It’s almost hard to imagine that Top Chef is still on the air but even in its twelfth season, it’s as delicious as ever. The Bravo series, which has taken the chefs (and viewers) from New York to New Orleans, is now calling Boston home as it puts a new group of contestants to the test in what looks to be the series’ toughest season yet. Gail Simmons, who has served as a judge since the show premiered in 2006, is still amazed by the enormity of what the franchise become. “If you would have told me then that I would still be making the show and still be in this role, I would never have believed you,” Simmons says. “We’re still making great food television and eating really delicious food.”
In an interview with VH1, Simmons opens up about dishing out harsher critiques, welcoming former contestant Richard Blais to the judges’ table, and why risotto always brings cheftestants down.
VH1: In the premiere, the judges were much more upfront with critiques during tasting. Was there a decision as judges to be tougher on the contestants this season?
Gail Simmons: No! There really wasn’t! You’re the third or fourth person who said that. We certainly didn’t do anything differently we didn’t think. But due to the nature of the competition this season — we implemented a sudden death quick fire in the very first episode — we upped the stakes right then and there. It shows the chefs that we mean business and it shows that you really can’t anticipate whatever we’re going to do next. And we need to do that. In the 12th season, we can’t go into a show just giving the chefs and giving the audience the same thing every time, so I think that set the bar for a really tough episode and then we gave them a hard challenge because we knew that this was a group of talented chefs. Every year they get better and better and we want to challenge them more and more to take them out of their comfort zone. We try to be really constructive in our criticism but we also want to be honest, so I think it just cut together that way.
This season, Top Chef made Richard Blais a permanent judge. What’s it like having him on the other side of the table?
It was great! I think it gave a lot of new perspective to all of us. What’s interesting about Richard is that he has become so successful — being on Top Chef, he has his own television show, seven restaurants, he won Top Chef All Stars — so he really has had the full experience of going from a young chef that’s trying to make it, to being a full bonafide star in the food world. So not only was it great for us because he gives that perspective to us — he really explained to us what the chefs were going through — but he can also be really empathetic to them. And now the contestants have someone to aspire to at the judges’ table, someone who’s realistic. They know where he was and they can see where he is now. He can also help draw out of them all the things that we need to know to make our decision because he knows the exact questions to ask and what’s going exactly through their brain and what their experience is like on the other side of the table. He was really valuable to have as our newest edition.
Did having him on the judges’ panel make you rethink your own critiques and question whether you have ever been too harsh?
No! Not at all. It didn’t make me think of how harsh or kind I am, I think I’m consistent. I’m confident in the way that I speak to chefs and I’m always constructive even if I’m critical. What it did make me think more about is the way that a young chef thinks about a dish verses the way we think about a dish as judges because Richard brings that perspective and he’s really articulate about his metaphors for food. I love just listening to him talk because we see food in a different way. What’s so important about that guest judge rule every week is that they bring their own palettes, their own biases, but they also come in a way with a cleaner frame of reference than we do because we’ve been doing it for so long and we’re so used to the process. There’s a freshness that Richard added that I think helps us all a lot.
Let’s talk about some challenges that always seem to bring chefs down. For a long time, desserts sent many chefs home.
Well the truth is the dessert kitchen, the sweets kitchen, is a totally different kitchen in a restaurant. Chefs who are savory chefs who work on the line are not trained to be pastry chefs most of the time. They can make simple desserts. They know the basics but they don’t spend time making desserts. So asking to make a dessert is like asking, a psychiatrist to perform heart surgery. Yes, they’re both doctors but it’s just not what they do every day so they just don’t speak the language.
And each season someone always attempts risotto even though it always ends up being disastrous.
The trick with risotto is it needs to be constantly stirred, constantly watched, and paid attention to. If you take your eyes off of it and leave it to rest it can freeze up and become tough and gluten-y and sticky. There’s also a moment when that rice is perfect — it’s cooked just to the point of done but not overcooked and mushy — and if you’re not paying attention it could go wrong. If it also sits for a long time, it can become not at all what you want to eat, so thing with risotto on Top Chef is because are so over stimulated — running around, under the gun, watching the clock, they’re distracted, they’re under a lot of pressure — it’s a difficult dish to execute. You really need to be able to tune everything out and just focus on that pot.
What is it about Restaurant Wars that seems to bring out the worst in the contestants?
You could say the worst or you could say the best. I think Restaurant Wars is just a chance for them to really strut their stuff and prove that they can take leadership. It’s such an iconic episode and they know it’s coming every year — they’ve all been anticipating what they would do — but when you get a bunch of people in a kitchen who all think they’re the boss — and all have their own vision of what their dream restaurant would be — it’s a very heated place. Everyone is fighting for his or her life. I think Restaurant Wars is also the only time on the show usually when we demand that they work the front of the house and it’s uncomfortable. Sometimes they’re not used to playing the role of server and waiter and manager. They’re pulled in every direction and it gets complicated. It’s a really tough thing to do in 24 hours.
And then there’s Fabio Viviani, who competed on season five. He certainly handled the front of house with ease.
Fabio, our reoccurring lovely Fabio, is definitely one of the few, who is a master host. There have been some good hosts — some good front of house people that come to mind — they weren’t necessarily as gregarious as Fabio but they had the front of the house under control and that is the important thing. It’s all about that conversation between the manager who’s getting service done in the front and the chef who’s executing in the back — that’s most important moment of Restaurant Wars.
Speaking of Fabio, are there any previous contestants that you miss or wish would come back for Masters or All Stars?
Oh my god, for sure! Kevin Gillespie from season six — he was a finalist — for years I said, “Why wouldn’t he come back?” I loved him and I want to see more of him. That’s an amazing competitor. He’s a brilliant chef and an articulate speaker and I had been wanting him to come back for so long. Finally, for this past season of Top Chef Duels, which just finished, he did come back and I was so thrilled to have him on the show with us again! But there’s so many chefs that I love and wish I could see more of. There are a lot of great women that I don’t get to see enough on the show.
There have been a number of great female competitors. An all-female challenge would be a lot of fun.
That would be kind of great, just do an all women’s season as well! Let’s think about that. Thank you, that’s a good idea!
Top Chef airs Wednesdays at 10/9 c only on Bravo.