We Talk to Gail Simmons About New TV Show, ‘The Feed’
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What makes The Feed different from other shows?
That’s exactly why I was so excited to do it, it was different and gave me the ability to stretch my legs and do something silly and fun. The idea came out of wanting to have a show talking about topics and goings-on in the food world the way you’d talk about them with friends: topics that are on food sites and social media, trends in food that are filling our news feeds. We had so much fun ruining around New York and trying to one-up each other.
What’s the general format of the show?
Every episode gives us two challenges, but it’s not like a super-competitive challenge; this is just us trying to out-run each other for bragging rights and fun. In one episode, we talk about eating on the go and we each come out with “the next big thing” in on the go food. It’s three different perspectives. Marcus is an accomplished, fine-dining chef, I come from an educated dining editor perspective, and Max is a comedian who is the guy who brings us down to earth.
How is your experience on this show different from Top Chef?
It’s a 180 from anything I’ve ever done. Top Chef is obviously a competition show and it has more of a formulaic concept. The Feed is a looser concept. It gave me more freedom to show a sillier side of myself. I learned a lot. Shooting The Feed was fun because I did a lot of things I’ve always wanted to do like butcher a pig.
I heard that for the pilot episode you work with Dominique Ansel and create your own food mashups. What was that like?
Arguably, Dominique created and made famous the perfect mashup, which for over a year has been the mashup to which others are measured. The three of us try to make our own version of the mashup. To me, what makes the cronut so genius is that it’s the perfect amalgamation of two different cultures- French and American. I’m from Canada so I mash up something very Canadian with American food. We all come up with absurd and hilarious things, and we learn along the way, with Dominique being the perfect starting point.
What makes something trendy in food, and how do you portray that on the show?
In the last 10 years, we have had such an enormous expansion in food media, that everyone is a foodie. We talk about trends like everything becoming artisanal, creative hangover remedies, urban myths, kitchen gadgets and the overlap of food and design. I think people will always try to come up with that thing that people want to talk about, photograph and make meaningful. The Feed is about bringing everyone into the conversation.
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Joanna Fantozzi is an Associate Editor with The Daily Meal. Follow her on Twitter@JoannaFantozzi
'The Feed' host Gail Simmons: Sabotage rules on cooking competition shows
Chefs battling it out in the kitchen is old hat, with the 8,472 cooking competition shows out there.
“The Feed” is different. Part road show, part NYC food adventure, part talk show, this new series on the FYI network pits three foodies against each other in a variety of weird, creative challenges.
One the show’s three hosts, food writer Gail Simmons, told FOX411 her experience on other food shows has her prepared for one thing.
“I’ve seen lots of sabotage. I’ve spent the last nine years of my life as a judge on 'Top Chef.' There’s a ton of sabotage that goes on and lots of heated competition,” Simmons said.
The show's second host -- food blogger and comedian Max Silvestri -- adds: “In any industry or world, there’s plenty of petty competitiveness. The world proves that petty competitiveness is a very effective tool.”
And the backstabbing isn't just happening in the kitchen, it happens among the various networks fighting for foodie fans' eyeballs, with copycat shows springing up everywhere.
“I think we’re getting more creative. This show (The Feed) does not rip much off. There’s a lot of places to see trained chefs compete against each other with a clock somewhere on site, and that’s very enjoyable,” said Silverstri. “This is a show that’s able to take the competition element but without it being just cutting and serving.”
In the last decade, because of successful food-oriented shows like "Top Chef," and "Iron Chef," cooks and critics have become celebrities in their own right.
“I’ve been working in the food industry for almost 20 years in various capacities, and never did I think that it was all going to be taken to television,” said Simmons. “I never thought if I was on television for food, it would end up being my career and ultimately, how I’m recognized on the street, or in the grocery store.”
In Gail’s mind, the second ingredient in Top Chef&rsquos secret sauce is the show&rsquos ever-changing scenery.
&ldquoOur backdrop changes every episode, every season, every finale, we&rsquore not on a set, we&rsquore not at a studio where it&rsquos a familiar place and time. Even our Top Chef Kitchen that we build from scratch every single season in a new city changes. It&rsquos designed completely, so there&rsquos no getting comfortable. And the travel that informs the food that they cook and that we eat completely changes every season. So they&rsquore not creating in a vacuum, they&rsquore creating food based on the power and the impact of travel and learning about cultures and learning about history and learning about geography&rdquo.
Gail expounded on how the travel organically produces variations on the Top Chef theme, including with this season&rsquos All Stars.
&ldquoWhen they&rsquore in Charleston they cook totally different than when they&rsquore in LA, when they&rsquore in Italy for our finale, you&rsquoll see that the food is so incredibly complex and different certainly than it was in any finale before it. We always say that the travel component of our show is sort of like a character in and of itself because it really informs the look and feel of that season. And it informs the contestants&rsquo interactions with themselves and with the world around them. They are learning and experiencing as they go. They&rsquore not just on a green screen.&rdquo
The third, and I&rsquom supposing most important ingredient that Gail cites, is chemistry. Just as I attribute her chemistry with Padma and Tom as the backbone of Top Chef, Gail talked about the importance of the same dynamic among the chefs.
