Gail Simmons Talks about Top Chef’s Secret Sauce

ASPEN, CO - JUNE 17: Gail Simmons attends the Charleston Social at the 34th Annual Food & Wine Classic In Aspen day 2 on June 17, 2016 in Aspen, Colorado. (Photo by Nick Tininenko/Getty Images for Food & Wine)
ASPEN, CO - JUNE 17: Gail Simmons attends the Charleston Social at the 34th Annual Food & Wine Classic In Aspen day 2 on June 17, 2016 in Aspen, Colorado. (Photo by Nick Tininenko/Getty Images for Food & Wine) /

Even after 17 seasons, Top Chef continues to shine and Gail Simmons is one of the reasons why.

I’ve regularly ordained Top Chef as the reigning king of food competition shows, so when I spoke to Gail Simmons recently I was compelled to ask her what the show’s secret sauce is. Harkening back to Top Chef’s 2005 debut, Gail reflected that it’s “hard to believe I was five years old at the time”, before sharing her insights on what makes the show so special.

“I always say there’s three things that make Top Chef special, that makes it have its magic. The first is that this is not a show about amateurs. It’s really watching professionals at the highest level. Like it’s a window into a world that, especially when we started, no one knew about before, like what went on behind the kitchen door with the life and the skillset and the talent and the struggle of a real working professional chef, how many hours it takes and how much talent you really have to have”.

Gail went on to explain how competing on Top Chef is analogous to other fields.

“It’s not something just anyone can do. It takes hours and hours like a great basketball player or a great musician. So I think part of it is the wonder of seeing gifted athletes, because it is a competition, doing what they do best”.

In Gail’s mind, the second ingredient in Top Chef’s secret sauce is the show’s ever-changing scenery.

“Our backdrop changes every episode, every season, every finale, we’re not on a set, we’re not at a studio where it’s a familiar place and time. Even our Top Chef Kitchen that we build from scratch every single season in a new city changes. It’s designed completely, so there’s no getting comfortable. And the travel that informs the food that they cook and that we eat completely changes every season. So they’re not creating in a vacuum, they’re creating food based on the power and the impact of travel and learning about cultures and learning about history and learning about geography”.

Gail expounded on how the travel organically produces variations on the Top Chef theme, including with this season’s All Stars.

“When they’re in Charleston they cook totally different than when they’re in LA, when they’re in Italy for our finale, you’ll see that the food is so incredibly complex and different certainly than it was in any finale before it. We always say that the travel component of our show is sort of like a character in and of itself because it really informs the look and feel of that season. And it informs the contestants’ interactions with themselves and with the world around them. They are learning and experiencing as they go. They’re not just on a green screen.”

The third, and I’m supposing most important ingredient that Gail cites, is chemistry. Just as I attribute her chemistry with Padma and Tom as the backbone of Top Chef, Gail talked about the importance of the same dynamic among the chefs.

“It’s the magic of these chefs themselves. It’s a casting process. It is a television show. And it’s not just about being a great chef and it’s not just about being an interesting person that is entertaining on TV. It’s the magic of the two. The equation is excellent talent plus interesting human plus chemistry between 15 totally disparate personalities. And that chemistry is a big factor”.

Gail’s ability to differentiate Top Chef from other shows in the reality TV genre sings in its clarity.

“You just never know what you’re going to get when you throw them all in a room together. And it used to be in the olden days of competition shows about the drama and attention. And there still is tension and there are still incredible stakes, but I think what Top Chef has shown more than anything is that even though this show isn’t about a team like it’s not a team sport at the end of the day and only one person wins, they can’t help themselves but work as a team because that’s the nature of what being a chef is all about. And so I think that’s what people love now that it’s not about who’s hooking up with who or who hates each other or who’s the villain. If you think back to the beginning of reality television, that was what people came for, but now I think they actually come for the camaraderie. And for the sort of deep relationships that our viewers really get invested in. I think those are really important, especially this season”.

Having shared her thoughts on what ingredients comprise Top Chef’s secret sauce, it’s only natural that the conversation turns to cooking. More specifically, like I did in my recent conversation with Padma Lakshmi, I put Gail on the spot and asked her which Top Chef alumni she would choose to cook for a private dinner party, one for the savory part of the meal and another for the dessert. Like Padma, she didn’t hesitate to answer, excluding only Top Chef All Stars LA contestants for obvious reasons.

“There are so many great chefs to pull from. It’s hard because I have really close relationships with a lot of them. If I could have a dinner party cooked by any Top Chef alum, I think literally today based on what I’m craving, because it changes every day. I would have Stephanie Izard cook it right now. She kills it in Chicago. She has created an empire of restaurants that are soulful and community-driven and delicious. And I’m really proud of her. She’s a mom who works so hard. She never stops. She’s so great at her work. And whenever I eat her food, I’m just impressed, period. Her food is totally craveable. You sit down at Girl and the Goat and you want everything. And that’s the sign of a great chef”.

Okay, so Gail’s guests have enjoyed Stephanie Izard’s dinner, who’s in the kitchen whipping up dessert?

“I think I’d have Zac Young cook dessert. Zac was a pastry chef on Top Chef: Just Desserts’ first season and he didn’t win, but in a way, he became our most successful contestant. I think he’s very creative and more than anything else, he does everything with a sense of humor. And right now I really appreciate that and dessert is about whimsy and it’s about passion and indulgence. There’s no other reason to eat dessert. You don’t eat it for nutrients. And I think Zac really captures that”.

As you can hopefully tell while reading this story, Gail Simmons is a warm, engaging conversationalist who is passionate about food. With Top Chef All Stars LA’s finale now upon us, I focused on the show in this piece. My conversation with Gail covered other fascinating topics as well, so you’ll have to keep an eye out for more in the near future. In the interim, I’m gonna heed her advice and head over to Goldbelly to order from Steph Izard’s Girl and the Goat and Zac Young’s PieCaken Bakeshop. See you there?!

Stay tuned to read about the food fun Gail and her kids have had during quarantine, the detailed work that went into creating her “Bringing It Home” cookbook, and her passionate concern for the restaurant industry.

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How do you think Top Chef has changed food competition shows? Do you think that Gail captures the essence of Top Chef’s secret sauce?