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Bravotv.com: This is the 13th season of the show and Top Chef is hitting the road, going on a road trip across California. How do you think that changes the game this season?
Gail Simmons: There’s a lot of really exciting things to eat, do, and see in California bottom to top. For one, we change locations and cities every few episodes which gives us more opportunities for different ingredients and to bring in the different cultural touch points that make California so special. Cooking in San Diego is very different from cooking in San Francisco, they have obviously different chefs, climates, access to different ingredients and they’re known for different kinds of food. The cities have very different histories. So we’re able to use these details to make every challenge exciting and keep every chef on their toes.
Bravotv.com: When we meet the chefs, we find out that the majority are executive chefs and a number are James Beard nominees, do you think that sets the bar high for the season from the very beginning in terms of what you as judges are expecting from them?
GS: Absolutely. Our goal thirteen seasons into this show is to keep pushing the envelope. We want the chefs to get better and better so that we can challenge them more and more, so our audience gets to see the level of talent that this country’s producing, who these great chefs are and who they’ll become. I’m thrilled that at this stage in the game, ten years later, we’re at the point where that’s the standard to being on the show, let alone winning. I can say that even though there’s one person on the season, Frances, who is a sous chef, she’s a sous chef at a very high volume, high-end restaurant that is probably triple the size of five of the other contestants’ restaurants combined. So don’t think just because her title is sous chef that she’s not a force to be reckoned with. Every single one of them has amazing experience and attributes. They were chosen for very special reasons because they really are talented and ready to win. It was great to see that they’re all on that same level and we expect a ton from all of them. They’re also very diverse. There are restaurants represented from coast to coast, from south to north, some of them cook at very casual places, some of them cook Italian, some cook Southeast Asian, some of them are cooking largely vegetarian food. There are so many versions of executive chefs in this group, which I think is very exciting.
Bravotv.com: Do you think it’s more diverse than previous seasons?
GS: In a way, yes. I think this season has some really young chefs, but they’re so accomplished. There are chefs from parts of the country that we’ve never seen before and most of them worked for many years for some pretty extraordinarily talented celebrity chefs around the country and the world. Their backgrounds and personal histories are so varied too, several of them are immigrants, first generation Americans, cooking such different styles, and they all have their own specific points of view. That’s what we’re really looking for in this first elimination challenge. To get a sense of who they are.
Bravotv.com: Did you agree with who was at the top and bottom of the elimination challenge? Were there any standout dishes?
GS: There were a few that I thought were overlooked by the critics and there were certainly a few that I thought were flawed that weren’t acknowledged either. But this is how we set the parameters of the challenge, we let the critics decide tops and bottom and overall, I didn’t disagree with their decisions. There were certainly certain issues for those who were chosen at the bottom. The major overall flaw I think that happens every season is that at this early stage the chefs really have no sense of their cooking spaces, their time, and what they’re capable of in terms of what we allot them, so they always overreach. Which makes sense, they want to impress us, they want to show us what they can do, but the parameters of how and where they’re cooking are so completely different than anything they’ve done in the past. It doesn't matter who they are, every season they come on the show and after that first challenge, they are completely floored by how difficult it is. Tom said at the beginning “keep it simple” and a lot of the chefs didn’t listen. Not because they were trying to be defiant, but because they’re so used to being able to stretch their wings and in your own kitchen it’s pretty easy to do that. But in the Top Chef kitchen you’re without your team, you have no idea where pots and pans are, there’s no one to help you, and our kitchen is huge. They spend so much time just running around, and then they get to an outdoor location where there’s no running water, where they’re cooking for 200 people on a grass lawn in the Hollywood Hills....you can’t underestimate how difficult that is. A lot of them have no clue what they’re in for and when they get there they realize that the dish they chose to make is actually not feasible in terms of quality control. That’s where they fall flat. It happened with several of them in this first challenge, I’m afraid.
Bravo: Do you think that’s a problem they’ll continue to run into this season because the show is on the road and traveling to different cities?
