Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Gail Simmons Gets Her Just Desserts

 Photo by: Scott Schafer/Bravo

Just when you thought Gail Simmons had the best job in television—serving as a judge on the culinary contest show Top Chef—she gets an even better one. Tonight, Simmons steps out from behind the table, as host of the latest TC spinoff “Just Desserts.” Okay, now THAT’S the best job in television.

Each week hopeful chefs will go head-to-head in the typical Top Chef Quickfire and Elimination challenges. But this time you can forget about chimichurri sauces and foie gras. These pastry experts will be mixing up spectacular batters and chocolate concoctions for the ultimate title.

In a recent conference call (read the article after the jump), Simmons talked about her first gig as host, the personality of a pastry chef, and why Top Chef stood out to take home a coveted Emmy Award this season (ending The Amazing Race’s longstanding winning streak).

And we spoke with Gail at the 2010 Emmy Awards on behalf of the Archive of American Television and asked her who her favorite TV chef was. See who she picked:

Q: So how does hosting a show like Top Chef: Just Desserts differ from a regular season of Top Chef?

GAIL: I have to say my job as host is completely different on Just Desserts… and I'm the first to admit it. My role on Top Chef until now has been pretty easy. I'm not saying it hasn't been exciting and challenging and interesting. But my job really until now has really just been to show up, eat, talk about it, and leave.

And it’s been a pretty good gig. I'm not going to lie. But being a host really changes everything. First of all, the hours are double the time. So now I'm in every single day of shooting, where I'm shooting being the Quickfires and the Eliminations like Padma or Kelly Choi had done before me. So just time-wise, really it doubled the amount of time that I was shooting.

And then also being the host really forces you to take a different role especially because… you are the person who needs to deliver the business. You’re the one who makes the plot go forward. You’re the one who delivers all the challenges, all the rules and guidelines, and you’re the only person who’s there to make sure that the chefs understand what they’re about to have to do.

I'm not an actor. And it was a huge challenge for me. It was really exciting but it’s a hard thing to have to do if you've never done it before to make sure you sound natural and that you’re prepared in that way for learning lines, which… no one’s ever told me what to say before until I got onto this show. I've always been able to just speak my mind.

And being the host you can't do this… there are very specific legal issues… for lines that you need to deliver. Luckily I had the benefit of having Padma as my host for so many years before and I've watched her and spoken with her and she was super helpful and really actually quite supportive when I told her I was going to be the host of Just Desserts. And she helped me and prepped me for what I had in store.

No other host… has ever had that advantage of watching someone else do the job for so many years. So that was good.

Q: How do you keep this show from being one long variation on chocolate cake?

GAIL: What’s interesting is you’re actually going to see very few chocolate cakes on our show. These pastry chefs are professionals and they've all been working in pastry kitchens for many years and they’re at the top of their game. What’s interesting is that people think a pastry chef is a pastry chef. I'm sure when food shows first started everyone thought a chef is a chef is a chef. What can one do that another can't?

And actually within the genre of pastry there are so many variations. So first of all, a pastry chef who works in a hotel as a pastry chef is totally different than a restaurant pastry chef who is totally different than a baker who bakes cakes and cookies in a bakery. So those alone are three major differences in style.

But then if you think of what the pastry kitchen offers, it’s so much more than just a chocolate cake or a cupcake. It is about sugar and butter… and jams and jellies and fruits and chocolate and caramel and butterscotch and height and sculpture and artistry.

And I just think that that actually never crossed our mind that we would not have enough content to keep it different. Every challenge is so diverse. And it’s just like a wonderland. It was endless. You know, every time we thought of a challenge, I think our problem was want to put too many things into it.

You know, we had too many ideas, too many pastries we wanted to see. Don't forget ice cream. I mean ice cream itself could make a whole show as far as I'm concerned…. it goes on and on.

And the colors. What’s interesting also about this show compared to regular Top Chef or regular cooking shows that aren't about dessert is that inherently pastries are so much more beautiful aesthetically than regular food.

I mean look; I think that all food is beautiful. I think a slab of raw steak is beautiful. But a beef stew is not as beautiful as a sparkly pink and blue and brown and green sugar sculpture. So I think the process… is on the line between cooking and real art.

Pastry chefs are artists. And what they produce… it’s just so varied and so exciting that I think you’re going to see there’s so much that we do.

