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Gail Simmons Previews New Season of Top Chef Masters

What do parachute jumpers and a group of acclaimed chefs have in common?

Top Chef Masters, that’s what!

On tonight’s season premiere, viewers will see some familiar faces (Bryan Voltaggio from Top Chef and David Burke, who competed before on Top Chef Masters) but they’ll also see the chefs jumping out of an airplane to get to their first challenge.

With host Curtis Stone returning for Season 5, Gail Simmons, a regular on Top Chef, joins the series as the head critic. We caught up with Simmons to find out what to expect in the new season, while also asking about some of her own personal food faves.

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Food Fanatic: You have chefs jumping out of an airplane in the season premiere. Is that just a sign that there are going to be big obstacles in this?
Gail Simmons: I don’t think those are obstacles per se. It’s an indication of the breadth of challenges we’re going to have. I didn’t think jumping out of the plane was an obstacle in the cooking part but it had this amazing effect on our chefs. We almost couldn’t have anticipated what we hoped for. That’s how we started the season before we even started cooking. Some of [the chefs] are quite late in their careers. They are not spring chickens. To sort of take this massive risk, trust us and totally go out of their comfort zone, which is exactly what we want on the show with their cooking, too.

It also had this amazing effect of bonding them. When they all landed them on the ground [after the plane jump] they were instantly connected to each other and shared this incredible adrenaline rush and experience that’ll never happen again. I think it brought them all together in a way, it united them but also sort of blew open their minds. I mean it just was an amazing way to get them excited and pumped for the season, which was really awesome to see.

FF: Bryan Voltaggio and David Burke have both done the Top Chef shows before. Does that give them an edge?
GS: I think in some ways they had the knowledge of the process. They know how the show is made. They know how the challenges work. They know how it feels at the judges’ table. So, they definitely had a bit of an advantage that way. But at the end of the day, they still need to produce and every challenge is going to be completely different than anything we’ve ever done before. In theory they might be able to be mentally prepared but it’s all about getting the food on the plate and making it good. That’s every night. It’s like dinner service in a restaurant. Even if you’ve worked in the same restaurant for a year and you know how dinner service works it doesn’t mean it’s going to go perfectly every time.

Simmons on Top Chef

FF: Tell me what we’ll see with the sous chef competition part of the new season.
GS: Well, that’s what gives them amazing advantages. The cool thing about Battle Of The Sous Chefs, which is our online competition happening simultaneous to the show. The result of this directly affects the content of the show every week. It started from the idea that chefs at this level often aren’t cooking in their own restaurants every single day. It’s the sous chefs who really are the backbone of the restaurant who our chefs have such an interesting and co-dependent relationship on. The sous chefs need them for a job but the chefs need them just as much to run their operations and to kind of execute their vision. We wanted to show that relationship and explore that relationship a bit on the show. It allowed us to do so and really via the sous chef get to know the chefs even more.

FF: Who of the chefs would you say viewers should keep their eye on?
GS: That’s a hard question but there are definitely chefs that surprised me. Having Bryan Voltaggio on was interesting for a different reason. Not only had he been on the show before but he’s the first Top Chef to reach Top Chef Master status, which is sort of an amazing feat as well. It just shows us how far the franchise has come in general. We’re at the point where we’ve done so many seasons of Top Chef that the Top Chef has then gone on and opened more restaurants, won more awards and come out with their own book and has gotten to the point where they are now to be considered Top Chef Master.

FF: I always have to ask you what food or desserts are you obsessed with these days? You seem to go through cycles from having talked to you in the past.
GS: I do. I am right now in a very deep, very serious romance with popsicles. Probably because it’s 95 degrees outside and because I just got back from New Orleans where I spent five weeks shooting Top Chef in the middle of summer, which in New Orleans you’re really living in the swamp.

But I’m talking really any kind of popsicle. I’ll take a store bought, plastic popsicle like the kind we ate as a child. But I also love that there’s this really great trend of up-scale popsicles all over the place, in New York certainly. When we were in New Orleans I discovered this little shop called Melt Down, which makes amazing popsicles. I was in Nashville over July 4 and I found this awesome popsicle shop called Las Paletas. Their popsicles are like nectarine ginger or blackberry coconut. So they’re really sophisticated and they just hit the spot on a hot summer day.

FF: I don’t think I’ve ever asked you this. Do you ever indulge in fast food or are you not interested in that at all?
GS: Rarely. I’m pretty selective…but on the last night of Top Chef Masters, we wrapped the show. We shot the challenge. We shot the judges’ table, which took many hours. By the time we got out of the judges’ table we were hungry again. So me, Curtis, Ruth Reichl and Francis Lam, our judges, all went to In-N-Out Burger together. I guess that counts as fast food. It’s my favorite fast food.

Top Chef Masters airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on Bravo.

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