updated 02/20/2012 AT 1:35 PM ET
•originally published 02/21/2012 AT 11:00 AM ET
But for Simmons, being a TV personality was never in the cards. In fact, after graduating from college in Montreal, neither was a career in food – initially.
In her new book, Talking with My Mouth Full: My Life as a Professional Eater, Simmons shares “the story of my life – so far – and the mentors and the adventures I’ve had along the way,” as she tells it in her warm, conversational voice.
It’s equal parts travel guide, cookbook and a dishy (and sweaty) look behind the scenes at Top Chef and in the kitchens of some of Manhattan’s most elite restaurants, where Simmons worked on the line after culinary school.
Speaking over the phone from her New York office, she tells PEOPLE about her hesitations in writing a memoir and who some of her favorite – and surprising – Top Chef guests have been.
Did you initially set out to write a memoir?
When I first started thinking of writing a book, it wasn’t a memoir at all. Of course, my first instinct was to write a cookbook, because in the food space, that’s generally what everyone writes but I started writing down questions that people ask me, and realized there’s about 25 questions or so that I’m asked everyday by journalists, by strangers on the street, by my friends, by my relatives. These questions and the answers … are a story unto themselves.
How did you weigh which personal details from your life to share?
To be honest and tell my story, I couldn’t leave out major pieces like my family life and the challenges in my family – my brother’s health, for example. I have a chapter about two relationships I had in my younger life [which] I used to talk about travel and learning about different cultures and different types of food.
There’s a lot of late-night drinking with the crew in the hotel bar or in other bars – especially when we were in Texas [shooting season 9]. Texas was really fun – more fun than I anticipated – especially because I’d never really been there. We would take over the hotel bar and seek out the local really cool music places and great restaurants [and] we would see a lot of live music together in Austin. One night, literally half the crew and I ended up at an awesome gay cowboy bar in Austin and learned how to do the two-step.
Any standout or favorite guest or celebrity judges along the way?
So many people outside of the food world now want to be on our show. That’s what’s been really exciting, because it shows the reach of what we do. It’s the people you least expect, the celebrities that aren’t in the world, that I think are most fun. Pee-wee Herman was a total trip. I shot an episode of Top Chef Masters with the guys from Modern Family and that was really, really fun. Natalie Portman was a great guest on our show a long time ago. I talk a lot in the book about the day I spent with the Foo Fighters and how geeky they were about us, which was surprising.
What’s one thing your fans from Top Chef may be surprised to learn about you in the book?
I think people will be surprised to hear [about] the cooking experience I had. People will be interested to know that I did work professionally and paid my dues. I think what people see of me on television is obviously me, but it’s an edited version, and this explains a lot more.