Top Chef judge. Food & Wine special projects director. Author. Trained chef. Gail Simmons is all of those things, and this weekend the self-proclaimed “professional eater” adds another title to the list: host of Food & Wine’s annual All-Star Weekend in Las Vegas. The three-day festival taps some of the city’s best chefs for chic afternoon teas, farm-style lunches, pasta demos and a swank dinner party at Mandalay Beach. Before her official duties kick in, we caught up with Simmons to talk kitchen burns, TV empathy and Joël Robuchon.
You attended culinary school and apprenticed at Le Cirque in New York. Do you think back on that as a Top Chef judge?
Working at Le Cirque was the hardest job I’ve ever done and I think back to that job every time I’m sitting at the judges’ table judging Top Chef, every time I’m talking with a chef about their craft. I remember back to those long nights, that hard work, the hours on my feet. I think it gives me a lot of empathy for chefs, and it allows me to understand just what they go through in order to be the great artists that they are.
That empathy is one of my favorite things about the show. I think that other cooking shows sometimes lack that sense of empathy. How hard as a judge is it to maintain that?
Funnily, it’s not hard at all. We have no contact when we’re shooting the show with the chefs themselves. We see them at judges’ table, but we don’t know their stories, we don’t see them in breaks, we don’t get to chit-chat with them. And I personally spend no time in the kitchen. I don’t listen to their interviews beforehand or after or anytime during the shooting process. I only see that finished product at the same time you do. So none of that actually matters. I appreciate their work, and I take that into account when I look at their dishes. … When I taste food, I’m only thinking about if it’s done properly, if it’s cooked to the proper doneness, if it tastes good. And it’s pretty easy to just be focused on that one dish and be objective. I think that’s the point of the show. Since the viewers can’t taste the food, they rely on us to be fair and thoughtful about how it tastes.
- Food & Wine All-Star Weekend
- October 5-7, multiple events.
- Click here for tickets and schedule
You can tell it’s successful when people like me, who are watching at home, have an opinion on how well a dish was executed even though we haven’t tried it.
You would be amazed how many people come up to me and tell me that a chef was robbed, and how could I have voted them off for that dish, that was totally unfair. My answer is always, “Really? Did you taste that dish? Because I did. I was actually there and I tasted it.” I think that’s always the really interesting juxtaposition on our show. The viewer connects with the chef through their personality and their judge of character, and we only connect with the chefs through their dishes. So we have totally different views and opinions of the chefs and the food, but I think that’s what keeps such a great tension in the show.
As a cook and as a judge are there dishes on Top Chef that inspire you to go home and try something new in the kitchen?
Oh all the time. Sometimes it’s try something new in the kitchen or it just makes me think—a flavor combination I’ve never had before, a technique I’ve never seen. I walk away from almost every episode learning something new, if not from the chefs, then also from my fellow judges. As much as I went on the job when I first started as an expert, compared to Season 1 I’ve learned so much and come so far myself as a cook and as a kind of authority. I’ve just learned so much through the show. There are certainly chefs that have taught me a great deal, but it’s more dishes that stand out in my mind. There are specific dishes, at least two or three from each season, that I think back to and am really staggered by and inspired by.
You’re hosting Food & Wine’s All-Star Weekend in Vegas this weekend and you’re very involved with the magazine’s festivals. How different are they in each city?
You definitely have to treat each city differently. The city plays such a major role in setting the tone of a food festival. Aspen, for example, has been going on for 30 years and that’s Food & Wine’s baby and we’re genetically predisposed to love it with all our hearts and we can’t help ourselves. It’s really very special to us. But it’s so different than the All-Star Weekend in Las Vegas that Food & Wine as a magazine plays somewhat of a smaller role in but no less important of a role in shaping it. We lean heavily in Las Vegas on the talent that’s there already. We bring in some chefs over the years but there are so many massively successful and important restaurants in Las Vegas that we really, especially this year, are highlighting the MGM properties and they chefs that are there because it’s some of the best food in the world. And events that will capture the imagination of the consumer that comes to them.
Are there any events you’re really looking forward to?
This year in Las Vegas I’m doing an event at Robuchon, afternoon tea at Robuchon. I can’t wait for it. Joël Robuchon is one of the best chefs in the world. We had the privilege of filming with him at his restaurant, so that is kind of getting me excited. It’ll be my first time back there since we shot that episode, which, by the way, is the episode that won us our Emmy.
Is there a chef on your radar right now who you’re excited to follow and see what they do next?
Wow. There are so many. I think it’s so interesting how big name chefs who have really splashy restaurants are training young chefs who will then go on to open their own places and take what they’ve learned and make it their own. I was lucky to work for Daniel Boulud for many years and seeing what some of his young protégés are doing all over the world is really exciting. Chefs like Andrew Carmellini and Rich Torrisi in New York, chefs who when I was at Daniel they were working there, too, and they’re both doing incredible things in New York City right now.
Do you ever miss working back of house in a restaurant?
A little bit. I miss the adrenalin and getting my hands dirty, so to speak. But I certainly don’t miss the hours and I don’t miss the burns that used to be all over my arms.