Reality AF: Top Chef’s Gail Simmons & Tom Colicchio on Season 20, Their Approach to Judging, and Their Chef Mount Rushmore

TV Features Top Chef
Reality AF: Top Chef’s Gail Simmons & Tom Colicchio on Season 20, Their Approach to Judging, and Their Chef Mount Rushmore

Editor’s Note: Welcome to Reality AF, where Terry Terrones checks in on the state of reality TV, or, in this case, catches up with some of the biggest names in the game.

Get your knives and forks ready, Top Chef returns for its 20th season on March 9. The James Beard Award-winning series, which airs on Bravo and is available next day on Peacock, is going international this season for its emerald anniversary, and crossing the pond to kick off its season in jolly old England. But that’s not the only big change fans of the competitive culinary series can expect. 

The lineup of chefs is loaded with 16 finalists and winners representing 11 different iterations of Top Chef from around the globe, all vying for the World All-Stars title. To prep for this season, I chatted with judges Tom Colicchio and Gail Simmons, who have been with the series since it premiered in 2006. Here’s an excerpt from our conversations, edited for length and clarity.  

Paste Magazine: How has Top Chef evolved over 20 seasons?

Tom Colicchio: Little things are constantly changing, but it usually is situational. Going back to the Chicago season, we were going around to different stations and trying different dishes. And so we were sitting around afterwards waiting to go back to the judges’ table and we started talking about some of the dishes. A producer came over and said, “Hey, save it for judges’ table.” And I said, “Well, why don’t you just shoot this?” And they’re like, “Okay.” So that started what we call the mini-deliberation that we started doing at the venue, or right after we ate. 

Little things like that have changed over time. We just try different things to make different suggestions, and try to keep it fresh. But I think ultimately, nothing has changed. The chefs have to cook food, they have a challenge, there’s time allotted. Cook, we eat, we judge, and that’s it.

Paste: What’s changed when it comes to the way people view food?

Colicchio: I think that food has become part of the zeitgeist and so people are demanding better food, and not just in restaurants, I mean everywhere. I also think that food on TV and Top Chef probably had something to do with that because people see what chefs are going through for the food that they’re making. The general population is starting to realize that chefs put a lot of thought and care into what they’re doing and it’s exciting. I think people understand why one restaurant is more expensive than the other, and food has just become part of pop culture. When that happens, you have more people that are interested in cooking, more people that are interested in choosing it as a profession. I mean, 40 years ago when I started to become a chef and choose my profession, there weren’t a lot of parents encouraging their kids to do that but now it’s become acceptable. 

What happens now is you get a lot of young cooks who come to the big cities. When I was coming up it was New York, LA, San Francisco, Chicago, that was about it. So they come to these cities and then they go back home and they open restaurants. Look at Sara (Bradley), who’s from Kentucky. She worked all around New York, had a great experience, and then she’s back to her small town Paducah, Kentucky to open restaurants, and is doing quite well. Now you have a really well-trained chef who’s back in Paducah doing great food. So if you’re traveling in that area and you go, “Well, you have good options.” And that’s happening everywhere in the country, and I think it’s happening in most other countries as well.

Paste: As you were mentioning that, how food has become part of pop culture it got me thinking. My wife’s a great cook, I am not at all. But I still enjoy watching Chopped or Top Chef or other cooking shows. Why do you think cooking shows are so…

Colicchio: Well, I’ll give you a pass for watching Chopped. 

Paste: What do you not like about Chopped?

Colicchio: The idea, and we’ve fought this too at Top Chef, the ideas are, okay, you have cod and you have black beans and you have leeks and you have jelly beans. Like really? No chef worth their salt would ever say, “Okay, how do I work jelly beans into this dish?” Like, you don’t. So that’s my problem.

Other than that, the people that are on it, the judges are all friends of mine, it’s great. But this idea of throwing this silly thing in there, it’s like, why? It’s not that interesting. I mean maybe someone finds it interesting. Obviously people do. I just don’t find that interesting to figure out. Let’s see, what creative things are we going to do with that jelly bean? I don’t care how creative it is, it’s a bunch of food dye and sugar. Why would you do that?