Q: How does the usual Top Chef improvising work in the dessert world?

GAIL: It’s true that we throw things at [the chefs] and they don't work out and it’s not like you can re-bake a cake 45 minutes later. You just don't have the time… But that became a huge challenge for them and it made them work even harder. And the same rules apply.

They have time limits. Granted our challenges, we give them more time for because we had to. In structuring the show we had to make sure that they have enough cooking, baking, cooling, and finishing time. So the times for challenges are slightly longer which made our days certainly much longer but the truth is the same rules apply. If you make a mistake, you have to deal with it and you have to do whatever you have to do to make it presentable to us. And if not, you’re going home because other people will succeed and you won't.

So it was that same pressure. And I think you'll see that that’s exactly what happens on the show and it’s pretty incredible how inventive they become to… make something out of nothing time and again because they have no recipes with them.

Which is a very hard thing to do in pastry and way more so than anywhere else in the savory kitchen for sure.

Q: Desserts are so recipe driven with exact measurements and Top Chef is all about throwing contestant twists. How did they handle that?

GAIL: Well, what’s interesting is you’re absolutely right. The profile of a pastry chef is completely different than a savory chef and it was fascinating to see how those personalities manifest themselves in the course of the show. And I think you'll find watching the show that there is a massive difference between the two kitchens and the personalities of the people that are in them.

Mostly because you’re perfectly right. Pastry is so recipe driven. It’s so precise. You need to be so meticulous. Recipes for pastry are down to the microgram. There’s no fixing it if you make a mistake. Once you put it in the oven to bake, it’s done. And if your measurements are not exact, it will not work.

So they added such an extraordinary level of tension to the challenges that we've never seen before on Top Chef. And it also added a lot of intrigue, a lot of excitement because the before and after of a piece of pastry or a dessert is so different. You know, it goes into the oven looking like soup and it comes out looking like a soufflé.

So it was just so extraordinary to watch that process and to see the chefs work their magic because pastry really to me is magical.

Q: The caliber of competitors on all of the Top Chef franchise shows seems to be so much stronger than a lot of the other competition shows. Even on the non-Master’s version of the series you seem to draw in top caliber professionals who are competing. Do you think that makes all of the series more compelling and is that really an important part of the casting process?

GAIL: I think that’s the number one most compelling thing about the show and the number one part of the casting process. In fact I think that’s what won us an Emmy to be quite honest. From the beginning it certainly took us a little while the very first seasons of Top Chef to figure out that formula.

But especially in the last few years with the spin off of Masters and then Just Desserts and the last few seasons of Top Chef have been such high caliber professional chefs. The show has always been about them. The show is not about us. It’s not about our rants and rampages.

It’s really about the chefs who are professionals who are at the top of their class in terms of their abilities and about these passionate people who would be doing this anyway even if they weren't on camera. It’s not like these people are plumbers or schoolteachers when they’re not on camera on a television show. They are professional chefs.

And I think that’s what really has drawn people to show. It certainly is what has legitimized the show in the eyes of the food industry and our colleagues and peers, which is so important to me and certainly important I know to Tom and Johnny and Hubert and all of the chefs on our shows.

And I think that’s what makes it so interesting to viewers because it’s a window into a world that otherwise you never get to go into. It’s a window behind the doors of the kitchen. No one gets to see beyond the dining room into what really happens in the kitchen.

And it’s a fascinating world and it’s a world that requires a lot of passion and years of study and drive. And I think that’s what has made the franchise successful for sure because it really has always been about these extraordinarily talented people who will do this for the rest of their lives and just get stronger and stronger as they go.

Q: How about the personalities, what would you say about this group?

GAIL: I think that that’s actually the most exciting thing about the show is how extraordinary these personalities are… The mind of a pastry chef works so completely differently than the mind of a savory chef. And they'll be the first to tell you that.

Pastry chefs are so precise and so A-type and so exacting and it really does come out in their personalities. And they’re artists, so with that comes a lot of drama. I mean there’s no other way to say it. This was the most fascinating cast to watch in five years of doing Top Chef in ten seasons of different shows that I have done… in the Top Chef family.

This cast blows them all away because they’re just a totally different brain, a totally different species almost. And there’s so much tension and so much pressure and it also was just brilliant the casting that was done with them because they’re all so talented. But they’re also so competitive in a totally different way.

