“I think all of us had a bond with Fatima. She was a person who exudes brightness, and this was long before any of us ever could have conceived that she would get so sick,” the reality show judge exclusively tells Us Weekly. “She was an incredibly positive person.”
Ali, who appeared on season 15 of the Bravo hit, quickly won over her fellow competitors and viewers during her time on the show thanks to her winning personality and inventive dishes. “She was that season’s fan favorite for a reason,” Simmons, 42, explains. “It was hard not to fall in love with her, we all identified with her. She was feisty and strong, and she was one heck of a cook. She just made everyone happy around her, and that was true until the very end.”
Though the Talking With My Mouth Full author tells Us she didn’t spend as much time with Ali as Top Chef judge Padma Lakshmi did (Lakshmi often accompanied Ali to treatment and even got to know her family), she was nonetheless impressed with the young chef’s spirit and outlook on life. “One of the things I loved about Fatima, besides the grace with which she lived her life, was that in the last few months she decided she was just going to take full advantage of every second that she had,” Simmons explains, noting that she was able to help the ailing cook with some of her “bucket list wishes.”
About three months before her passing, Ali appeared on an episode of The Ellen DeGeneres Show and revealed that she had a list of restaurants she wanted to visit around Europe before she got too sick to travel. “We were in touch often, emailing and texting and then she went to California towards the end of her life,” Simmons recalls. “I didn’t get to see her right at the end, but I made sure she had some really great meals along the way.”
Though Ali’s untimely death was obviously very tragic, it helped Simmons realize just how tight-knit the Top Chef family is. “What has come out of her passing … is how close the cast is and how being on the show is so much more than the sum of its parts,” she says. “Her cast in particular were incredibly interesting, close and bonded in a way that no other experience can do.”
Indeed, the season 15 cast rallied around Ali in her final months, raising money for her treatment and all traveling to California to see her one final time. Simmons also pointed out that the cast remains close to this day, explaining, “They’re still spending time together, cooking together, supporting each other, celebrating each other’s milestones in life, they’re flying to each other’s restaurants. They are forever bonded in a way that is very special.”
Furthermore, getting to witness those bonds and connections firsthand makes them all the more poignant. “We all are just blown away by watching not just their talent, but their empathy for each other, and that, to me, is truly what being a chef is about,” Simmons concludes. “Watching that season of chefs go through one of their cast members dying was extraordinary, just seeing how they all came together in a way that truly made a difference in each of their lives.”
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