Paste: Good point. So why would people like me enjoy cooking shows?

Colicchio: I think it’s seeing that process, I think a lot of people react to that and I think that’s what we turned a lot of people onto. That there is a process by which chefs are putting together dishes. It’s not just throwing spaghetti on a wall and seeing how it sticks. Then there’s the whole technique piece of it too. But people are fascinated because the average person doesn’t realize what it takes to cook a beautiful piece of fish. You don’t just throw it in the oven and set the timer. I think that’s why a lot of people get into it, because you get a glimpse of someone and their approach to their work.

Paste: What are you looking for in a dish when you’re judging?

Colicchio: First thing I’m looking for is how well did they cook each ingredient. So if asparagus is on the plate, if it’s cooked to the point where it’s just cooked through, and there’s maybe a tiny little bit of resistance left, but it’s not mushy, it’s this really bright green, then that’s how we know someone cooked asparagus correctly. If someone cooks a piece of meat, if they’re doing a rack of lamb and I ask them, a lot of times you won’t see this in the edit, but I’ll say, “How did you want to cook this?” If they say medium, if it’s medium, great. If they say medium rare, it’s medium rare, great. If they tell me medium rare and it’s medium well, they screwed up.

If they screwed up and told me, “I cooked it medium well.” Then I’ll go, “You’re full of shit. You didn’t purposely do this, you messed up.” And then they’ll say, “Yeah, I messed up.” Seasoning is the other really important thing, if something’s seasoned correctly. I’m not talking about spice, I’m talking about the base of salt and pepper. So again, a lot of this doesn’t make the final cut. A lot of prodding is for me to find out what the chef’s intention is and how well they actually completed what they set out to do. When I say balance of the dish, it’s proportions of everything that’s on the plate. If this is a fish dish, there should be slightly more fish than the garnishes and stuff.

Then just looking at the balance of that and seeing how the dish is composed. And that’s really it. I mean obviously a lot of cooking is subjective. And I try to completely eliminate that from the judging criteria. I don’t like okra. But if somebody makes okra I don’t say, “‘Oh you’re going home. You made me okra. How dare you?’” That’s irrelevant. I know how okra should be cooked. I just might not like it, but I’ll always judge someone on how they made the okra, not on whether I like okra. And I think that’s important because it’s not about cooking for me, it’s about cooking in general. So that’s the way I approached it. I also figured out very early on that the only way the audience can get an idea of what this dish is about is if we, the judges, have a real honest conversation about the dish.

Paste: What about when one part of a dish might be cooked well, but another part is not? How much weight do you give that?

Colicchio: It all depends on the degree of how badly they messed it up. So it’s not ascribing a weight to a particular ingredient. If someone cooked a piece of meat and that was fine, but they did a puree potato with it and it was so salty it was inedible, that’s a problem. A lot of times someone (a judge) takes the tack of what if they were in a restaurant, would I send this back because I couldn’t eat it? And that’s valid. If you get something that’s so salty that you would probably not eat the dish, that’s a fail. If it’s a little over seasoned, that’s all right. It’s not all the same. If you hear me say something is over seasoned, it doesn’t mean it is so salty you can’t eat it. If I say something’s under seasoned, it doesn’t mean that it’s not seasoned at all. It may be under seasoned. Doesn’t mean it has nothing. And so I guess what I’m saying is there’s degrees of how things can go bad. So it’s not all equal.

Paste: Speaking of dish conversations, have you ever had, and from my understanding, you’re the judge who has final say whether someone gets cut or not.

Colicchio: No. I don’t have final say.

Paste: No?

Colicchio: No, if there’s four judges and three of them say one person is to go home and I think somebody else should go home, I’m overruled.

Paste: That’s good to know. So when you are judging, have you ever had someone else, Padma, Gail, or anyone else kind of point out to you something like, “Well, okay, I didn’t really consider that.” And maybe change your opinion?

Colicchio: All the time. Maybe not change my mind, but all the time, yes. And there are times you’re on the fence between three dishes. There’s three legitimate dishes that can go home. And yeah, you talk about it and if somebody makes a good point, you’re like, “Oh, okay, I see that.” Happens all the time. Sure.

