Gail Simmons believes Top Chef Cheftestants benefit from this type of challenge, interview

Gail Simmons and Tom Colicchio on Top Chef Season 21
Gail Simmons and Tom Colicchio on Top Chef Season 21 / Bravo

Going into Top Chef Season 21, the dynamic at Judges Table might have changed, but Gail Simmons continues to be a commanding presence on the celebrated food television show. Always willing to speak her mind, the celebrated food journalist, author, and culinary authority has seen numerous highs and occasional lows during the Top Chef competition. During a break in filming the finale, Simmons shared her insight on those last meals and how the chefstestants handle each challenge.

While Tom Colicchio might raise an eyebrow to an ill-prepared protein or plate of muddled flavors, Gail Simmons often has a different approach to her Top Chef critique. Having been with the award-winning Bravo food television show since its inception, Simmons often shares a different insight when voicing her opinions. With her keen eye and well-developed palate, Simmons asks that difficult question around Judges Table and demands a well-thought out answer.

Since our interview was conducted during the finale episodes tapings, I asked Simmons about the pressure that the cheftestants face and whether that gravity of the moment impacts their dishes.

Simmons said, “there are always moments of high pressure that lead to unfocused dishes and mistakes. It happens throughout the season. It might not always happen in the second to last episode of the season, but it does happen.”

Looking back at the various seasons, Simmons recalled various moments where an injury, something out of a chef’s control, or just an unfortunate circumstance caused a cheftestant to stumble. It does not make their journey any less successful, but it did not result in the final meal that they had hoped.

Although the quest to cook a meal of their lifetime might sound like a dream to the Top Chef viewer, that depth and breath of the brief can cause the cheftestants to become overwhelmed, or even succumb to the pressure.

Looking at the Top Chef experience, Simmons believes that structure benefits the cheftestants. Simmons shared, “when we don't give them that much structure, when we say cook whatever you want, that is when they usually trip up.”

Speaking directly about the final four Elimination Challenge, we told them “take great ingredients, cook it this specific way and make it delicious.” She continued to explain that the cheftestants could incorporate specific flavors, seasonings, garnishes, sauces. But, they had to cook it according to a particular method. That directional aspect helps to rein in all the ideas in their head and hopefully makes for a more focused dish.

Looking at that particular challenge, two of the chefs, Dan and Danny, presented dishes that were similar to a previous offering. When asked about when cheftestants repeat ideas, Simmons shared two important aspects. First, guest judges have no frame of reference for previous dish. It is one of the reasons why there are rotating guest judges at Judges Table.

Second, and more importantly, Simmons said, “we are not judging them based on what they made several episodes ago.” That factor is key to her judging approach. While she was well aware that Danny made an impeccable mousse earlier in the season, she was judging based only on the dish plated in that penultimate episode.

Top Chef Season 21
Top Chef Season 21 Judges Table, final four episode / Bravo

While Gail, Tom, and Kristen Kish, have tasted all the Elimination Challenge dishes, Simmons mentioned that the opinions from the guest judges do matter. Specifically, she always asks a simple question that is often very telling, “what did you enjoy.”

Answering that simple question can often bring up a topic that was not considered or insight into a concept that would have been missed. That idea was key in the Holland America Line Global Fresh Fish Elimination Challenge. The HAL team had a very different perspective on the approach to the fish and how it was presented.

As Simmons explained why guest judges are important to the critiques, she said, “they don’t have that insider perspective. They are coming in blind, with no opinions about the chefs or bias. They don’t know what happened yesterday or what is going to happen tomorrow. They have no horse in the game. They are there to eat and judge only what is in front of them.”

Combining the guest judges’ insight with Simmons depth of knowledge and experience, it is clear why the Top Chef cheftestants have gone onto successful culinary careers. They have earned that high praise by showcasing their techniques and creativity in that vital moment. More importantly, they use that experience to flavor their culinary endeavors going forward.

With one Top Chef season coming to a close, where would Gail Simmons like to Bravo show go next? She has a long list of ideas. From Arizona to Argentina, the world is Top Chef’s to explore.

Be sure to watch the finale of Top Chef  Season 21 on Bravo, Wednesday, June 19 at 9 p.m. ET/PT. It can be streamed the next day on Peacock.