Over the past 10 years, Gail Simmons has spent more time in Los Angeles than she ever imagined she would. In 2005, she was a year into working as special projects director for Food & Wine magazine (a role she still holds). "I was sitting at my desk one random Tuesday," Simmons says, "and someone comes up and says, 'Will you go do a screen test for this crazy show?'" Food & Wine was partnering with Bravo on a new show, a move that seemed like a huge gamble for both the magazine and the TV network. That show was Top Chef. "We were all scared to do it," Simmons recalls. "We had no idea how it would turn out."
Over drinks at A.O.C.'s bar late one afternoon in early March, Simmons tells me how stunned everyone was — and continues to be — by the way Top Chef has turned out. Thirteen seasons in (the finale of season 13 airs tonight at 9 p.m. on Bravo), the series shows no signs of slowing.
Simmons recalls having a meal early on with one of the show's producers and asking him how long he thought Top Chef could last. "Best-case scenario, he said, thinking really positively? Three years."
The initial two seasons were both filmed in California, the first in San Francisco and the second in a warehouse in downtown L.A. So this season, being back in California seems like coming full circle for Simmons and the show. And she's also seen L.A., and downtown in particular, change hugely in that time.
"Actually, where we shot Restaurant Wars this season is the same place we shot our second season of Top Chef," Simmons says. "When we were there in 2006, it was not safe. It was a very different place. We shot several seasons of Top Chef Masters and Top Chef Desserts downtown, and I was living there for months at a time. In 2006 and 2007, when I would tell my friends who live in L.A. that I was living down there, they’d tell me that downtown L.A. was having a renaissance. And I was like, 'You are fucking lying to me.' There were a handful of good places, but downtown was still pretty gritty. And this year when we came back, it's totally transformed. It’s obvious to people who live here, but to an outsider it’s pretty amazing that it’s become a restaurant destination. There’s so much great stuff there."
Simmons echoes a chorus of voices, professional eaters from all over the country, who think L.A. is perhaps the top eating city in the United States right now. "I just feel like when I was first here, there were so many places that were more about the restaurant than the food. But now there’s a young generation of chefs really pushing things forward. I live in New York, I should be fighting for the East Coast, but I do think that L.A. is the most exciting city to be eating in right now. Truthfully, over San Francisco, over New York in a lot of ways. The only exception might be New Orleans, but that’s a totally different kind of eating."
L.A. doesn't have a contestant who might win this California season of Top Chef. but one of the finalists is from SoCal: Amar Santana is the chef/partner at Broadway by Amar Santana in Laguna Beach and California and Vaca Restaurant in Costa Mesa. But Simmons had lots of nice things to say about L.A.'s Phillip Frankland Lee, whom many saw as this season's villain.
"I don’t think he meant to play the villain," she says. "I think he’s very earnest. And I like that about him. I think he just rubbed people the wrong way."
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So what went wrong with Lee? "Phillip produced some beautiful food. I think that there are a number of reasons he didn’t make it farther, and he made it pretty far! I think the thing most chefs forget, because it’s hard to understand, is that we don’t want him to cook his food from Scratch Bar. If we wanted all our chefs to cook the food they cook every day, we would go to their restaurants, and that would be a very different show. The whole point is to take all of them completely out of what they’re used to, take them away from everything they know, and just get them cooking.
"Some people are really good at that," she adds. "And some people who are super talented, exceptional chefs aren’t that good at it. It's like, all comedians aren’t good at ensemble improv."
We talk about the history of the show, the effect Top Chef has had on younger cooks, and whether the series is responsible in some ways for the dearth of cooks in America's kitchens. "I’d like to think that every generation looks at the generation before and says, 'When I was a kid...' So that's part of it," Simmons says. "But to some people, being a chef means you cook for a year, then you get on television. And we are to blame for that a bit. But the truth is, you can’t fake it. You get on Top Chef and the people who win the show are the people who have had the training. When I can talk to the contestants after the show is done, without fail, every single one of them says, 'It was so much harder than I ever imagined it would be.' It’s easy to get on with a great personality, but you can’t fake being a great cook."
And with that, she's off in an Uber to eat dinner with friends at Chi Spacca and continue her love affair with our growing food scene.