GS: Yes and no. It would probably be easier if we stayed in one location for the entire season because they would get used to the kitchen over time. So yes, this is going to come up again and again when we move and they can't get too comfortable, but that’s part of our game and why we do it. That said, as the season goes on, as it happens every year, the strong chefs rise to the top and they get stronger and stronger because every day they get more used to the scenario. They might not be getting more used to each location, but they get more comfortable with how the challenges work, they understand their own strengths and they’re able to evolve in order to make the show work for them. Because I know how it all ends, I can tell you that it always starts off messy, it’s always chaos for the first couple episodes but it consistently gets better and better in the season.
Bravo: Back to the elimination challenge, what were your thoughts when Philip pulled the grass from the lawn and used that in his dish?
GS: I thought it was disgusting. I like to think that if you were using hay in your restaurant, you’re getting it from a reliable source where you know how it was cut and dried and where it was before you used it. This is not generally how you forage. Urban foraging sounds very trendy, but I know many experienced chef foragers who tell me that they do not forage much in Central Park, even though there's a lot that is edible, because there’s also a lot of dog poop! And bird poop! So I was a little put off by someone taking hay off the ground. Good intentions, but misguided.
Bravo: Grayson was also on the bottom and she’s been on the season before. Do you think the bar is set higher for someone who is a returning chef?
GS: No, I don’t think so. We know she has played the game before and we assume that she knows what we’re looking for, she has the advantage of understanding the rhythm of Top Chef and how difficult it is. And that could be a huge advantage. But I don’t think that we have different expectations for her than anyone else. Our expectations are the same because we rate everything on a bell curve. It’s just about making the best food you can. Whoever makes the best dish that day is the winner, whoever makes the worst and least interesting food is going to go home. I appreciate that she stayed true to what she wanted to cook. But I think that she became incredibly defensive when we discussed it with her, and I don’t blame her. It must have felt terrible to be in that position. What I don’t think she understood from our criticism is that there's a major difference between simple and boring. We told everyone to keep it simple, but we did not tell everyone to not be interesting. To not show off who you are. I would say of the seventeen chefs, twelve of them, fourteen of them even, cooked very interesting food and a lot of it was still simply prepared. Her dish was executed perfectly well, it just was so completely flat in originality. It didn’t tell us anything about her. It wasn’t the best meatball I’ve ever tasted, it was a perfectly fine meatball in tomato sauce which I can get at any number of decent Italian restaurants if I walk out of my door right now in New York City. Kwame's Thai dish with toasted peanuts for example, was bright, it was exciting, it told us about his recent trip to Thailand and it incorporated a personal element. Amar’s meatball, which we could compare directly with Grayson's, had a sherry glaze, pork belly, celery root puree and everything bagel seasoning that gave it dimension. Jeremy’s winning dish was crudo. Now, I’ve probably eaten 10,000 crudos in my lifetime but Jeremy’s crudo was not only beautifully executed, but it was made with a flawless fluid gel. It was fresh and bright and exciting. When I put it in my mouth, it told me about where he was from and how much attention he was paying to details, that he really thought through the presentation of the dish.
Bravotv.com: At the bottom...
GS: When I first tried Garret’s Vietnamese dish I thought it was tasty and he did a good job. But the fact that the version Tom and Padma ate was so completely different was the issue. That is a major red flag to all of us. The point of a challenge like this is to be able to do something with consistency and control. He did not follow through. He tried to do too much, he was over confident, he didn’t pay attention to details, and he couldn't control his cooking. He let his garlic chips burn. Maybe he didn’t have the time to focus on them because he was taking in too much. Obviously many other people ate it and agree with their criticism because the critics chose for him to be on the bottom, not Tom and Padma. As much as we thought Angelina’s dish was bland and we thought Grayson’s was unimaginative, there were no major flaws that made their dishes unappetizing to eat. That is unfortunately why Garret had to go home. It wasn’t that his dish was disgusting it was that he was not able to deliver consistently for 200 people and people could tell.
Bravotv.com: Do you think he wouldn’t have made it in the bottom if he remained consistent?
GS: Absolutely. He would’ve been right in the middle. But again, the critics spoke, not just us.
As for episode two, I want people to watch tonight because the pop up episode is one of the craziest formats of a challenge we have ever done.