&ldquoIt&rsquos the magic of these chefs themselves. It&rsquos a casting process. It is a television show. And it&rsquos not just about being a great chef and it&rsquos not just about being an interesting person that is entertaining on TV. It&rsquos the magic of the two. The equation is excellent talent plus interesting human plus chemistry between 15 totally disparate personalities. And that chemistry is a big factor&rdquo.
Gail Simmons Talks With Her Mouth (Overly) Full
I never thought that I would yearn for Andy Cohen, the host of Bravo TV’s surprisingly popular talk show, “Watch What Happens Live,” but that’s exactly what Gail Simmons’s new memoir, “Talking With My Mouth Full,” made me do.
Simmons, a frequent judge on “Top Chef”, and the host of “Top Chef: Just Desserts,” writes in a fluid conversational style that’s easy to approach. The subtitle promises “My Life as a Professional Eater” and that’s exactly what’s here: her early internships with Canadian magazines time in a professional kitchen how coincidence led to a personal assistantship with the legendary Vogue food writer Jeffrey Steingarten — which led to a job for Daniel Boulud, then onto Food + Wine, the “Top Chef” franchise, and, oh yes, a wedding catered by Daniel Boulud. If you are wondering whether Daniel Boulud is an excellent caterer, he is.
Simmons comes across as charming, likable (it’s hard to remember that she was once considered the ‘mean’ judge on “Top Chef”), and, if you’re Jewish and between the ages of 26 and 40, someone you probably met once at a friend’s wedding, or on a teen tour. The experience of the book is better described as listening to a casual friend tell you about her life than it is reading a serious, culinary memoir.
The problem with the conversational tone, however, is that memoirs are monologues and not dialogues, and we only ever learn what the writer is willing to reveal unprompted. “Kitchen Confidential” confided in us and exposed everything on Anthony Bourdain’s mind. In contrast, Simmons is clearly holding back. She needs an interlocutor to push her and prod her, to get her to open up and speak more freely about her time working for and alongside some of the biggest names in food. In a way, this was clear from the title. “Talking with my mouth full” euphemistically means being rude, chutzpahdik, and speaking even when you shouldn’t. But here the phrase almost reverts to a more-literal meaning of not being able to say anything because it’s too difficult. She needs an Andy Cohen.
The book is at its best in the early chapters. Here Simmons relates her family history, childhood in Toronto, teenage misadventures, and travels across the globe — the lovelorn summer on a Kibbutz where she learned how to kill chickens and cook eggs for hundreds and the semester in Spain when she and her friends mixed boxed wine and Fanta: “It was very wrong, yet it always hit the spot.” (Agreed.) Further, this is the conversational tone at its best: a simple, unassuming statement that elegantly captures what it means to be a young, aspiring cosmopolitan with more ambition than money.
There are still moments in these early chapters when Simmons has difficulty speaking. The discussion of her brother’s psychiatric problems is guarded even as it appears open. But the later we get in time — and the closer we get to her current employers — the more closed Simmons becomes. She gives us factual details about her jobs in the food industry, and nicely explains the mechanics of a professional kitchen and how they judge on “Top Chef”. But Simmons says little about the inner personalities of the people she works with, and gives no sense of conflict. Either these are some of the most tranquil and pacific workplaces on the planet, or Simmons is unwilling to tell us what they are really like. Consider only “Top Chef”: Have there been moments when the editing completely distorted her opinions? Have disagreements between the judges grown overheated? (How could they not?) And what of all the hosts and judges who’ve come and gone — why? The problem, again, is that in memoirs if you only have something nice to say it isn’t worth saying at all.
Chocolate Honeycomb Crunch
- 3/4 cup unsweetened coconut chips (or flakes if easier to find)
- Nonstick cooking spray
- 11/2 cups salted mini pretzels, each broken into 3 or 4 pieces
- 1/2 cup roasted unsalted peanuts, coarsely chopped
- 11/2 teaspoons baking soda 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt 11/3 cups sugar
- 1/2 cup light corn syrup
- 12 ounces bittersweet
- chocolate (70%), coarsely chopped (about 21/2 cups)
Special equipment: candy thermometer
Even the returning chefs embraced their sous chef roles with grace and aplomb.
I’ll admit, when I saw previews of the finale that focused on Brian Malarkey working with Stephanie, Lee Anne apparently overzealously suggesting ingredients to Melissa, and Kevin reuniting with good friend Bryan, my default assumption was that Stephanie was doomed, Melissa would be hamstrung, and Bryan would coast to victory. Therein lies the beauty of deft editing and promotion, as reality didn’t mirror perception.
I’ve made bashing Brian Malarkey a weekly exercise in these recaps, but have to give credit where credit is due. He brought it for Stephanie, as a sous chef, as a cheerleader, and as an emotional rock. He delivered the goods AND the line of the night, telling Stephanie that “I’m your bitch!” in embracing his role.
