Top Chef Holidays

Curious about the judging process? Gail Simmons breaks it down.

As I was not part of this week's episode, I spent most of that day preparing for a Food & Wine photo shoot the next morning for an article in our December issue, for which the contestants were split into teams of two and asked to cook their best staff meal. The results were absolutely delicious and we all had a brilliant time cooking and hanging out together.

I only passed by the holiday party set for a few moments before it all began to take F&W Senior Editor Kate Krader on a behind-the-scenes tour. It was a treat to explore the Warner Brothers back lot. While our chefs sweated it out in their kitchen-trailers and the other judges walked the red carpet, Kate and I investigated the enormous, empty set. It was filled with street upon street of lovely little houses, stores and buildings, created to look like anywhere in the country, from Smalltown, USA to the Bronx, NY.

Inside, most of the structures were abandoned shells, but their facades were quite staggering and it was surreal to be in the middle of it all. When we were ready to leave, a production assistant gave us a lift in her golf cart back to the parking lot and told us that just a few blocks away on the very same set, George Clooney and Brad Pitt were filming Ocean's Thirteen! Now that would have been a party worth crashing...


I was very disappointed that Mia left while I was "off-duty," especially in the manner that she did, since I was not able to say a proper goodbye. She was a strong cook and a sincere person, but it seemed she had made up her mind to go long before the cooking even started. Her team lacked organization and motivation in general, but she appeared to do the least to make them work as a cohesive unit. She allowed herself to take that fall. Now, instead of going into more detail about a series of events in which I had no part, I thought I would answer a few questions from readers of my blog and set a few things straight.

I truly appreciate all the people who write in each week and although I am unable to respond, please know I read everything and am thrilled at the emotion it evokes. The strong reactions we have received (both positive and negative) are the reason we do it in the first place -- to get people talking and thinking about food! First off, I have been asked why they have a food expert as a judge on the show instead of having another pro chef. Well, having more than one chef on a show like this does not give viewers a very diverse perspective. (You know the saying: too many cooks spoil the broth).

My place on Top Chef is as the critic, a diner who does not see what goes on in the kitchen, but who understands America's palate and brings that knowledge to the table. I would not claim to do much better at some of these challenges than our contestants, but that is not what I am there to do. Just as a film critic reports on actors and directors, without being one himself, I report on the contestants' food, attempting to give viewers as clear a picture as I can of what it tastes like, if it is well-prepared, and if I want to eat more of it. Some of the food is not very good. Some of it is tremendous. But all criticism is by nature somewhat subjective, and therein lies its greatest flaw. Nevertheless, I try to give you the most honest and insightful commentary I can.


Another issue I wanted to address, which I think Tom has mentioned in his blog, is editing. We often sit at that Judges Table for hours on end. We debate, discuss, ponder, sometimes even strongly disagree. What viewers see is but a tiny fraction of what actually transpires. Trust me, you would be bored to death if you watched it all! As result, our comments can at times come across as harsh or negative. The brilliant producers and editors on our show work with hundreds of hours of footage as if they were putting together a delicate quilt. They sew and stitch the intricate pieces just so; forming what they believe is the most interesting story. That is what entertainment is all about! Finally, a note on criteria for elimination: we specifically judge each Elimination Challenge on the finished products of each individual episode only. We judge each Challenge separately, without placing weight on each chef's track record, wins or loses (expect of course if they have immunity). Even if the dishes are all good, we need to pick the worst of the bunch to go home. It has to be rated on a relative scale. For example, where flavor is concerned, burnt eggs are far worse and far more difficult to repair than burnt toast, which is why Frank was asked to leave instead of Sam in Episode 7.

In addition, if some of Sam's bagels were terribly burnt, the one I ate was not, whereas all of Frank's eggs were totally overdone since he made them in large batches. The same goes for Josie and Marisa in Episode 5. I am well aware that Josie is a good cook and a very capable person, as is Marisa. The fact is, that day at Social Hollywood, their food was horrible. Regardless of the number of times Josiehad been among the top three contestants, she made one fatal mistake and that is all it takes.


The Judges are never told by anyone whom to eliminate. We never judge contestants on what they could have done, or what they did in the past. We examine what is set before us each day and make our decisions as objectively as we can. It helps that there is a guest chef on each episode who knows nothing of the contestants' abilities and so is able to judge them without previous knowledge of their skill or personality.

Then each night, when we leave the set, we wipe the slate clean and get ready to do it all again the next day. This is the system Bravo and our producers (who have worked on many other successful reality shows) have developed as the most fair, straightforward system possible. In the end, it really works. If you have other questions about behind-the-scenes and how it all happens each week, please do write to me in the space provided below. I will do my best to pick a few more to answer in the coming weeks.

Thanks again for watching Top Chef and Happy Holidays!

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