‘Top Chef: California’ exclusive: Gail Simmons on remaining chefs, big finale, and season 14

“Top Chef” is getting ready to head to Las Vegas, and we can only assume that there is going to be a lot of fun, and also a lot of competition, that goes along with that.

So who better to speak to leading up to the big finale than one of the show’s most popular judges? Gail Simmons has been there for most of the highs and lows this season, and we spoke about her experience, the journey of this season, what she thinks about certain food trends (all the crudo dishes!), and much more.

CarterMatt – First things first, how does this season stack up for you?

Gail Simmons – It [was] great. We were able to do a lot of road-tripping, and now we’re able to make a road trip to Vegas. It’s going to be a great finale. I’m really excited with what we were able to do with our chefs, and how talented they are. These are a great last two episodes of what I think was a successful season.

What is it like for you to do some of these seasons like ‘California’ and ‘Texas’ were there is such a heavy travel component? Is that something you like, or do you prefer it more sedentary?

I love it. Sometimes it’s the best and the hardest part of my job. It’s the best because over the past ten years of shooting this show, 13 seasons, we’ve been in something like 22 different cities around the country and the world. I love that so many of them are places that I wouldn’t otherwise spend so much time in. Then when we go, we don’t just stay in the city for a day or two. We get to spend some time in the city, spend some time eating and drinking. So we’ve had a chance to do some amazing discovery, and the travel part of the show is what really makes it easy, and what makes it stand out from any other reality competition show out there.

There are times where it is difficult, because it does mean uprooting your life, packing and unpacking, and being away from your family and friends. Sometimes that’s stressful, but it’s part of your work. Over the past ten years I’ve really come to look forward to it. It’s become kind of my work family. ‘Top Chef’ has been around for so long; our crew and our production team and Tom and Padma are all a part of that, and we’re a team. We know what we’re doing and can make ourselves really comfortable in a place. It’s a great celebration, I think.

What I think people don’t know is that ‘Top Chef’ only takes six or seven weeks, in total. So it’s not as though we’re traveling months of the years. It’s really a six-week, really-intensive period, and then we go home. We do that once a year, and then maybe we go and do the finale for a week at some point. It’s not as much travel as people think.

In getting us to this point, what were some of the elements of this season that surprised you? I know that I was stunned to see Kwame get eliminated after he was doing so well earlier in the season.

Here’s the thing: People always ask me ‘when you meet the chefs, do you know who’s gonna win,’ and the answer is always ‘no.’ There is no way to know who is going to win. I can definitely say that after a few weeks, I know who some of the most talented chefs are, but that does not mean they’re going to win. There’s no way to predict what we’re going to throw at them, how they are going to handle it, and every day is a new day. You can have a good day or a bad day, and if you have a bad day on a day that counts, you go home. That’s just the name of the game. There’s never a way to know who’s going to win.

I love how attached the viewers are with our chefs, because they’re such good people and amazing professionals. I’m in awe of what they’re able to accomplish because of the challenges we throw at them. I was really sad when Kwame went home; I’m always sad when anyone goes home. The thing is that every year, everyone goes home other than one person, and there’s always going to be a lot of amazing talent and we have to sit back and watch everyone leave except that one single winner. So it’s always emotional. The big surprise this season is that because we were in California and moving around so much, we were able to find inspiration for our challenges from so many different places. It forced our chefs to really step up, and a lot of them cooked food that even they didn’t know they were capable of. Chefs like Karen and Marjorie. Even Amar, who just went [to ‘Last Chance Kitchen’], Jeremy, and Isaac.

Isaac is sort of the rustic underdog, and the other chefs would sort of ride on him because they didn’t think he was refined enough. But then at Restaurant Wars, he really turned it around. The great thing about the show is that it’s anyone’s game.

When the show is in production do you ever get the sense that the television aspect of it gets in the chefs’ heads? Does it take them some time to forget that the cameras are there?

Every year the chefs start out nervous, since a lot of them have never been in front of a camera before. But we give them so much to do that after an episode or two they forget the cameras are there. That is how they can get into trouble, but it’s also awesome because it helps them find their groove. They are able to forget that it’s a TV show, and they can focus on what they do best: Put their heads down and cook great food. It’s the chefs who are able to ignore all the distractions that do the best on the show.