I mean there’s a lot of strategy and sabotage and what’s amazing is that desserts lend themselves to that because they’re so delicate and so fragile that you have to guard it with your life or else it all could be lost. So the personalities really shine through… I mean I actually have to say I have a strange allegiance to this cast mostly because it was my I'm the host so I take more vested interest in this cast than any other in the past. But they’re just an extraordinary group of people and they’re very dear to me.

Q: What are the biggest misconceptions about pastry chefs do you think?

GAIL: Misconceptions? Well, I think I think the misconception in general, and I don't know if this is answering the question or complicating it, is that chefs that all chefs can do everything. And that certainly is a misconception about regular chefs. Certainly just because you’re a chef does not mean that you know how to spin sugar and temper chocolate—because it’s not what you do every day.

With pastry chefs I think there’s, at least in the food industry, this underlying thought that pastry chefs are holed up in a dungeon somewhere and all a bit crazy. And I think that is a misconception. That said, they certainly are volatile creatures and artists at the truest form.

So they have their moments. At the same time what amazed me the most about doing the show and spending so much time with a group of pastry chefs was how sensitive and truly creative they are in a way that regular chefs I just don't think are. Because a regular... a savory chef everything happens in a more spontaneous way whereas pastry are much more thought out.

They’re done way in advance. They’re done over time. It’s an art form that requires an enormous amount of patience. And so most pastry chefs are actually incredibly calm focused people. They’re not crazy chefs yelling and screaming around the kitchen at all. They really are focused and driven and passionate and really calm under pressure because so much of what pastry is is so delicate and so fragile and volatile. So that was interesting to see.  

Q: On Top Chef it seems like all the chef contestants, if they have to make a dessert, they’re afraid of going home. Is there an equivalent for Top Chef: Just Desserts?

GAIL: I think the equivalent is when we ask them to make savory food actually, ironically. The real reason we did this show was exactly because of that. Because we knew what pastry chefs and savory chefs are two totally different people with two totally different skills.

And for so long whenever we've asked savory chefs to do desserts… they aren't able to—the same way that a psychiatrist isn't able to perform surgery. Both doctors, but you don't want your psychiatrist to perform open-heart surgery on us.

So I think that that was the impetus for the show. We finally realized there’s such difference genres in the kitchen. Let’s make our own show just about desserts and really give desserts their due. In general, pastry chefs can cook savory food better than savory chefs can cook pastry because in order to be a pastry chef, you still need to really understand the basic fundamentals of cooking and that doesn't apply the other way around as we've seen on Top Chef.

But I don't think there’s anything that really stumps them all unanimously. But in the few moments when they do have to use savory ingredients, I think it really is a challenge for them because it’s just not what they do every day. It’s not what they’re used to. It takes them out of their comfort zone, which is also the point of the show, right?

Q: We know that Hubert Keller started as a pastry chef but has come to be known as a world-class savory chef. We’re wondering what he brings to the table in this particular area and if you could tell us a little bit about the other judges as well.

GAIL: Yeah. Sure. Well, we can start with Hubert. I mean is it not enough that he’s a total dreamboat? I mean for me that’s what did it. Hubert, yes, Hubert has a really interesting history actually. Obviously he’s an extraordinarily accomplished chef and owner of many restaurants, Fleur de Lys and more. But not only did he start in the pastry kitchen but he actually grew up in a bakery.

His family is from Alsace and… his father was a baker. His father was a pastry chef. So he grew up above the bakery and grew up watching bakers and pastries his whole life. So it’s like bred in him. It’s in his blood. And he has an extraordinary knowledge of pastry. That’s number one.

He went on to choose to move to the savory kitchen. But it still remains a big part of what he does which gives great balance to the show because he knows both angles. And that was really helpful.

Johnny Iuzzini, head judge, is I think without a doubt one of the greatest most talented young pastry chefs in this country right now. Johnny has been the executive pastry chef to John Georges Vongerichten at John Georges four-star restaurant in New York for eight years or seven years.

Before that he was the pastry sous chef for Daniel Boulud for nine years. So you can't really think of anyone besides Johnny who has an extraordinary grasp on technique, but also who’s at the cutting edge of modern pastry. And I think Johnny, he’s really young. I mean to compare him to Tom which I don't like to do but Johnny… Johnny’s younger. He doesn't have as many years in the kitchen as Tom Colicchio does, for example. But Johnny is a wunderkind. I mean he really is so talented and has such an amazing understanding of the processes of pastry and sugar and chocolate and butter and flour that it’s remarkable and he happens to be super attractive and very stylish.

