Gail Simmons continues to find inspiration 20 seasons into “Top Chef.”
The show’s milestone season, which filmed in London and Paris and featured all winners or runner-ups from international “Top Chef” editions, was a big risk, Simmons says.
“We were up against a million uncontrollable things as you face in non-scripted television and going abroad to film on the other side of the world,” the food journalist-turned-judge and executive producer said about the show’s first fully overseas edition.
The risk paid off, with the show earning five Emmy nominations, including Outstanding Reality Competition (which it won back in 2010), Outstanding Casting for a Reality Program and Outstanding Host for a Reality or Competition Program, among others.
TheWrap recently caught up with Simmons to talk about “Top Chef: World All-Stars” and what she learned heading into Season 21.
How was the experience filming an entire season outside of the U.S.?
I was very lucky because we shot it last summer when my kids weren’t back at school yet, and we made it our summer holiday. It was a really big trip for my family to have my kids and my husband for the first full month of shooting.
And that was great, because it also becomes part of their understanding of the world. I had to explain to them that if we were to ever live in London, we would not live this well and that we were given this really amazing opportunity.
That’s the double-edged sword of “Top Chef.” On one hand, we get to travel the world. It’s my favorite part of the show. But it’s also most challenging now that we’ve been doing it so long and, you know, a lot of us — including Tom [Colicchio] and Padma [Lakshmi] — we all have families, and that’s a challenge.
What challenges did production face?
Being abroad completely made us all feel a bit like a fish out of water, but I think it was a really healthy experience and a humbling experience. In the States, we are the No. 1 food show on television. I think we all take for granted a little bit that we can go into a new city and say, “Hey, I’m from ‘Top Chef.’ We want to shoot in your restaurant. Can you help us out? Can you help navigate this city?’”
“Top Chef” doesn’t air in London. That was great for our anonymity. We could go in and out of Whole Foods there and no one cared. At the same time, it was more of a challenge to explain to people why they should care about us being there. We wanted to collaborate, but a lot of people were hesitant, because to them, it was just another foreign show coming in and trying to take over.
Luckily, our producers are so good at what they do. They really ingratiated themselves [with the locals] — their food, their products, the way they cook and the history and culture there.
How was welcoming international chefs who don’t cook with an American lens and American products?
Bringing people together from around the world, and also not being in America and bringing them to us, put us all on this neutral territory.
Their stories were not about three generations of immigration, for example. They’re from where they’re from, or they had their own journeys to other places that didn’t go through an American lens.
That felt really authentic. I think it also helped us situate ourselves not in the center of the globe. And it forced us, and I hope our viewers, to really open their minds and try things we’ve never tried, hear about ingredients and methodology and philosophy about food that felt really different and other in the best way. I think that is what the heart of “Top Chef” is really about. Yes, it’s about making great food at the highest level. But the narrative is about these chefs’ journeys.
Going into Season 21 back here, I feel forever changed. That feels dramatic to say, but I think coming to the Midwest and starting a new season in the heart of the country, we have a totally different way of thinking. Now it feels just like a great reset for so many reasons.
Was there a “World All-Stars” cheftestant that really left an impression on you?
Two come to mind, and neither were our finalists — whom I love, too.
In terms of this feeling of change and cultural education being abroad, Begonia [Rodrigo] really taught us a lesson. Tom saw it very early on, even in the first challenge. Her creative process was really different and really new to us and refreshing.
The thing that happens in America often, and now with social media, you can see other people’s work at the tap of a button. Everything kind of starts looking the same. And it was so incredible to watch her process to give us flavor combinations and plating style and perspective that, to me, felt otherworldly and really beautiful.
And the same with Victoire [Gouloubi], whose story humbled us. This was a woman who was born and raised in Congo, lived in the jungle for many years with her family to escape guerrilla warfare and ultimately left as a refugee and ended in Milan. And then went on to successfully do “Top Chef Italy” and then come to “Top Chef America” and compete at the highest level. She showed us a new meaning of what it meant to be a chef and be a leader and have courage and resilience. And I think her food reflected that, too.
You just started filming Season 21 in Milwaukee. What can you tell us?
I can’t share with you about certain structural changes to the show, but there will be some really big twists and ways that we are upping the ante, so to speak.
Obviously, the biggest change is that Kristen Kish is with us in the host role, but that host role is going to change, too.
It’s really about what Kristin personally brings, which is being an extraordinarily accomplished chef in her own right, being a winner of our show. She has this empathy for the contestants, the way that we could never imagine because she’s been through it. But also, she is an accomplished chef, you know, at a really high level running her own restaurant. So it’s really making it her own. It’s like a brand new relationship that I think will really inform the way we judge, the way we talk about food, the judges table and the breakdown of how the show works. That’s exciting.
And then personally, I’m taking on a much bigger role on the producing side, which I’m excited about. I’ve always been involved with our producers in terms of helping to inform the challenges and bringing ideas for guest chefs. That’s where my strengths have always been. I came from food journalism and a really deep connection to the chef community across the country. When I was at Food & Wine magazine for 15 years, that’s really what my role was. So now, I can expand it more and have a bigger role in quick fires, have a bigger role in brainstorming behind the scenes and supporting Kristen and supporting our producers and just making everything run in a much more collaborative way.
“Top Chef: World All-Stars” is streaming in full on Peacock. “Top Chef” Season 21 is slated to debut in 2024 on Bravo.