‘It’s Not Personal!’: ‘Top Chef’ Judge Gail Simmons Tells All
In a new interview ahead of “Top Chef’s” 18th season premiere, judge Gail Simmons answers all of our burning questions about the best reality show on TV.
When I admit 30 seconds into my Zoom call with Gail Simmons that I have just finished bingeing all 17 seasons of Top Chef in preparation for this week’s highly anticipated 18th season premiere, she is simultaneously delighted and disturbed.
“Oh god, I am horrified and I’m grateful,” she responds. “The hairstyles alone, I mean, it’s like a journey through time.”
Along with head judge Tom Colicchio, Gail Simmons has been a vital part of the increasingly elaborate cooking competition reality show since its inauspicious premiere in 2006. (Padma Lakshmi famously joined the show as host and later executive producer in Season 2 after Top Chef’s first host Katie Lee was let go.)
If Colicchio is the show’s intimidating father figure and Lakshmi is the fun mom with the unenviable task of telling every contestant but the winner to “pack their knives and go,” Simmons is the warm, loving Jewish aunt. She’s not afraid to tell the chefs when they mess up. But she is always there for a comforting hug and words of encouragement when they are sent on their way.
Those hugs are just one of many staples of the show—along with frantic Whole Foods runs and “Restaurant Wars”—that will be missing in this new, ambitious season, which was shot entirely during COVID lockdown in Portland, Oregon. The summer shoot was also plagued by life-threatening wildfires and galvanized by the massive Black Lives Matter protests.
All of this plus the return of several previous Top Chef winners and all-stars, who joined the production bubble as rotating guest judges, promises to make for the show’s most compelling season yet. And Simmons—who describes herself as, above all, a “professional eater”—breaks it all down below before Season 18 premieres tonight, Thursday April 1 at 8 p.m. on Bravo.
With Season 18 about to premiere, can you talk about how different it is going to be from past seasons?
Season 18 will be, in some ways I hope, a little bit of comfort food. And I do hope that it feels that way to our viewers, like coming home. It’s still the same high quality, it’s still the most amazing talent, it still showcases the city we’re in in a unique and beautiful way. But at the same time, obviously we’re facing this last year head on. We are so proud of the fact that we really have given a voice to the restaurant industry and we will show it in all its forms. And this year was an unprecedented year. It was a dark and difficult year in the world, obviously, and for the restaurant industry especially.
The biggest thing you’ll notice is obviously that anyone that’s around us besides the talent and the judges are in full PPE. We created this show in a complete enclosed bubble in terms of the way that we operated for two and a half months in Portland, Oregon. And that was an amazing feat. And we’re really proud of it, not a single case of COVID along the way. Such a big part of our show is always the guest judges that come into every episode with the quickfire and the elimination and bring their perspective and their talent to the show. And we couldn’t do that in the same way this year, because the show has to be enclosed and we can’t have people coming in and out every day when we’re shooting. So we created this panel of alumni all-stars, 15 of them that are with us for the whole thing. They are our diners. So we’re never cooking for 200 people anymore.
That must be a relief for the chefs.
In some ways, yes. But in some ways it made it more challenging too, because every single diner that they’re cooking for is a professional chef this year, every single time. We did do a drive-in episode that allowed us to have people alone in their cars at the drive-in movie theater. But otherwise every time they were cooking, they were cooking for experts. And not just experts, but experts who had been in their shoes, which in some ways brought empathy in a way, but it also made sure that we were examining and cross-examining every bite in a really intense way. But I think it lends a lot to the show, not just because we got to eat meals with our friends all the time, but I just think it adds a richness to the show that will bring a lot. So it was a way to tackle that challenge, but make the show even better for it.
The thing that’s apparent immediately this season is how this past year has affected the chefs who are on as contestants in that they have a lot more to gain and less to lose. Usually people have to leave their restaurants to come on the show, putting their career on hold to take a chance on this other thing.
There is almost more at stake this year because the restaurant industry has been so challenged. And so, quite frankly, devastated, on the brink of collapse, that to have a shot at and have the opportunity to show what you can do to such a wide audience and the chance at rebirth, it’s a bigger opportunity even, right? Because most of these chefs lost their jobs, lost their restaurants, or the restaurants were closed, or they were furloughed, or they had to furlough a hundred people before they came on the show. I mean, there’s so much trauma in the industry. It’s not a trickle down of how this affected the industry, it’s a waterfall.
