Inside Scoop – Gail Simmons Talks TOP CHEF DUELS

Top Chef Duels - Season 1

Top Chef is heading in a new direction tonight on Bravo with the premiere of Top Chef Duels. The show features a face-off between two chefs in three rounds, culminating in a season finale where 10 chefs will compete for $100,000 and a feature in Food and Wine Magazine.

OHSOGRAY caught up with judge Gail Simmons who dished on what to expect this season and shared some of her family cooking tips.

With your behind-the-scenes perspective, can you talk a bit about how the contestants approach the competition? Do they take losses hard or do they mostly approach this as entertainment?

I think that by nature chefs are pretty competitive, so they can say they’re being all casual about it, but at the end of the day we give them really hard challenges and they have to finish them. They have to take it pretty seriously. It’s hard work.

Do you have the sense that they feel it will reflect on them professionally if they don’t win the competition?

Of course, this is on national television. When they all first came on Top Chef, they were young, sous-chefs and just starting their careers – just sort of peaking. But now, most of them own their own restaurants, own their own businesses and they have a reputation to uphold.

Which of the pairings stands out for you as exciting for this season of Top Chef Duels?

All of them are pretty great. They’re all very different, but all of them have an absolute purpose. There’s a reason we put everyone together. Antonia Lofaso, for example, and Mike Isabella when they were on All Stars together discovered that they were related. So having them on as a family battle was pretty great – a family feud so to speak. Having Richard and Marcel, the two original, modernist chefs on the show back together was pretty amazing. I think that even though modernist cuisine certainly was not invented by either of them, the two of them are really to credit for explaining to the world what foam is, what spherification is, what a sous vide machine is. Until Top Chef introduced those things, most of America had no idea of those terms. Now, they’re widespread. I think Marcel and Richard really had something to do with that. So that’s pretty great, too. Then, of course, people like Stephanie Izard and Kristen Kish on head to head, they are the only two female winners ever on Top Chef, so that was pretty special.

Are there any contestants that have big personalities who you enjoy watching compete?

They all have big personalities! That’s kind of why we have them all on. These are the eighteen best chefs that we’ve ever had on Top Chef. Not just for their cooking ability, but because they were interesting to watch as characters. I think they’ve just gotten more so.

What do you think the contestants struggle with the most? Is it the strange ingredients or time management?

Time management is always the key on Top Chef. The thing about the show is that it is always about the clock. There are a few ingredients that these chefs haven’t seen [and] haven’t cooked with before. They’re all professionals, but when they’re in their own kitchens and control their own kitchens, it’s a different story. When they’re up against the clock in a kitchen they’re not familiar with, it becomes a very difficult challenge.

Is there any ingredient you can preview for us that you thought was strange or out there that they have to deal with?

Ingredient wise, we did throw them for a few loops. Usually on the show, it’s not about specific ingredients. But, we did one challenge where our guest judge was Andrew Zimmern from Bizarre Foods. He is known for strange ingredients and he brought three of his favorites I had never tasted before. I’m pretty sure the chef we had cook them had never cooked them before either.

Has there ever been anything that you had to taste where you just really didn’t want to?

Yes, everything in that challenge. But I did it, because I’m a professional.

You have been on several iterations of Top Chef, what about this particular one stands out for you in terms of how it’s different from the others you’ve been a part of?

Well, the best thing about this season – what makes this so different from other seasons – we’ve eliminated the shopping expeditions and the reality back at the house and the location shoots. It’s all about head-to-head in one, super tricked-out kitchen. It made it really intimate. It’s a lot more casual than regular Top Chef. There’s no formal judge’s table. Curtis and I and our guests every episode just taste the food and decide on who goes home and who goes on to the finale.

On a personal level, are you a food snob when it comes to what you eat or do you enjoy the occasional bag of Cheetoes?

I’m not a food snob at all. I know on the show my job is to critique food and get into the nitty gritty of it. But the truth is when I’m eating for myself, or when with friends and family and someone else is cooking for me, or I’m just in a snacking mood … I’m just excited about food in general. I am a very easy audience. Yes, I do enjoy the odd bag of salt and vinegar chips. I love an ice cream sandwich and a good bowl of macaroni and cheese. I just want food to be made with passion and thoughtfulness that’s all I care about.

You released a book in 2012 titled, “Talking With My Mouth Full.” Do you have plans to release another?

I do. I’m working on my first cookbook. It’s a little while out and it’s just in the beginning stages, but I’m very excited about it.

Is there one dish that you think should be in a family’s regular rotation that’s easy and accessible?

I guess the way I cook every night – and I wish every family could cook every night – is I start with the vegetables. I always build my meal around the vegetables. So it’s not one specific dish, but it’s a way of thinking about cooking. I take two or three vegetables and I build my meal around that. I think that if everyone could start that way, we’d all probably eat a little better.

Top Chef Duels airs Wednesday at 10/9c on Bravo.