What felt like a pushy Lee Anne in the preview turned out to be a chef who was simply trying to help Melissa win. Floating suggestions and ideas, then taking Melissa’s lead, made Chef Wong a great ally, even being on board with the idea of starting from scratch on the tiramisu dessert that felt a bit off in its initial preparation.
Bryan benefitted by having close friend Kevin at his side, as Chef Gillespie wasn’t new to the pressures of being in the finale. A finalist himself in season 6 and falling just short this season, Kevin remained a calming voice throughout Chef Voltaggio’s final cook.
Food, Home Renovation Shows on Menu for A+E’s FYI Launch
A+E Networks has unveiled the first wave of shows set for the July 7 launch of FYI, its lifestyle-centric rebranding of the Bio channel.
The six series unveiled Wednesday focus on foodie pursuits and home design and makeover themes.
“Top Chef” vet Gail Simmons and Food Network regular Marcus Samuelsson will team with food blogger Max Silvestri to host “The Feed,” which is billed as “part road show, part buddy comedy and part talk show.” FYI has ordered six hourlong segs, exec produced by Giants Pirates’ Ross Jacobson and Troy Searer along with Simmons and Samuelsson.
Also in the works is a pilot for a show chronicling actress Jennifer Esposito’s efforts to open a gluten-free bakery in Gotham.
“FYI is scouring the globe for new talent and partnering with the industry’s top producers to commission thought-provoking and inspirational lifestyle content,&rdquo said FYI prexy Jana Bennett.
Here’s a rundown of the original series and pilots:
New Original Series:
&ldquoThe Epic Meal Show&rdquo (working title) – 16 half-hour episodes
With more than 600 million viewsin weekly webisodes and 6 million YouTube subscribers to date, Harley Morenstein, aka the “Sauce Boss,&rdquo and his kitchen crew are ready for primetime television. The Epic Meal Time team delivers recipes that are visually mind-blowing spins on food preparation and presentation. This FYI series will follow the ingenious group as they invent spectacular new dishes. Produced for FYI by The Collective and Nexttime Productions. Executive Producers for FYI are Gena McCarthy, Liz Fine and Audra Smith.
&ldquoThe Feed&rdquo (working title) – 6 one-hour episodes
Part road show, part buddy comedy, part talk show – this is a deliciously inventive new series celebrating food in all its creative, ingenious glory. Three unique and distinctly opinionated hosts – culinary expert and &ldquoTop Chef&rdquo judge Gail Simmons rock star super-chef and &ldquoThe Taste&rdquo judge Marcus Samuelsson and comedian and food-blogger Max Silvestri – anchor a rollicking adventure into the creative world of cooking, food trends and food culture in America. Produced for FYI by Giant Pirates. Executive Producers for FYI are Gena McCarthy and Lauren Wohl. Ross Jacobson and Troy Searer are Executive Producers for Giants Pirates. Gail Simmons and Marcus Samuelsson serve as Executive Producers.
&ldquoWorld Food Championships&rdquo – 6 one-hour episodes
Hosted in Las Vegas, The World Food Championships is one of the most ambitious and authentic food competitions held annually. This series follows talented home cooks and professional chefs from across America as they compete to create dishes mouth-wateringly creative enough to win their food category. From burgers, BBQ, sandwiches, bacon and family recipes – there is a winner for each competition, culminating in a grand finale with a shot at winning a $50,000 prize. Co-hosted by Jeffrey Saad, a chef, author and Chicago-based restaurant owner and Tiffany Derry, a Dallas-based chef and &ldquoTop Chef&rdquo alum. Produced for FYI by Sharp Entertainment. Executive Producers for FYI are Gena McCarthy and Toby Faulkner. Dan Adler, Jennifer O&rsquoConnell, Larry Hochberg and Matt Sharp are Executive Producers for Sharp Entertainment.
&ldquoTiny House Nation&rdquo (working title) – 10 one-hour episodes
From micro-apartments in Manhattan to exquisite tiny row homes in Savannah, &ldquoTiny House Nation&rdquo (W.T.) is a series that celebrates the exploding movement of tiny houses. From high price to low cost, this is not your normal design show, but one that proves size doesn’t always matter – it’s creativity that counts. Viewers will meet a new family in each episode as they burst open the doors to the trend of extreme downsizing. Our expert host and team of tiny house builders will help each family design and construct a new mini-dream home no larger than 300 square feet. Traveling far and wide, our host will also show viewers the best and most ingenious small spaces America has to offer. Produced for FYI by Loud TV. Executive Producers for FYI are Gena McCarthy and Toby Faulkner. Brent Montgomery, Nick Rigg and Shawn Witt are Executive Producers for Loud TV.
