Hello all, and welcome to Season 2 of Top Chef. I was happy to see Gail Simmons' familiar face day one on our Downtown L.A. set. Gail is from Food & Wine magazine, highly regarded and appreciated throughout our industry for her editorial insight and smarts. I like her because she is genuinely knowledgeable and passionate about food (and also a lot of fun). Joining us was Top Chef's new host Padma Lakshmi. Padma brings an international perspective to the show and a great mix of East and West -- she grew up in India and spent years in Italy. She has traveled the world as a cookbook author, actress and television host. She swears she can make a ten course low-fat Indian dinner (sign me up). And while most people know her as a supermodel, let me tell you ...this is one model that eats.
During the off-season I met with the Top Chef producers to discuss what I've come to call the "Tim Gunn effect." Tim, mentor to the competing designers on Project Runway, has become a beloved figure to both viewers and contestants for his kind manner and helpful suggestions in the work room. Last season, during my strolls through the kitchen, I found myself often wanting to help our chefs or give them a tip (like pointing out the ice cream maker to Harold as the poor guy made it by hand,) but the decision had been made early on to draw a clear line between mentor and judge. The two roles could easily conflict -- what if a contestant hadn't listened to my advice? Would that subconsciously affect my feelings about his or her dish? Would I be biased towards dishes I had somehow helped along? I also questioned whether a kitchen would really be conducive to a Gunn-like mentor: Having spent a lifetime juggling hot saute pans and simmering sauces, I know how hard it is to turn away from the stove for even a brief chat. The "window" in which to get something right is far shorter in cooking than in sewing, and once begun, I think it's harder to change course when presented with new ideas, no matter how helpful.