Gail Simmons is moving to the head of the table on Top Chef Masters — the judges' table, that is. The longtime Top Chef judge is the new head critic of Season 5 of Masters (premieres Wednesday, 10/9c, Bravo) which means more Gail, all the time. "I'm there for every challenge now. Just what the world needs!" Simmons jokes to TVGuide.com. "Me in every single episode! What the world was waiting for."
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The Food & Wine editor's presence isn't the only change to the show. Season 5, which includes such chefs as David Burke, Douglas Keane and Top Chef: Las Vegas runner-up Bryan Voltaggio, also features a brand new online companion show on BravoTV.com — not unlike Top Chef proper's Last Chance Kitchen — dubbed Battle of the Sous Chefs. Hosted by Hugh Acheson, the show will feature the 13 Masters' right-hand men and women cooking to secure advantages, like immunity, for their bosses in the main competition. Conversely, the worst Sous Chefs dishes each week will saddle their bosses with disadvantages.
Simmons gives us the scoop on the new "relaxed" season, what it's like critiquing her pals, if Voltaggio has an advantage and the next season of Top Chef in New Orleans.
You're at the head of the judges' table finally! How did it all come about?
Gail Simmons: [Laughs] I know! It was sort of a natural progression. Obviously I had been on Top Chef since the very first episode of the very first season, and I hosted Just Desserts for two years. When we decided that was taking a hiatus, we wanted to do something more fun and give me a little more reach. This gave me a great way to keep me involved. I know all the Masters. I've worked with all of them at Food & Wine and I'm friends with most of them. I can't say why Bravo wanted to, but it's a great way for me to stay with the show, with the fans and do a different role. I'm the only one who's sat at every chair at judges' table.
The premiere is pretty crazy. The chefs have to skydive and cook right after. Were you guys going for a lighter tone?
Simmons: Yeah. The premiere was like a thrill-seeking reality show. The franchise has been around for a long time. These guys are so talented, and we wanted to do stuff with them that we couldn't necessarily do with our regular Top Chefs. The Masters are older, more established, they're competing for charity. So, this was a great way to start things off with a bang.
I feel like with Masters, because of how established most of them are, it usually skews more serious, but this was the opposite.
Simmons: That's exactly why we wanted to do it. We wanted to do something right from the start that bonded them, gave them some adrenaline and got them excited about the competition. It worked. I can't comment on past seasons because I haven't been on all of them, but I think it worked mostly because of the chefs. They are super-fun -- up for everything, so great to work with. They know at this point in their careers, they're not competing for the same reasons. We're not making or breaking their careers. Obviously, being on the show is great promotion for them. They came in with a different attitude and I think we did too. In the fifth season, we could have a little more fun. It's a very relaxed season.
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You know and have worked with a lot of the chefs. Was it harder or easier critiquing them?
Simmons: In some ways it was harder because we all have established relationships with them. It's not like they're 15 new people whom we've never met before. The Masters have been in the industry for 20, 30 years, and so have I. ... Some of them I have close personal friendships with, like Sang Yoon and Franklin Becker, and obviously Bryan Voltaggio, I have a whole other relationship with. I mean, not in a weird way! [Laughs] I've known him from Top Chef. And the fact they are so talented and so established, it was very difficult. There was more than one time where I was like, "Who do I think I am critiquing Douglas Keane about his food?! I'm no one! They are the kings of the industry."
But they know not to take it personally.
Simmons: Yeah. There's definitely a humbleness that we all have to keep in check. We really have to keep it on the specifics of their dishes in that moment in that challenge. We also try to make it a conversation. It's not like we're berating them. We want it to be a dialogue and that's easy to do. They're all very media savvy and this is not their first time in front of the camera, so they're better trained in that too.
How much lower is the tension level at judges' table compared to Top Chef?
Simmons: It's lower, but it's also different. There's less drama. There's some drama between them behind the scenes, but it's not like we're making them live in a house and it all comes to a head like it does sometimes on Top Chef. The whole feel of the show is more casual, more friendly, but also the food and the challenges can be that much harder and extraordinary because we know they are capable of rising to it.
In the early episodes of each season, some of the Masters have trouble plating on time. Do you think they all leave with a newfound respect of what contestants go through?
Simmons: That's so true. It happens in the beginning when the chefs are not used to the kitchen with the time constraints and without their team. ... At the same time, I'm always amazed when there is food on my plate! I'm amazed that not having food plated doesn't happen more often. It really does give the chefs on Masters and the audience a newfound respect for how difficult this show is. So many people come to the show having been armchair critics, thinking, "I could do so much better. That guy is such an idiot for doing that." All of them, whether they win or lose, they walk away with a respect for their fellow chefs.
Do you think Bryan is at an advantage having been through this before?
Simmons: I don't think so. I think he has as many disadvantages as he does advantages. He's been on the show, that's for sure. He's been at judges' table. He knows how the game is played. On the other hand, he has 15 less years of cooking than David Burke does. He's one of the youngest and sort of least experienced this season. At the end of the day, you can know how the game is played, but we never repeat a challenge. You can't prepare. You can't prepare for jumping out of an airplane and then cooking. To get to judges' table, there's no way to anticipate the challenges.
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Battle of the Sous Chefs was an ingenious addition. It takes things out of their control like in a real kitchen.
Simmons: I love it too. It's totally rings true to life. The position of sous chefs in restaurants, especially to chefs at this level, is so crucial to the working of a kitchen and dinner service. You rely on your sous chef so much and this was a way of us exploring that relationship. If you're away and your sous chef doesn't do his job, then your restaurant will suffer. It made a lot of sense in context of what restaurants are like and it also is such a great added element to drive the content of the show. The advantages and disadvantages will be different each week.
What other challenges can we expect?
Simmons: We do this amazing episode with the entire cast of Days of Our Lives. It lent itself to so much silliness. It's one of my favorites. ... Mindy Kaling, Ali Larter, the cast of Yo Gabba Gabba come on. We take the chefs to a crazy Mexican wrestling match. It's all over the top and all in good fun, and it's all for making them think outside of the box.
What's the latest on Top Chef: New Orleans? Are you done filming?
Simmons: It's awesome. We have the finale to film. Our time in New Orleans is done. We were there for over five weeks and I didn't want to leave. We've gone to 20 different cities around the world to shoot and I can't remember the last time where the last night at the wrap party, none of us wanted to go home. We all wanted to go home to our lives and our families, but we were all looking for excuses to stay in New Orleans! And I could not think of a justification. The city is so soulful. It's like another country. We also had some amazing guest judges and the people of New Orleans were so generous with their time and location. I'd be walking down the street and someone would say, "Thank you for coming to New Orleans." It will be a really beautiful season.