&ldquoRenovation Row&rdquo (working title) – 10 one-hour episodes
Each episode of this series follows three new teams – from first-time homebuyer&rsquos to talented renovation experts – as they battle it out through a transformation showdown of identical urban homes. Taking on dilapidated houses in distressed neighborhoods, the teams will renovate one home each – while also living together – in a bid to raise the property value of the community surrounding them. The team, who increases the value of their home to the max, goes home with a grand prize. Produced for FYI by Jane Street Entertainment. Executive Producers for FYI are Gena McCarthy, James Bolosh and Toby Faulkner. Donna MacLetchie and Linda Leeare are Executive Producers for Jane Street Entertainment.
&ldquoB.O.R.N. to Style&rdquo – 10 one-hour episodes
&ldquoB.O.R.N. to Style&rdquo is a lifestyle makeover series centered on a &ldquofierce&rdquo team from New York, and their larger than life boss, Jonathan Bodrick. Springing from the Harlem-based eclectic boutique, B.O.R.N. (borrowed, old, refurbished and new), the style super heroes land at the door of those desperately in need of some &ldquocolor in their lives.&rdquo By rifling through their client&rsquos belongings and asking blunt questions, the team at B.O.R.N. gets to the root of their fashion malaise, before whisking them away for a transformation that goes beyond just their look. In each episode, viewers will see them offer up their own brand of therapy and inspiration to clients as they transform them into their best possible selves. Produced for FYI by Left/Right. Executive Producers for FYI are Gena McCarthy, Liz Fine and Lauren Wohl. Banks Tarver, Dean Slotar, Ken Druckerman and Tracey Kemble are Executive Producers for Left/Right.
Pilots in Development:
&ldquoJennifer&rsquos Way&rdquo (working title) – half-hour pilot
Viewers will follow Jennifer Esposito, an actress-turned-entrepreneur and advocate for Celiac disease, as she strives to expand her gluten-free bakery, Jennifer’s Way, from a single storefront in NYC to an empire of packaged goods, cookbooks and franchise locations across the country. On a mission to inspire and help meet the needs of others who suffer from gluten intolerance and food allergies like herself – Jennifer spends countless late night&rsquos recipe testing for her new cookbook and bakery. Surrounded by her rambunctious team, model boyfriend and outrageous mom &ndash it&rsquos no small task for an actress from Staten Island who is learning the business as she goes along. Produced for FYI by Atlas Media. Executive Producers for FYI are Gena McCarthy and Lauren Wohl. Bruce David Klein is Executive Producer and Lorri Leighton is Co-Executive Producer for Atlas Media.
&ldquoRed Hot Design&rdquo (working title) – half-hour pilot
Shasta Smith is the Queen of &ldquoupscaling.&rdquo This fiery redhead is chief designer, welder, creator and entrepreneur of a successful furniture and artworks shop based in California. Shasta and her crew take unusual and unique materials – from motorcycle hubcaps to airplane wings – and transform them into amazing upscale pieces of furniture and artwork for demanding clients.
Produced for FYI by Cineflix Productions. Executive Producers for FYI are Gena McCarthy and Toby Faulkner. Charles Tremayne is Executive Producer and Mary Swanhaus is Co-Executive Producer for Cineflix Productions.
Top Chef’s Gail Simmons Talks Obnoxious Food Trends And Nit-Picky Judging
One thing you should know about Top Chef co-host Gail Simmons: she’s a delight. I know, I hope I don’t get thrown out of journalism saying so, but it’s true. I spoke to her over the phone from Sundance, where the 10 degree weather and crushing hangover made me want nothing more than to make a couch fort and not talk to anyone ever. But I had an interview scheduled, dammit, so I steeled myself and dialed the number, in that laborious manner hungover people have when attempting anything. She picked up, bright and chipper (and two hours ahead), and the sound of her voice instantly made me less cranky and nauseous. I don’t quite know how to explain it, I think Gail Simmons is like auditory comfort food.
She was charming, articulate, spunky — exuding all the qualities that made her my favorite Top Chef judge. Where other judges are offering Gruden-esque platitudes like “this dish really punches you in the mouth!” Gail’s critiques are generally concrete — Top Chef harsh as much as anyone else, sure, but also specific, with an air of welcoming Canadianness.
Of course, there’s a lot more to Simmons than just “nice.” Special projects director at Food & Wine Magazine, permanent Top Chef judge since episode one, and author of a 2012 memoir, Talking With My Mouth Full, Simmons has more than her share of bona fides. Born into Jewish family in Toronto (where she once wrote about the food scene for Uproxx), with a South African father, her mother ran a cooking school out of Simmons’ childhood home.
“She built our kitchen in our home to be a teaching kitchen so that she could stand at the counter, with an open living room, family room, and dining room, and people could sit around and watch her cook,” Gail says.
The elder Simmons even had her own food column in Canada’s biggest newspaper. Of course, just because Gail was Canadian food royalty (along with Dave Poutine and Maple Mel, the Syrup magnate) didn’t mean a career in food was a foregone conclusion.
“All my girlfriends at the time were going back to school to become doctors and lawyers and art historians,” Simmons say. “Again this is 20 years ago, no one thought that aspiring to be a food writer was, like, a real thing. Even my mom wanted me to be a lawyer.”