So I think in some ways you’re right, there’s even more at stake for our contestants, because there’s so much on the line in their livelihoods to do well. It will give them opportunity that really doesn’t exist right now. At the same time, I think it allowed them a freedom in a way that they hadn’t had before. Because now there are so many different routes. You don’t have to go back and open a traditional restaurant. We were able to have them cook at a time when there’s just so many different ways to be a chef. And this year has proven that our industry is so creative and innovative in that way. So I think you’ll see that on the show too. And I hope that our viewers take that away from it, like you did, and notice that. Because I don’t know if civilians outside the industry really understand the extent to which restaurateurs and chefs have been tested this year.
The fact that you’re all in this bubble together and you’re not really interacting with a lot of other people, how did it change the vibe on set? Was there a little bit more camaraderie, maybe even between the contestants and the judges than there have been in other seasons?
I think there was an empathy, more than there’d been in past seasons. There’s no camaraderie. We are not hanging out with those contestants any more, for sure not. But there’s more of a camaraderie between them, this shared experience after being in isolation. And same with us because we had these 15 people with us. It wasn’t just Tom, Padma and I. Then on our nights off, we wouldn’t just go see other friends or go live our life. We had no one but each other. In some ways that was amazing because we got to actually eat together. And I will say, that was the most interaction with people any of us had had in months leading up to the show. So it was incredible to be able to sit down with friends at a table and eat a meal every day and be outside together and explore Portland and Oregon together, go to wine country, go to the coast and experience it with a big group of people.
I mean, it was far more people than I’d been with for so long. We all were craving companionship and that’s what made it special. For the contestants, too, they’d all been alone in their own lives. And they got to then really form relationships. More than ever, I think you’ll see that this year it’s a group of incredibly diverse, interesting people who come together in unexpected ways.
Yeah, it’s so fun to see the past contestants as judges. Richard Blais was the first former contestant to become a judge and now you have this huge panel, including him. Does it change the way you get to know these chefs, when they were contestants versus when they then become judges and you are more peers?
Yeah, absolutely. Over the years, especially with some of them who were from earlier seasons, someone, like [season four’s] Dale Talde for example, I’ve gotten to know in our industry. I was a regular at his Brooklyn restaurant, I went to visit him in his new restaurant out in Tarrytown, New York. And so many of them, [season 10 winner] Kristen Kish, [season 14 winner] Brooke Williamson, we’ve spent a lot of time over the years getting to know them personally after their shows. But this was another level because we don’t necessarily all get to work together and have them on our side of the table, so to speak.
I think it actually freaked a lot of them out because they thought that they’d just roll into it and it wouldn’t feel different, but their empathy and the way they identify with the experience in real time, when they’re sitting at that table—you could see them, all they wanted to do is jump over the table and get into the kitchen and tell the chefs in hindsight what they could do better. They were so invested in the outcome and in the success of these chefs. And I think it actually really lifted our contestants up to know that there was someone on the other end of the table who’d been in their shoes and could really understand that experience. Because otherwise their experience is very isolating and it’s so intense and so challenging on a good day. And this year has just been one giant, not so good day.
One thing that I definitely noticed rewatching the show from the beginning is that the skill level of the chefs has just gotten better and better over the years. It seems like every finale, someone is making a comment like “this is the best dessert we’ve ever had.”
It’s true. Every year we’re just like, we didn’t think it could get better.
So it seems like the Judges’ Table for the finale must be the most difficult one that you have to do. What are those deliberations like, especially for the finale?
So I have never gone back and watched the show’s previous seasons. I think that would just be like a slow knife in my heart. But I think it would be so interesting now to see, because the first season had a few sort of semi-amateurs. Someone just came out of culinary school, someone was like a home cook and caterer. And very early on, we realized that our audience wants the show to be about professionals. Let’s just call it that and make it that. This is not a show about aspiring cooks. This is not a show for people who want to get into the industry. Every person on our show has been working as a professional chef and this year, there’s not even sous chefs. They’re all executive chefs or owners. And that allows the level of conversation, the level of quality of the show to first of all be totally different than anything else out there, but also allows us to have this level playing field. Everyone’s coming in with the same years of experience. And that allows us to push them so much harder. So that has been amazing to see. Just every year, the casting of our show has gotten stronger and stronger.
And when it comes to Judges’ Table, we have also evolved our production along the way. Our show has gotten a lot bigger since those first years. There used to be years where Judges’ Table would take through the night into the morning. Especially finales. I can count at least three or four finales where we would finish eating at like eight o'clock, nine o'clock at night, go to Judges’ Table, let’s say, starting at 10 o'clock at night. And we would debate until seven in the morning. In Puerto Rico, season four, we had to stop production during the finale Judges’ Table because the light was coming up, the sun was rising, the roosters were crowing, and we had to shut down so that our lighting department could switch around the lighting because it was lit for nighttime and it wasn’t night anymore. There are pictures of me literally taking a nap at the Judges’ Table.
