"I've known it for some time, Jim, and I'm really excited to share it with the world," host Gail Simmons joked when our Jim Halterman asked her if she always knew desserts could be so filled with drama. While Simmons has been best known for her role as judge on Bravo's popular cooking competition series "Top Chef," she is now moving front and center as host of the spin-off series, "Top Chef: Just Desserts." As Simmons explained, the world of desserts is much more complicated than merely making chocolate chip cookies and the show promises to not only leave your mouth watering at the decadent creation of the contestants but there's more than a little bit of drama that happens between the chefs. And, according to Simmons, who has seen her share of drama on "Top Chef," things are definitely going to get heated in the kitchen at "Just Desserts."
Jim Halterman: Being a long-time fan of 'Top Chef' it seems like this idea is a no-brainer. What took you so long!?
Gail Simmons: I think it was just a matter of us having the time to do it. For several years now, we've known that desserts have gotten a bad rap on 'Top Chef.'. It's a totally different brain, it's a totally different kitchen and when we ask savory chefs to cook this, they don't know how because it's not what they do everyday. It's finally just timing. With 'Top Chef' and 'Top Chef Masters' we've all been running in many directions and we finally all got in a room and said 'Let's make it happen!' I think it's the perfect moment. Desserts are having a moment and we're about to blow it out.
JH: Because this is the first season, were the chefs a little in the dark in terms of the format of the show and what to expect?
GS: Well, it's not true that a chef is a chef is a chef. There are savory chefs and there are pastry chefs. Then within the pastry world there are restaurant pastry chefs, hotel pastry chefs, bakers who just bake cakes and cookies and who don't plate fancy desserts with sugar structures on them. We have a really diverse group from all parts of the pastry world. When we brought them all in the room they didn't know what we were going to throw at them. I think they knew it would be the same format as 'Top Chef' and that's a winning format that works and drives really intriguing and quality television. I think they trusted us for the most part but I think when they got into the kitchen they realized it's never as easy as it looks.
JH: Were there challenges that you didn't expect in the host role and did you mine some advice from Padma [Lakshmi, the host of 'Top Chef']?
GS: Absolutely. I did have the privilege of seeing Padma do it for so many seasons as well as seeing Kelly Choi do it on 'Top Chef Masters.' Padma and I actually spent some time talking about it before I went to shoot and she was really helpful in giving me advice and telling me things that I didn't know to expect. That said, you can read a book but until you live it you never know how you'll react to it. It was far more challenging than I knew it would be. The hours were double what I usually do as a judge on "Top Chef" and it was emotionally and physically trying. I'm not an actress so it was interesting to be put in a place where I actually had to deliver lines. The host role is about delivering the business and explaining the challenges and moving the plot forward. There's a lot to get through whereas as a judge, I just have to show up, eat and give my opinion. It was really hard work and it remains to be seen how I do at it. That's what's making me nervous the most!
JH: Have you had to bump up your workouts because you're eating more desserts now!
GS: I know not to eat a meal when we're doing 'Top Chef' because I'll get lunch in the form of an elimination challenge but with this you can't just skip lunch and then eat sugar and butter for lunch. I would go through a whole day eating all these desserts and I'd realize at 11 o'clock at night that I hadn't had an ounce of nutritious food in me the entire day! I certainly had to exercise more than usual and I had to be really conscious of eating healthy things in between.
JH: How was the judges' table put together? Is choosing them more about expertise or is it also about personality?
GS: I think it's both, actually, and it's about balance at the judges' table. It took us a few seasons to figure that out on 'Top Chef' and I think we've really gotten to a place there where we have a really great balance of chemistry at the judges' table. For chemistry at the judges' table on 'Just Desserts' we wanted to replicate it the same way. We wanted people who had expertise in the subject but also that they be enthusiastic and passionate about the subject. As head judge, Johnny Iuzzini doesn't necessarily have the gravitas in terms of sheer years in the business like someone like Tom Colicchio but if you ask any young pastry chef in the country right now who they think is at the cutting edge of dessert preparation nine out of ten will say Johnny Iuzzini. He's young, which I think gives him edge and he's sort of the prodigy and wunderkind in the pastry world. He's an artist!
And then having Hubert Keller... what you might not know about Hubert is that his parents owned a bakery when he grew up in France so he grew up in a pastry kitchen and then later decided to go into the savory kitchen so he has an amazing, profound connection to pastries and desserts. He's also the fan favorite of every episode we've ever had on 'Top Chef' and he was the runner-up on 'Top Chef Masters' the first season. He's such a dreamboat. Then Dannielle Kyrillos came to us from Daily Candy. She's really media savvy and has been working in television a long time and really knows that angle. She's the voice of the diner. She's not a professional pastry chef nor plans to be one. She's that girl you know who just has that insane sweet tooth. We had those two professionals so we wanted someone like her who was a total lover of all things delicious and Danielle is just that. It's a different judges' table. It's refreshing and new.
JH: This might be too general but what makes a successful dessert?
GS: It is general but I think the key to any successful piece of food is you need balance. In the savory kitchen we talk about there needing to be salt and seasoning counterbalanced by acidity and the equal amount of fat. The same applies in a pastry kitchen. Obviously sugar is key but if everything is all sugar then there's no nuance, there's no subtlety and your palate is totally coated. Along with sugar there needs to be sugar and seasoning acid and chocolate has acid, citrus has acid. They need to have a textual component. You want crunch and you want snap and you want fizz and you want richness and brightness all coming together.
JH: And maybe a little disco glitter like one of the new contestants uses in the first episode?
GS: 'Just Desserts' will have its share of disco dust!
JH: The contestants are a very eclectic mix. Did they surprise you?
GS: Maybe surprised isn't the word but I was pleased. The first time I met them I said 'This is going to be good.' They all have amazing backgrounds, total professionals and they're from different types of pastry kitchens. Inherently, desserts are more beautiful than a stew or a French fry. Desserts are colorful and they a tall and shimmery. These chefs really pulled it off in surprising us every week.
JH: One real tough question - if you could have any dessert of all the desserts, what would you choose?
GS: Good question! I'm going through a pudding phase right now. Whether it's butterscotch pudding or maple pudding or even bread pudding. Any pudding right now - maybe it's because summer is winding down and we're going into fall and I want to think about comforting food - right now that's what I'm craving. Rich, decadent, creamy puddings but there always needs to be something crunchy on top for the balance and then I'm set.
"Top Chef: Just Desserts" premieres tonight at 11:00/10:00c on Bravo.