Luckily, she didn’t take the advice. Or get discouraged by the fact that there were “maybe five people in Canada who were full time food writers” at the time. Which meant she had to more or less create her own profession. Which she didn’t accomplish just by writing and cooking and eating and writing humorous recaps of cooking shows (uh, not that there’s anything wrong with that…). Unique among food writers, Simmons actually left her early newspaper job to attend culinary school. After she graduated from the Institute of Culinary Education (called Peter Kump’s New York Cooking School until 2001), she worked as a line cook for a few years before eventually joining Food & Wine magazine in 2004. Top Chef brought her on as a judge when it debuted in 2006.
And so it was she went from food writer to chef and back again, adding TV star to her resume along the way. That along with “delightful interview subject.” I spoke to her on the phone from her home in New York.
Tell me about going to culinary school.
My editor at the time [at Canada’s National Post] said, well you’re 23 years old and you actually don’t know anything about food, so why don’t you go learn about food? And then you’ll be able to write about it, because anyone can write, that’s what editors are for. But if you want to differentiate yourself and have authority you need to get on the front lines.
Didn’t you say like, ‘hey, I had a culinary school in my kitchen growing up, doesn’t that count?’
I did, but that was the cooking school — it wasn’t a professional chef school. My mom taught the local moms how to cook for their families, which was absolutely valuable and I became a solid teen cook because of it. I knew my way around a kitchen far more than any of my friends, but, it didn’t teach me how restaurants work and it didn’t teach me to have proper knife skills. It wasn’t professional training.
I spent so much of my time as the lowest rung on the ladder in a restaurant, I missed using my brain. So when the other cooks would go out at night and drink when they got off work, I came home and read a lot of books. One of the books I came upon was a book called “The Man Who Ate Everything,” by Jeffrey Steingarten. In that book he talked about his assistant and how some days she’s helping him write and edit and research, and going to the New York public library, or scouring the farmers market for rare ingredients, and other days she’s in his kitchen testing recipes and it just seemed like my exact dream job.
So I went back to my culinary school and I asked the career person there if they’d heard of Jeffrey Steingarten, and he said, yes, I saw Jeffrey yesterday and he’s looking for a new assistant. That was like, the most serendipitous moment of my life and it sort of changed everything.
Did you have to take on debt when you went to culinary school? I know chefs, a lot of times, they graduate with a lot of debt.
They certainly do. Lucky for me, I came from Canada so I had no debt from college, because my college education at arguably the best school in Canada [McGill University] cost ten thousand dollars for four years, I think? Something like that? It doesn’t cost that anymore*, but I had no debt coming out of college and I borrowed money from my family to pay for culinary school, which also was much cheaper 20 years ago, or 18, 19 years ago. I was fortunate enough that my grandparents helped me and then I worked to pay it back, so I actually did not leave culinary school with any debt.
Good question, no one’s ever asked me that before.
Oh, I always wonder that, especially from Canadians because I always wonder if they have more career freedom because of it.
I think some do, certainly. No one in Canada leaves college with the kind of debt that they do here. It’s just not possible. Even though the cost of college education in Canada has certainly gone up a lot, it’s just not the same proportion that we’re talking about. It doesn’t really exist. Thank God.
I’m sure there was a lot, but was there anything that especially stands out, lessons that you took with you from culinary school?
Oh my god, a million. You know, the thing about culinary school that’s kind of interesting is you know, I think a lot of students come out of culinary school and they think okay, I did that, now I’m a chef. And you are not. You’ve done everything once. That’s like saying, okay, I graduated from medical school, I can now perform open heart surgery. No chance. You are not a chef. You just have a great foundation and can now go peel carrots for a year. But you’ll peel them really well and you’ll understand the language of the kitchen and you’ll understand the operations and the structure, and the basic importance of technique and the kind of history of the way that a kitchen operates.
It’s understanding the brigade mentality, the way that a French kitchen operates and my role in it, and how every role supports everyone else. A classic kitchen is modeled after the Army. So there’s a very hierarchical structure but it’s really a team sport. You need to understand, you know, how what you do affects the end results of those dishes that get put on the table and have respect for the importance of those jobs, however small they may seem.
Do you have a first food memory?
I have a vivid memory of eating pea soup in my high chair. I have a memory of being five or six years old and going to South Africa with my family because my father’s South African. We went to the wine region and I have a memory of tasting wine for the first time. Not liking it, but being sort of interested in the pomp and circumstance around it. I have a memory of the first thing I ever cooked by myself, which were scrambled eggs for my mother, and because I was probably only five years old as well, I stood on the stool in front of the kitchen stove and she had me cook them over a double boiler, like a bain-marie, so that they would cook gently and I wouldn’t burn them or burn myself. And I remember adding cinnamon and raisins to them and then making my parents eat them, which I feel terribly about now.
So most episodes that I watch, I feel like even the worst dishes still look pretty good. So for you guys to judge it seems like sometimes you have to probably get pretty nit-picky. Do you ever say something and then, sort of like laugh about the absurdity of it?