So he was a great partner in crime. I've known Johnny for over ten years. We both worked for Daniel Bouloud and have been friends for a long time. So it was like having a brother on set, which is really great.

And then finally, Dannielle Kyrillos who alternates with Hubert at the judges' table brings a totally fresh perspective through the Editor-At-Large for DailyCandy. And of course there’s that candy and sweets [verbal] connection.

She’s an avid home baker. She’s a great self-taught baker at home. She is not a professional pastry chef in any way. But we had that covered. And I don't want to speak for Bravo, but I know when they were choosing the judges, they had Johnny. He brings all the technique and all the technical skill knowledge that we need.

And then there’s Hubert who does that too but from a chef perspective. So, of course… I've been a judge for years… I used to work as a cook and I have the background of being in food publishing for ten years.

Dannielle brings a brightness, a knowledge as a real diner, as a real person who’s passionate about pastry, who loves it. But she also has a very extensive media background and has been doing television for a really long time as the voice of DailyCandy.

So she just brings a young energetic freshness and media expertise to the panel. So I actually think we balance each other out really, really well. We had a lot of fun shooting together.

Q: How do you deal with eating so much sugar? Does you palette get totally overwhelmed? Do you get sick of it?

GAIL: I never got sick of it amazingly. I thought I would. That was certainly a concern. And it was an interesting challenge. When I shoot Top Chef regular, sometimes I won't eat lunch because I know that I'll be eating dinner in the process of an elimination challenge.

Unfortunately with desserts, I was never eating a meal. I was always just eating sugar day after day. So I would try to control my intake of what I wanted to eat because I knew I'd be eating so much calorie rich, sugary food during the challenges.

But then I would finish a day of shooting and realize I just went through the whole day without anything nutritious at all in my body. And then I would be craving cheeseburgers and French fries, which are not a good combination after eating 17 ice cream sundaes. So that was difficult.

Q: Were you worried that your palette couldn't handle everything?

GAIL: No. That was never a worry because there’s time first of all between one and the other. And keep in mind, we’re never judging in a bubble. We’re never judging alone. I'm judging alongside Johnny and Hubert or Dannielle plus a guest judge every week. And we all weigh in together and we balance each other out if there’s ever a question of being compromised.

But that never really happened. You taste in increments and you take time and you drink a lot of water and we always want to be as fair as possible. So it certainly never compromised our judging and then you always have a good sleep and you’re reading they next day to do it again.

Q: How many extra calories would you say that you do actually take in as an added part of the show? And do you have to offset that with exercise?

GAIL: Yes and yes. And desserts was really harder than ever before because the calories I was ingesting in large quantities were empty for the most part or emptier… It wasn't like I was eating proteins and greens. I was really eating butter and sugar.

In terms of the quantity, I don't count calories. That’s a fruitless endeavor, no pun intended. So I couldn't tell you how many and I don't really want to know or care the number. But it’s certainly affected my health. Not affected, but it’s something I thought a lot about affecting my health. And I do believe in balance and moderation most of my life… at most times of the year. And this was certainly an exception.

So yes. To answer your question I certainly exercise more. I bumped up my exercise routine before I started the show and really made sure I worked out as hard and as much as I could to keep my body as healthy as possible. And then during the shooting, I just tried to get out and exercise. Luckily we shot in L.A. so the weather was beautiful even though it was not always beautiful on the East coast where I live.

And so I could get outside and any free moment I went for a run or I jumped on the treadmill. And then it’s just about keeping track of what you eat the rest of the time when you’re not on camera. So I'm making really good healthy choices for myself. And then when we finish filming, again, stepping up that routine for my exercise, which I do any way. It’s an occupational hazard all year round for me.

I've been eating professionally for… much longer than a decade. So it’s something I've just gotten used to. And it’s a small price to pay to be able to enjoy the food that… I get to taste.

Q: Are there certain ingredients that you just detest and when they show up in a dish I mean how do you deal with that?

GAIL: The answer’s no. I can't have my own personal biases or I couldn't do my job. And certainly with pastry there’s nothing I detest. And I… wouldn't have wanted to do my job if there was a lot of things I was picky about eating.

