[08/19/09 - 12:06 AM]
Interview: "Top Chef" Judges Gail Simmons & Toby Young
By Jim Halterman (TFC)

While the usual impression of Las Vegas is made up of gambling and showgirls, Bravo's "Top Chef: Las Vegas" brings another popular element � food � to the forefront of the city tonight as its sixth season commences with 17 chefs vying for the title of Top Chef. The season will definitely see no shortage of high-wattage celebrities as host Padma Lakshmi and head judge Tom Colicchio are joined by the likes of Natalie Portman, Penn & Teller and Wolfgang Puck throughout the Vegas season. To give an inside look into the new season, judges Gail Simmons and Toby Young recently talked about the new season, how the show has influenced the cooking industry and how things took a different spin in Sin City.

Las Vegas brought much to the show, according to Simmons, who is also the Special Projects Manager for Food & Wine Magazine. "I think some of the things that you'll see on this season are that we take the chef out of the lights and into other elements of Las Vegas that people don't always get to see and that we had a lot of fun doing because we were tourists there, too. We got to go to a lot of places that I think a lot of people know about, and it was fun to expose the chefs and the judges to stuff in Vegas that isn't just the steakhouse."

Young followed up by explaining that if someone hasn't been to Las Vegas in awhile, the culinary side of the city has changed drastically. "I think people... still identify Las Vegas with the all-you-can-eat buffet. When they think of food and Las Vegas that's what they think of and that's now a very outdated. And there are all these incredible chefs and all these amazing restaurants, and I think Las Vegas was very keen that 'Top Chef' be based [there] this season in order to advertise the fact that it's just a cornucopia of culinary delights now available in the city."

One thing that hasn't changed on the show is the drama that goes on between the contestants but, as Simmons explained, the judges are generally clueless to any of that until the show airs. "They purposely keep us away from the drama very distinctly so that we aren't privy to it and it doesn't weigh on our decision making and that we only really know what's going on with the chefs through their food and what we see before us. Often we only see what's going on in the house at the same time you do as a viewer. That Jose and Leah thing [the romance that occurred last season] I never knew about until the week it aired and that's good. That's good for all of us because at the time that we're there and we're in it we don't see the interviews, we don't see the house drama." Rest assured for viewers that live for the contestant drama, Simmons promised that the Vegas cast "is not only amazingly talented this year but a very diverse group of people, a really interesting group of people, and they all not only have very different cooking styles but very different energy which I know will lead to some interesting conversation."

Simmons also said a perk of doing each season of "Top Chef" in a different city is "it has allowed all of us to spend significant time in all these different places. My favorite piece of 'Top Chef' is that every season does take place not only in a different city for the bulk of the season, but then altogether second location for the finale, and it has allowed us all to spend time in these cities that you know maybe we'd been in and out of but had never been able to really get to know and really feel part of [like] Chicago, Miami, San Francisco, L.A."

Comparing last season with the new season, Young definitely saw a difference in the food results he was eating as a judge. "I was really impressed with the quality of the food last season but this season I was just blown away. I mean, the chefs they found to compete are incredibly good and some of them are already award winners in their own right. And as the competition progressed it became harder and harder to eliminate anyone because everyone is so good."

One thing easily forgotten is that the environment where "Top Chef" is held often can play a large role in the cooking challenges. "We've filmed in very humid environments," explained Simmons, "and although it was extremely hot when we were filming, Vegas was so dry, which made it sort of appealing to be in the desert and the amazing outcome for the cooking and it made it much easier in some ways for a lot of the chefs. It made it easier for baking." In fact, she added, Vegas can be considered more of a microcosm of cuisine. "I wouldn't say it has it has its own cuisine the way that Chicago does, or San Francisco, but it certainly has so many different and diverse elements that come together because people go there to play and people expect to eat well."

Simmons also said that as seasoned as the new crop of chefs may be it doesn't mean they are going to have an easier ride during the competition. "One thing that I've learned after six seasons of doing the show [is] they don't have a leg up. Watching it from your couch in no way prepares you for what happens when you get on that set. And I don't say that in a defensive way. I say in a way that I'm in awe because it happens every season. Every season, the chefs come on our show and they've been watching the last five seasons from their arm chairs thinking to themselves I could do better than that, I can't believe that person screwed up so badly, I could totally do this, oh, if I had just been in there I would have done it so much better, and they get on the show, and inevitably at the end of the season they say to me, I had no idea how hard it was going to be, I had no idea what I was in for, when you're you know in those circumstances."

Another element of being in Las Vegas that Young shared was that he personally went through an unexpected improvement that had nothing to do with the food he was eating. "I got to dress a lot better this season than last season because we were in Vegas," he said. "They actually put me in a tux for one episode and if I was the Simon Cowell of food last season this season I'm the James Bond ... I'm looking pretty good in that tux, I must say."

Asked about the impact of "Top Chef" on the culinary world and Simmons remembered that she didn't quite feel the same way about the show in the early stages of its development. "Over 4 years ago when [Bravo] came to Food & Wine Magazine and approached us about being part of this show, I remember looking at my editor-in-chief and saying, 'Reality? What are you putting me up for?' But the most rewarding part about being on a show like 'Top Chef' has been the mass sort of excitement that people, and not just people in our industry, feel about the show." The judge also sees the excitement about the show in people of all ages. "When I'm stopped in the street by children or parents of young children who say 'Every week we sit around together as a family, we watch the show, and then my kids come into the kitchen and want to help me with the carrots for the soup I'm making... ' There couldn't be a better reward than that."

In regards to the finale of the debut season of "Top Chef Masters" airing after tonight's "Top Chef Las Vegas" debut, Simmons was asked what she thought the spin-off accomplished. "It has allowed viewers to see these great chefs cooking � actually cooking, actually getting dirty in the kitchen and producing extraordinary food. I have to say, the three episodes that I [was] on, sure they fumbled but we ate so well, and it really did very clearly designate why these guys and girls are masters. There is no question that they upped the ante in terms of what they were able to produce for us and I think it was a lot of fun for them." She did add that the "Masters" show did its job of reflecting back on its parent show. "It has given even more credibility to 'Top Chef' in itself because it shows that even the masters aren't going to be doing it perfectly every time."

The new season of "Top Chef" airs tonight on Bravo at 9:00/8:00c with the season finale of "Top Chef Masters" following immediately at 10:15/9:15c.

  [august 2009]  


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