Of course we do. You mean, bitchy picky? However you call it? Which I agree with. [I believe I called them “bitchy nitpicks” if we’re getting technical]
We have this argument all the time. The thing about our show is that it’s a show about professionals. It’s not home cooks who want to be chefs or home cooks. And at this stage, in season 14, it’s about professionals who are all kind of at the highest level in their careers. A lot of them are executive chefs, heads of kitchens, chef/owners. I’m not going to say there’s not bad food. There’s certainly bad food. They walk into an empty canvas every day, they’re all alone without what they’re used to in their kitchens, and we give them really, really challenging things to do. Quite frankly, most days I’m amazed that they get anything on the plate at all.
Closer to the first two episodes, because there are so many chefs and they’re all finding their footing, the food is usually the least appealing and it gets better and better as the season goes on naturally because only the strongest chefs are left standing, and they get more comfortable with the routine of our show.
But we talk all the time about the fact that our jobs are all about picking the worst of the best. I mean, we’re all about nit-picking and that’s all we have. The better that they do on those days when we get eight great dishes, it makes our jobs a lot harder, because we have to start looking at like, you know, the really painful minutia of what they did and the merits of each dish. We just kind of become ridiculous. But that’s also the game and I think that’s what’s so interesting. We are their cheerleaders and we want them to do well and there’s nothing that makes us more proud than when they kick ass and then go on to do amazing things in the industry. But yeah, we feel like assholes a lot of the time.
I mean that’s what makes it entertainment too. I could watch really insider criticism all day. That’s why people watch Whiplash. Anything where it’s like, insider and very specific, but also really mean.
The whole point is that it’s always so close and it’s anyone’s game. People ask me all the time, do you know from the first episode who’s going to win? No, I never know who’s going to win. I can tell you who the best cook is, who the best cooks are, but that has no bearing on who’s going to win the season. Because that great person, even if I know they’re the best chef of them all, can have one bad day or make some stupid mistake or can be teamed with a partner who has immunity… You just never know.
Do the contestants really always know the guest judges’ resumes by heart, or do you guys have to feed them that?
Most of our guest judges are pretty well known. I mean, when Sean Brock walks into a room, yes. When, most of the big chefs or food personalities walk into the room, yes, [the contestants] totally know who they are. When the founder of Anson Mills works with us, the contestants don’t necessarily know who that person is but they certainly know Anson Mills and a little information. Most of our guest judges are pretty heavy hitters.
It seems like some shows you show up late in the show, and then some shows you’re not on. How come you’re not on every show?
That’s a question you’re going to have to ask Bravo. I don’t ever show up late. When I’m on the show I’m in the elimination challenge in the second half of every show. So I never show up late. Once in a while I’m in the quickfire when that makes sense, but generally I’m there for Judges’ Table and elimination. That’s my role on the show because there’s only one other person with Padma ever during the quickfires. I’m in about 60 percent of every season, and that’s pretty much been the same since like, season three or four.
When they’re criticizing something and then you’re not there, it’s worse. I’m like, where’s Gail?
Well, thank you. I appreciate that.
You know, I love my role in the show. It took us all a while to figure out what our purposes are, what our voice is on the show. I think what I bring to the table, figuratively and literally, is that I kind of can act like a bit of a translator. I’m not a chef but I dwell in their world so I am an educated diner. I’m a professional, but I feel like my job is to be constructive and to sort of help people understand. Like Tom is the chef’s chef. He’ll tell someone well, that didn’t work because you over-rested your meat. And the viewer is like, well that actually means nothing to me.
So, I’m the person whose role is to sort of come in and explain why, as a diner, that failed when I ate it, and how it would have been better, or to get to the bottom of an issue that then makes sense for our viewers.
Is there anything that stands out as like, the best and worst things that you’ve eaten on the show?
I have to admit that we’ve done 14 seasons and I’m also the only person in the franchise who’s been in almost every season of every other spin off that Top Chef has — so, all of Just Desserts, all of Masters I think except one season, and then we did a season of Top Chef Duels, so all together I’ve done something like 22 seasons of Top Chef. It’s become a bit of a blur in my brain.
Over the years, I think the things that have been the most exciting are dishes that are really simple in their preparation but have me like, look at an ingredient or a dish in a way I hadn’t thought of.
There’s a dish that Paul Qui made on his season, on season nine maybe? Whatever our Texas season was that he was in [yes, nine]. It was like an episode towards the end where they have to cook something for their mentor, that’s the chef in their life who taught them how to cook, and he made this really simple soup. I mean really simple. When it came to the table it looked like nothing. Like, I almost laughed. Like, really Paul? This is what you’re going to serve for the like second-to-last episode of the show? It was raw vegetables, very thinly sliced in the bowl, and he poured a dashi and like sunchoke broth, into it, like soup. It wasn’t a broth, it was a puree, thicker than a broth. It was like the best thing I’ve ever eaten. You know, I took one spoon full and I looked at Tom and we both just put our spoons down and we’re like yeah, we’re done. I can just die happy now.
With Tom or Padma or like the other guest judges, do you think you could typecast their palate?