So they used to be agonizing and they’re still incredibly hard. And they do take hours and hours when they’re boiled down to 15 minutes of airtime. But we’ve gotten a lot more efficient at it because we all are sort of on the same page about what we’re looking for and the challenge. So what used to be eight hours or seven hours of Judges’ Table at finales now is four or five. But we take it seriously. And we have never regretted a decision that we’ve made because we make sure we’re unanimous and we talk it out. That’s the best part of the show is just an honest, real conversation about food. The finales are definitely difficult, but that’s a great problem to have. It would be really boring if it was like, “That guy was terrible and it’s an easy decision.”
You said you’ve never regretted a decision, but were there any close calls that still haunt you?
Oh yeah, many, many close calls. I don’t necessarily want to name them because it’s probably a sore point for the person who didn’t win. But there were many times when it really came down to the nuance of technique or the nuance of the dish or an overall experience. It’s never just one thing. There’s no black and white rules to how to judge. We don’t give three points for this and six points for this and it’s a clean, perfect mathematical equation. That’s not what eating is. Eating is an emotional experience. Eating transports you. It’s about taste memory and technique and science, kind of in equal measure. So every time we sit down, we judge a little bit differently in terms of what we’re looking for and what we get.
There’s this really great moment that happens in almost every finale episode, where the camera catches you specifically going up to the runner up and consoling them in some way. It’s this really sweet moment and I don’t know if you’re aware that this happens in nearly every finale.
I guess I’m not. I mean, I can remember a few. It’s a show to us, but it’s life to them, right? They’re really going through this. And it’s an enormous piece of their livelihood and the trajectory of their careers. And they work so damn hard to get to that last meal. They pour their emotions out. It is so physically taxing on them. And at the end of it, they just want to collapse, win or lose. And you connect with that and you can’t help but want to make sure they understand how much you appreciate that, how grateful I am to these people. We’ve taken this adventure with them and we are so proud of their work. And by the way, just because one person wins, as you know now, so many of them have gone on to great success. And actually some of whom have become bigger, more successful and more well-known than the winners themselves. So you just want to make sure they understand that while that other person’s dish or menu was better on this one day, they are extraordinary in what they accomplished along the way.
I didn’t even remember who won a bunch of the seasons because that’s not what you remember. You remember these individual moments and stand-out dishes along the way.
Oh, that’s nice to hear. I was watching the first episode of this season just the other night with my husband and he was trying to get ahead of it. And he’s like, so who goes home this first episode? And I could not remember. And to your point, I’m so glad that you as a viewer felt that way, because I was there. And I know the end result. But I also don’t remember who goes home, because that person who went home was just as memorable to me as so many of the others. And when that person was eliminated, I actually was like, “Oh, wait, I didn’t remember that, I’m so sad!” I mean, I remembered the dish and I agreed with the decision, like that needed to happen. But I was like, oh, damn, I really like that person. But it’s not personal! The decisions we make are strictly about the food that we eat and that’s the only fair way to do it.
Before we go, now that we’re about a year into the pandemic, how have you handled this year without restaurants in a traditional sense? What has that been like for you?
Painful, but not as painful as if I was a restaurateur, that’s for sure. So much of my life is traveling and eating out. It’s what gives me the greatest joy. I’m a restaurant industry cheerleader. That’s my job, because I love restaurants so much. I love cooking, of course. But championing restaurants is what I’ve always done and wanted to do. And so it’s what I crave and miss the most for sure. I’ve done a lot of takeout. I’ve been cooking and taking out in equal measure. It’s not quite the same, but I think there have also been some really bright points of innovation in the takeout space that I’m excited about. So I’m just supporting the industry the best I can, whether it's by making sure people are doing takeout—and not just takeout, but takeout on the right apps so that the restaurant is not paying exorbitant fees to have that service.
And at a government level, this is a bigger conversation that we all can get behind locally. And thank goodness relief is on the way, thanks in large part to Tom Colicchio. I think it has made everyone realize that we can’t imagine a world without restaurants. They are such an integral part of the way we live and commune and connect and unify in so many ways. They are the hub of neighborhoods. They are the place we go for celebration, for drowning our sorrows, for reunion. And I just can’t wait to get back.
What’s the first restaurant you’re going to go eat at when you are able to again?
Oh, I don’t know, that’s not fair! It depends on whether I’m with my kids or not. But I’ll definitely be paying my friend Tom Colicchio a big visit. But there’s just so, so many. I can’t wait to travel again and eat at new restaurants. I just hope that as many as possible are still standing.