The FOOD & Wine Festival is taking place in Toronto this weekend (Friday September 18th through Sunday September 20th) and our Test Kitchen couldn't be more excited! I caught up with Gail Simmons, FOOD & WINE magazine's Special Projects Director (and Toronto native!), to ask her about her involvement with the festival, chat about some cookbooks she's currently excited about and find out where she likes to eat when she's in Toronto. Jennifer Bartoli: How does it feel to be participating in the FOOD & WINE Festival on your home turf? Gail Simmons: I am so thrilled to be back in Toronto for a FOOD & WINE Festival of this scale. For so many years I have been attending festivals like this one around the United States and it’s about time Toronto did something as big to celebrate its unique and vibrant food culture. The city is in such an exciting moment for restaurants, chefs, bakeries, markets and ingredients that the timing could not be more perfect. Plus, I am always looking for an excuse to come home for a visit. This time I get to bring a little taste of what I’ve been doing as part of my job in New York and with FOOD & WINE magazine for so many years that many of my close friends and family in Canada never get to experience. JB: What events are you most looking forward to? GS: My former boss Daniel Boulud [Gail worked as Boulud's special events manager in New York] and I are hosting a little private party at his newly re-opened Cafe Boulud at the Four Seasons that will be so much fun! I love that he now has a restaurant in Toronto and will get to know my city, as well as have the chance to share his brilliant food with Torontonians. I am also really excited for my cooking demo on Saturday at Evergreen Brick Works, in which I will be making a few special fall dishes using some of Ontario’s best local produce. JB: Is there a restaurant you always make a pit stop at when you’re back in Toronto? GS: Absolutely. I love breakfast at Rose & Sons and dinner at Buca. I often eat on the roof patio at Terroni on Yonge Street and Summer Hill, at Barque for BBQ ribs and Playa Cabana for margaritas! Now I guess I will also have to make Cafe Boulud part of my regular repertoire too. JB: Can you share the titles of one or two cookbooks you’re particularly fond of at the moment? GS: I'm big into veggies! I love the The Broad Fork by Hugh Acheson (a fellow Canadian ex-pat), and A Girl & Her Greens by April Bloomfield. JB: Entertaining can be daunting. What are your best tips for stress-free entertaining at home? Can you share a quick recipe you like to make for last minute guests? GS: I am a believer that you can entertain without making things too perfect or fancy. I always ask my guests to help in the kitchen or bring things too so it feels like a communal experience. As long as guests are offered a drink when they arrive they are usually happy to oblige. I like to focus on one main dish that I try to organize in advance, then complete the meal with a mix of easily assembled salads or cheese and antipasti. That way I am not stressed about cooking the whole time my guests are there. If I am having last minute guests I often make something simple and dependable but with a little personal twist, like homemade avocado & peach (or mango) salsa. Simply dice an avocado and gently mix it with a large pinch of salt, add 2 tablespoons fresh chopped cilantro, 1 teaspoon lime zest, the juice of 1 lime, one coarsely chopped peach or mango and a pinch of chili flakes. I like to leave the salsa chunky! Serve it with tortilla chips on the side. It’s also great over grilled fish, steak or even pork chops. JB: Three kitchen gadgets you can’t live without? GS: A citrus juicer, a flexible fish spatula, and lots of big metal or wooden spoons for stirring, basting and tasting. JB: Has your approach to food changed in any way since having your daughter Dahlia? GS: Yes, I actually cook a lot more at home now than I used to as I travel less and want to cook everything for her. This has caused me to cook more simply and be more conscious of where my food comes from and the shopping choices I make too. Dahlia is a great eater and loves vegetables, so we always have tons of roasted veggies in the fridge to snack on, add to salads or as a side dish for dinner. I also take more time for breakfast in the mornings, so I can spend that meal with her. I used to grab a granola bar and run out the door, but now we make buckwheat pancakes, gluten-free banana muffins, oatmeal with fruit, nut butter and coconut or avocado toast with tomatoes, lots of eggs or even quinoa porridge. I realize how much healthier we all are now that we take the time to make a full breakfast and sit down together to enjoy it. JB: A travel destination you’ve recently been to and loved for its food scene? GS: I have loved Austin, TX for several years, but having been there twice in the past six months I can honestly say it just gets better and better. There are so many creative young chefs in that town doing interesting and edgy food - some inspired by the historic BBQ or Tex-Mex traditions of that part of the country, and others bringing their own immigrant experiences and cultures to the forefront in unconventional and beautiful ways. In the past year I have eaten some of the best, most modern Japanese, Filipino, and Mexican food there I have ever had in my life, as well as outrageous smoked brisket, buttery southern biscuits and artisanal charcuterie and preserves. And that is not even including all the great cocktails! I never leave hungry or disappointed!