Monsters and Men's Little Talks.

Where would you take someone visiting your hometown for the first time?
In Toronto, either Chinatown for a really great dim sum. Or Kensington Market, which is really fun and has been around forever. It's an eclectic, amazing bunch of intertwining streets that's a great pulse of the city. It's evolving so much, very Bohemian with a mix of new restaurants and old food sellers. I'd also take someone on a walk through the city's interconnected ravines in this forested parkland that's great to run through.

You only get one more trip in your lifetime. Where will it be?
Rwanda to see the gorillas.