Yesterday we spoke with Top Chef judge Gail Simmons about her new memoir, Talking With My Mouth Full: My Life as a Professional Eater. Today she tells us more about the judging process and reveals the foods she just can’t stand.
Do you think there’s a big difference between the cheftestants on Top Chef and Top Chef: Just Desserts?
There is and isn’t. All are super passionate, and that same aesthetic is certainly true. I think there is an innate difference in pastry and savory in that they have a different circumstance in the kitchen. Pastry chefs are relegated to the basement, and at the end of the meal, many people don’t even order dessert! There’s no improvising and it’s all meticulous, especially at the highest level, where you’re down to the microgram. There’s less machismo because it’s really more of a scientist’s role and you have to understand chemistry. It’s just not the same medium. Flour and sugar work differently. If you know how to sear a steak, you can do the same with chicken, and then create 3,000 recipes.
When you sample all the dishes on the show, do you actually eat them or do you taste and spit?
No, we chew and swallow. We don’t clear our plates, especially when we’re tasting 15 plates. I like to take a bit of each component and then everything together. I don’t spit unless it’s rotten. Never.
Are there any foods that you just don’t like? How do you deal with that when tasting?
Veal, pickled ginger, and black beans. It doesn’t make a difference when I’m tasting for the show, though. If I were a car-repair person and didn’t like your car, I’d still fix it and understand how it works. There’s nothing I won’t taste. I’ll never refuse something because there are flavors I don’t enjoy. … Every critic brings his own personal biases. It’s no different than a music reviewer or book critic. But I’ve learned to understand how food should taste and if it’s cooked to the proper doneness or if it’s seasoned properly.
What do the judges look for first and foremost when tasting dishes?
It’s always about how the food tastes. Even if it doesn’t look good. But lots taste good, so then it’s about presentation and how they created the dish in the context of the challenge, and if they succeeded within the framework, or showed something interesting. And after we have to nitpick. Towards the end of the season, everything is great.
After so many seasons, how does the show stay fresh?
That is the biggest challenge. And I think that we have stayed fresh because it’s rare that any show gets to a ninth season. Season eight, we did All-Stars, and in season nine, we took the show to Texas and took it on the road. We also created an online component that forces people to watch online, which keeps it fresh and more interactive. We have a very interactive and engaged audience, and so many people write into the show and do blogs and create dream fantasy leagues.