Oh yeah. We’ve essentially been like roommates for 11 years. I mean, we travel together, and essentially live together and eat almost every meal together for like two to three months of the year, every year, for 11 years. So yeah, of course I know the things that they like and don’t like. But I think that most of the chefs know too. I mean, obviously everyone knows that Tom doesn’t like okra. I know that Tom loves mushrooms and rabbit if it’s cooked well. I know that he loves peas and morels. I know that he loves eggplant.
I know that Padma doesn’t like her meat too rare, because she was raised vegetarian. So even though she’s a meat eater, she never really likes anything too rare. But she obviously loves spice and has a really strong knowledge of spices and that she loves a lot of like really simple food and she’s attracted to like, great, raw ingredients.
Hugh [Acheson] and I, I mean both as a chef that I love eating with and cooking with. We both are Canadian but I love that he kind of views the South as a second home. I know that he loves those sort of classic Southern flavors. He loves corn and grits… He loves kind of that concept of sweet and sour in food. Tom doesn’t like really spicy food.
Do you have a favorite and least favorite current restaurant trend or food trend?
I’m sort of over the sugar bomb crazy sundae with cotton candy on top and then layered with whipped cream and, you know, the like, mega food-porn desserts. They don’t make me very excited to eat them. They’re like a little bit, just overkill for the point of the visual. People, I think, have forgotten food’s for eating, not just for taking pictures of.
I’m into the fried chicken craze. I mean, the burger’s always going to be the burger but I like that fried chicken sandwiches are getting their due these days.
I really love that the world’s gotten really regional, I’m kind of into the blending and really niche regionality of like, now in America, it’s not just like Japanese food. It’s about yakitori and ramen and soba and izikaya and that we’re starting to understand the nuance of cuisine. Chinese restaurants are specifically Szechuan or Canton or Hunan. I really like that there’s cuisines that kind of, you never heard about from minorities in different countries that have been here a really long time cooking really great food, but because that’s viewed as kind of more home cooking, the greater population didn’t really get exposed to it.
Like Filipino food. Certainly like Korean food, but Filipino is one and then some of the smaller Latin American countries like Salvadorian food or Peruvian food. Caribbean food is something I’m really excited about right now.
Gail Simmons Talks Top Chef History, Phillip Frankland Lee and L.A.'s Amazing Food Scene
Over the past 10 years, Gail Simmons has spent more time in Los Angeles than she ever imagined she would. In 2005, she was a year into working as special projects director for Food & Wine magazine (a role she still holds). “I was sitting at my desk one random Tuesday,” Simmons says, “and someone comes up and says, 'Will you go do a screen test for this crazy show?'” Food & Wine was partnering with Bravo on a new show, a move that seemed like a huge gamble for both the magazine and the TV network. That show was Top Chef. “We were all scared to do it,” Simmons recalls. “We had no idea how it would turn out.”
Over drinks at A.O.C.'s bar late one afternoon in early March, Simmons tells me how stunned everyone was — and continues to be — by the way Top Chef has turned out. Thirteen seasons in (the finale of season 13 airs tonight at 9 p.m. on Bravo), the series shows no signs of slowing.
Simmons recalls having a meal early on with one of the show's producers and asking him how long he thought Top Chef could last. “Best-case scenario, he said, thinking really positively? Three years.”
The initial two seasons were both filmed in California, the first in San Francisco and the second in a warehouse in downtown L.A. So this season, being back in California seems like coming full circle for Simmons and the show. And she's also seen L.A., and downtown in particular, change hugely in that time.
“Actually, where we shot Restaurant Wars this season is the same place we shot our second season of Top Chef,” Simmons says. “When we were there in 2006, it was not safe. It was a very different place. We shot several seasons of Top Chef Masters and Top Chef Desserts downtown, and I was living there for months at a time. In 2006 and 2007, when I would tell my friends who live in L.A. that I was living down there, they’d tell me that downtown L.A. was having a renaissance. And I was like, 'You are fucking lying to me.' There were a handful of good places, but downtown was still pretty gritty. And this year when we came back, it's totally transformed. It’s obvious to people who live here, but to an outsider it’s pretty amazing that it’s become a restaurant destination. There’s so much great stuff there.”
Simmons echoes a chorus of voices, professional eaters from all over the country, who think L.A. is perhaps the top eating city in the United States right now. “I just feel like when I was first here, there were so many places that were more about the restaurant than the food. But now there’s a young generation of chefs really pushing things forward. I live in New York, I should be fighting for the East Coast, but I do think that L.A. is the most exciting city to be eating in right now. Truthfully, over San Francisco, over New York in a lot of ways. The only exception might be New Orleans, but that’s a totally different kind of eating.”
L.A. doesn't have a contestant who might win this California season of Top Chef. but one of the finalists is from SoCal: Amar Santana is the chef/partner at Broadway by Amar Santana in Laguna Beach and California and Vaca Restaurant in Costa Mesa. But Simmons had lots of nice things to say about L.A.'s Phillip Frankland Lee, whom many saw as this season's villain.
