Gail Simmons

Gail Simmons explains why she's excited for the new season in D.C. and handicaps the first competition.

on Jun 16, 2010

I was ecstatic to learn we would be shooting our seventh season of Top Chef in Washington, D.C. This meant not only would I be close to home (New York City), but I would also get to visit the nation’s capital for the first time in over 20 years! Not to mention that coming off of such a strong sixth season in Las Vegas. I was more than a little curious to know how our new crop of chefs would measure up.

I arrived in town the morning of our first Elimination Challenge and was immediately taken by the beauty of the city in full bloom. Spring is definitely the best time to visit D.C. The snow has melted away and the oppressive heat and humidity of another Southern summer hasn’t yet set in. It was just our luck (and perhaps some clever planning by our producers) that the first week of our shoot coincided with the city’s fabled Cherry Blossom Festival. For about two weeks each April, Washington is blanketed in the soft pinks and creams of almost 7,000 cherry trees, flowering simultaneously. The trees—many situated around the Tidal Basin at the base of the National Mall—were a gift from Japan to the United States as a symbol of lasting friendship. About 3,000 trees were planted in 1912, another 3,800 in 1965. A number of festive cultural events and activities planned around D.C. at this time help celebrate the season and commemorate this generous gift. As we pulled up to the Mellon Auditorium, the gilded hall where our first challenge took place, I remember thinking how fitting the moment felt, as if the trees were welcoming us to town, inspiring our chefs with their unique visual beauty.

The challenge we put to the cheftestants required a little more introspection. Just as every part of the country is represented in the Capital, we asked each chef to create a dish that reflected their roots and personal story. They would serve tasting portions of their dish to 300 young Washington professionals at a Cherry Blossom Gala to kick off the festival. After a thrilling first Quickfire on the roof of the Newseum, the 17 chefs were divided into four teams in which they would compete head-to-head, as chosen by the top finishers in the Quickfire: speed demon Kenny, D.C. local Tim, precision-focused Kevin and our first Quickfire winner, Angelo.

It is always a bit dizzying to taste the food in that first Elimination. Meeting the chefs and keeping their names straight, let alone each of their dishes, can be quite a task. Thankfully, the challenge required that we focus only on one group of four to five dishes at a time, choosing the best from within each group as eligible for the win, while the weakest would be up for elimination. Seven seasons into the show, I understand how terribly nervous our chefs are in this first challenge and have come to expect a certain level of disorganization, considering they are cooking in an unfamiliar kitchen, surrounded by cameras, strange equipment and competitors they do not know (or trust). As usual, we tasted a number of delicious dishes which showed exceptional promise; while a handful of others were unappetizing disappointments.