So it never really becomes an issue again because you’re always judging with a panel of other people. If I don't like an ingredient, that certainly is never going to play into my judging. And just because I don't like it other people will set me straight… That was what I meant before about if there’s no way for it to be compromised by personal like or dislike or subjective feeling about food.

There are very few things in the edible world that I will not eat. And… of course there’s things I like less than others. But there’s nothing that I dislike so much that I would never try it or that I would use that against someone because they cooked it. I mean part of my job is to be as fair and objective as possible.

Q: What’s one of the worst dishes you've had?

GAIL: The worst dish I've ever had. God, there’s been so many. Although on desserts there weren't that many total, total failures to the caliber of having to throw things out because anything with butter and sugar tastes good even if it’s raw.

God, that’s such a tough question. I might have to think on it for a second. I've certainly… had to eat a lot of kooky ridiculous things on Top Chef for sure; combinations like peanut butter and snails. Not great. Not recommended for viewers at home. Or things like gooey duck and alligator and rattlesnake.

Specific dishes? It’s hard to name one thing by one chef that I really detested. But...

Q: You block them out?

GAIL: Yeah. I kind of do. It’s more just that at this point there’s so many. They all kind of run into each other and it’s hard to differentiate ten seasons later.

I have to say one thing that I think is a miracle of the show. That in all my years of judging it and all the different things we've had to eat often at the same time, I have never once been physically ill from being on the show.

There are so many things I wish I hadn't had to put in my mouth and regretted. I've only spit something out once in the entire time I've been on Top Chef and it was only because it was so incredibly salty and it was in Season 2. But otherwise I've never been sick. And with all of the factors of how they cook and their timing and where they’re cooking and the locations and circumstances, I think that’s pretty incredible.

Q: What’s your all time favorite dessert?

GAIL: Oh my God. It’s like choosing my children except I don't have any children… It’s hard to say. It’s the same with all food. I get in certain moods and I go into times where I'm craving certain desserts over others. Right now I happen to be in a pudding phase. I don't know what it is.

But right now every time I see a pudding on a menu or I have time to make a dessert or I'm making desserts for various events, I find myself making pudding; butterscotch pudding, chocolate pudding… I always like a little bit of texture with my desserts so I always put some cookie or crumble on top of it.

And that’s… what I'm eating right now. That’s not to say it’s my favorite of all time. But at this moment with fall starting to creep in, I'm looking for comforting creamy decadent desserts like butterscotch pudding.

Q: Of all the world’s cuisines, who has the best desserts? Do not say the French.

GAIL: Yeah, no, and it’s interesting because of course you always go to the French and then you change. You know, it’s interesting. That is a really good question. At the moment maybe I would say there’s a pie in my head between Spain because they really know how to fry their desserts. They do a lot of other things too. But I mean there’s no one who can make some fried dough, Churros, or anything in that genre like a Spaniard.

The last time I was in Spain I had deep-fried, grilled ice cream. Grilled. It was on a grill. It wasn't even deep-fried. It was grilled which blew my mind, too. And they’re just at the cutting edges in so many ways in the culinary world and desserts are no exception.

They’re just incredibly forward thinkers and incredibly liberal in the ways they approach food and so have developed some pretty incredible technique that makes dessert really delicious.

And then you got to stick at home and say America because the truth is that it’s the way that we were raised. But when I think of comforting foods in my life, I think of really classic American desserts. And we've perfected them.
And there’s kind of no doubt about it in my head. There’s nothing better than a fresh peach pie in the peak of season or a really beautiful—to go back to the chocolate cake question earlier—really beautiful slice of chocolate cake that’s moist and rich and decadent.

You know a chocolate chip cookie—there’s something perfect about a perfect chocolate chip cookie, like life doesn't get better than a gooey chocolate chip cookie that’s just a little bit golden and caramelized around the edges.

Top Chef: Just Desserts premieres tonight at 11:00 PM on Bravo falling the season finale of Top Chef.

Check out other Pop Culture Passionistas related articles:

Surprising Facts About Padma Lakshmi

The High Voltage Chefs

And check out our other Top Chef Emmy video:

Padma Lakshmi on the Top Chef Emmy Win

And see which Top Chef stars made the Huffington Post list of Food Related Game Changers:

HuffPost: Food Game Changers

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