“I don’t think he meant to play the villain,” she says. “I think he’s very earnest. And I like that about him. I think he just rubbed people the wrong way.”
So what went wrong with Lee? “Phillip produced some beautiful food. I think that there are a number of reasons he didn’t make it farther, and he made it pretty far! I think the thing most chefs forget, because it’s hard to understand, is that we don’t want him to cook his food from Scratch Bar. If we wanted all our chefs to cook the food they cook every day, we would go to their restaurants, and that would be a very different show. The whole point is to take all of them completely out of what they’re used to, take them away from everything they know, and just get them cooking.
“Some people are really good at that,” she adds. “And some people who are super talented, exceptional chefs aren’t that good at it. It's like, all comedians aren’t good at ensemble improv.”
We talk about the history of the show, the effect Top Chef has had on younger cooks, and whether the series is responsible in some ways for the dearth of cooks in America's kitchens. “I’d like to think that every generation looks at the generation before and says, 'When I was a kid…' So that's part of it,” Simmons says. “But to some people, being a chef means you cook for a year, then you get on television. And we are to blame for that a bit. But the truth is, you can’t fake it. You get on Top Chef and the people who win the show are the people who have had the training. When I can talk to the contestants after the show is done, without fail, every single one of them says, 'It was so much harder than I ever imagined it would be.' It’s easy to get on with a great personality, but you can’t fake being a great cook.”
And with that, she's off in an Uber to eat dinner with friends at Chi Spacca and continue her love affair with our growing food scene.
Gail Simmons Tells Us How She Got Into the Food Business and Where You'll See Her Next
Gail Simmons is best known for being a judge on Top Chef, but before that she was an editor (just like us!) at Food & Wine magazine. Since writing about and eating food for a living is a pretty plum gig, we were curious to know how Simmons first got into the business. We asked the foodie, TV star, editor, Estancia winery ambassador and mom to share how she got her start.
Glamour: How did you first get into food?
Gail Simmons: My mother was a food writer and a cooking school teacher, so I was always surrounded by great food in my home life. When I graduated college, I decided I wanted to become a writer, so I got a job as an intern at a magazine and then at a newspaper. I was always following the food editor and the food critic around, wanting to know how they worked and how I could do the same. Ultimately, I realized that in order to write about food you need to understand everything about cooking, so I moved to New York and enrolled in the Institute of Culinary Education.
What was your first job in the industry?
GS: After culinary school, I went to work in kitchens and those were my first real food-industry jobs. I worked in two legendary kitchens in New York as an apprentice and line cook, first at Le Cirque 2000 and then at Jean-Georges Vongerichten's Vong.
What are some of your favorite dishes at NYC restaurants?
__GS:__I love everything that Dan Kluger at ABC Kitchen cooks. He's so inspired by the season and is so creative. Every time I'm there, he has a new beautiful vegetable on the menu. I also love the spaghetti with bottarga at Il Buco Alimentari, everything on the breakfast menu at Lafayette, and the lamb ribs with peanut and mint at Dover.
Any particular food obsessions at the moment?
__GS:__Right now, I'm a little bit obsessed with savory Asian breakfast foods. Modern Korean and Vietnamese restaurants are serving breakfast, and they do it really well, with items such as banh mi and savory breakfast congee. One restaurant that I think does it so well is Nightingale 9. It's modern Vietnamese, and I love their breakfast and brunch menu. It's a fresh take on brunch. One of the co-owners, Kerry Diamond, worked in the fashion industry for years at Harper's Bazaar, L'Oreal, and Coach. She left it all to run the restaurant with her boyfriend and start a food magazine for women called *Cherry Bombe. *How do you balance eating and working out?
__GS:__I eat for a living, so working out is definitely part of my job, the same way that the eating, tasting, and drinking is. I try to keep up a consistent workout routine, but I'm not the kind of person who goes to the gym every day and does the same routine. I love getting outside to go hiking, biking, or running, and I've been a jogger for years. Over the last three or four years, I've gotten into spinning, so I try to go to a spin class a few times a week, which I find is a really good way to let out my energy and get a great workout.
What other projects do you have going on?
__GS:__I have so many things going on! I am the Estancia winery ambassador, which is really exciting because I get to create delicious recipes and pair them with their fabulous wines. It's a fun job, to say the least! I'm also back at work shooting two new shows, which are both premiering this summer. I just finished shooting with Curtis Stone for *Top Chef Duels, *which is Bravo's newest member of the Top Chef family, and it is really exciting. It's a totally new format where some of our favorite past contestants go head to head in amazing, epic culinary battles. I'm also shooting The Feed for a new network from A&E launching in July called FYI. It's unlike any show I've ever done before. It's silly and fun, and all about food and current trends, but it doesn't take itself too seriously. It's part culinary adventure and part talk show. I do it with chef Marcus Samuelsson and an amazing young comedian named Max Silvestri, and the three of us have so much fun together. It's a complete departure from anything I have ever done, and I can't wait for people to see it.