I’ve been watching ‘Last Chance Kitchen’ the past few episodes and on one of the past ones with Amar, Tom made a point of saying that he was out-voted when he was sent home. How often do these sort of disagreements happen, when you or one of the other judges want to keep someone who is ultimately sent home?

We disagree about things all the time, but at the end of the day we have to be relatively unanimous in order to move forward. We never make a decision if someone is uncomfortable. So even though Tom disagreed on that specific challenge, or I’ve disagreed on some other challenges, the reason that judges’ table is what it is is because there are four different voices. We can play every side and every point of view. There are many times that I sit down at judges table at the beginning of the night and think ‘that’s who I liked best’ and ‘that’s who should be going home,’ but after having a two hour conversation with the other judges I’m often turned around. They change my point of view, and they bring up points that I didn’t think of. It really becomes an honest discussion, so when we make our decisions we never make it in a flippant way. We never pick randomly. It’s always because we’ve all sat and thought about it from different angles.

We definitely disagree … It’s good to disagree. It keeps us honest.

It’s been a running joke this season: What’s with all of the crudo dishes?

(Laughs) It was a joke for us too!

So why is that the case? Is it just because it’s something that is easy to do, while at the same time showing some technical proficiency?

It’s because there’s no cooking! It’s raw fish, so as long as the fish looks good. There’s a lot of ways to use fish as a bright canvas, and there’s so many different seasonings. You can do 15,000 different variations using different vegetables, fruits, spices. I think it became a fallback that they knew they could finish within the time restraints.

They’re given often 30 minutes, which goes so quickly. They have to get something on the plate that looks and tastes beautiful and they know they can control it. There was a season when everyone cooked scallops, if you remember, because scallops cook really quickly. So it’s a way to ensure that you can accomplish something in the time given. But it becomes a crutch, and after our tenth crudo we started getting a little cranky (laughs).

Do you always appreciate when someone like Marjorie comes on and does so many different things? We’ve seen her do bread, and we’ve seen her do desserts. I remember ‘Top Chef: Just Desserts’ and she would’ve done well on there, as well.

I think that Marjorie and some other chefs like her came to the show with a set of skills that no one else possessed. She was able to really stand out, and because she had confidence and knew them really well, she was able to apply them in moments where everyone else was struggling. That really set her apart, and that was a really smart move for her.

Tom always says ‘I don’t know why they all just don’t come with two really great dessert recipes that they’ve memorized or bread recipes or recipes that are a little more technical that you can just [keep with you].’ [Marjorie] obviously spent time in a pastry kitchen and a bread kitchen, and she knew that it could make her stand out amongst a lot of other people. I’m proud of her for that.

I also know that when a chef starts cooking the same thing multiple times, you notice. You come to know them for their food, so it’s exciting for us, whether it is Marjorie or Kwame or someone else, when you [cannot] pinpoint [certain chefs’ food]. Whether it is Isaac’s, whether it is Jeremy’s, or whether it is Phillip’s, for example. But with Kwame and Marjorie, they had such a breadth of skill and that is a really great quality in a chef.

Has there been some talk already about next season? Would you like to see an All-Stars, or do you prefer working with new chefs?

We’ve talked about All-Stars, and we’ve talked about doing some different iterations of that. We did All-Stars after season 7, it was technically our eighth season, and we’re now entering season 14. The timing could be right for an All-Stars. We’ve talked about, but at the heart of the show I think we’re about discovering talent and giving them a platform to show their stuff to the world and change their careers. There’s always a part of me that gets really excited about seeing the next crop of chefs and getting to know them. This season was a really fulfilling one for us because of the number of chefs we got to know.

I’m happy to do another All-Stars, it’s always fun to see them come back; but I think if I had a choice, I would prefer keeping it fresh and new every year.

Are there any sort of locales / places you’d still like to explore on the show? I know one consequence of the show’s success is that there are some many big culinary cities you’ve already visited.

There are a million places I want to go. There are so many places in the south, like Memphis, Nashville, Savannah, Atlanta. I could go on and on. Even with the Southwest [as well].

Really for me I’d love to see the show go international and to take our chefs to Paris or Tokyo or Rome, some of the great eating cities of the world. We’ve gone to Hawaii and to Puerto Rico, but I think to be able to take our chefs to Europe or Japan would blow their minds.

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