Paste: When we talked during Top Chef Colorado, you told me that the show has a summer camp vibe. Is that still the case?

Colicchio: Yeah, absolutely. When you go to summer camp, you have your summer camp friends, and you see them when you’re in camp, right? A lot of us play music together. We go out and hang out. For the most part, I only see them during the show. So over 18 years of filming, they’re like summer camp friends.

Tom’s Top Chef  Mount Rushmore: Paul Qui, Michael Voltaggio, Kristen Kish, Melissa King, Mei Lin, Brooke Williamson, Buddha Lo (Says Tom: “Buddha Lo, his season, he crushed it. I mean, I got a sense in the end, they dumbed it down because he was so far ahead of everybody. So yeah, I don’t know. It’s hard to pick four.”)

Paste: What makes London a great culinary city?

Gail Simmons: London is at the crossroads of so many cultures from all over the globe: both old world and new. Its history spans hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Not only does it have its own very specific British food culture, but also is a meeting point for so many diverse and vibrant immigrant communities, as well as a cosmopolitan center of fine dining, sustainability, and innovation. 

Paste: What’s your criteria for judging? What are you looking for in a dish?

Simmons: First and foremost, I always need the food to be delicious and have a point of view. It also needs to meet the criteria for the challenge we have given our chefs, and show a deep understanding of proper cooking technique, based on what the chefs have chosen to make, a sense of purpose, and strong knife skills. Plating and presentation come into play, as they determine so much of how a dish is consumed, its visual appeal, and if it is right for the specifics of the location, challenge, and guests. All that said, we never just check off a list of criteria to judge the food. We use all of these factors as jumping off points to engage in thoughtful conversation about which dish deserves to win the challenge and which will send a chef home. 

Paste: Tell me about working with Tom and Padma. You’ve been together a long time and seem close.

Simmons: We have been working together and living/traveling together several months of each year for over 17 years! Of course we are close. I think of them as surrogate siblings, and in ways they really are my second family. Over the course of the show’s lifetime, so much has transpired in our individual lives (marriages, divorce, births, deaths, bar mitzvahs, holidays, milestones of all kinds) as well as in the greater world (pandemic, politics, global disasters, wars, etc.) and we have grown with and supported each other, and our whole production family, through it all. 

Padma’s shoot schedule is a little more rigorous than mine and Tom’s as she does the Quickfires and we generally do not, so when on the road for the show Tom and I have a routine of having dinner together several nights a week to discover the city we are visiting. But we all have taken time together in every locale to eat, shop, hike, fish, workout, cook, and explore. Over these 20 seasons we have gone on many thrilling and wild adventures. And I can say with confidence that they both have been mentors and confidants to me, helping and lending advice on everything from fertility, to parenting, learning to use my voice as an advocate for important causes, to navigating my career. I feel incredibly lucky to get to sit at the table so often with people I admire and adore. 

Paste: What’s the secret to Top Chef’s longevity?

Simmons: I think we treat our chefs with respect and reverence. This show has always been about them and their food, more than anything else. We show our viewers this fascinating window into the real life of restaurant kitchens and our industry at large, trying as much as possible to stay as true to their authentic experiences. I also think changing locations and setting our show in a new city/country/region allows us to reinvent ourselves season to season and keep things fresh. It creates a new backdrop each year that informs the stories we tell, the food we cook and eat, and the way we think about dining. I learn something new and leave changed for the better, every single time. 

Gail’s Top Chef  Mount Rushmore: Stephanie Izard, Kristen Kish, Brooke Williamson, Mei Lin, Melissa King, and Kelsey Barnard Clark. (Says Gail: “If I had to choose, I would go the all-female route. All geniuses. All superheroes. All pros. And all with a distinct point of view to their food and their career paths, forged from years of hard work, fearlessness and, of course, a lot of raw talent.”)

Terry Terrones is a Television Critics Association and Critics Choice Association member, licensed drone pilot, and aspiring hand model. When he’s not applying for under or overcooking eggs, you can find him hiking in the mountains of Colorado. You can follow him on Twitter @terryterrones.

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