The Emmy-winning and highly rated Top Chef franchise on Bravo puts the icing on its cake with this week's debut of Top Chef: Just Desserts (10 p.m., Wednesday, September 15, then moving to its regular slot at 9 p.m. the following week). Hosting the competition among 12 top-flight pastry chefs is Gail Simmons, formerly part of the judging panel on Top Chef: Washington D.C., which has its season seven finale at 9 p.m., Wednesday. (September 15 is also free dessert day at some area restaurants, a promo offer by the show and reservation service OpenTable.com.)
Toronto-born Simmons, a culinary expert, food writer and cookbook contributor, will preside over Just Desserts' judging trio: Johnny Iuzzini, former executive pastry chef at Manhattan's Restaurant Jean Georges; acclaimed French chef Hubert Keller; and DailyCandy.com editor-at-large Dannielle Kyrillos. Challenges on Just Desserts will feature timed wedding cakes, flaming desserts and something called "edible fashion." The competing chefs include 37-year-old Morgan Wilson of Dallas' Ritz-Carlton. On the show they work without recipes and within strict time limits. The winner receives $100,000, a feature in Food & Wine magazine and a car.
Simmons took questions from TV writers and food bloggers in a phone conference the other day. We joined in for a tasty Q&A:
What's different about hosting a Top Chef show compared to being on the judging panel?
Gail Simmons: My job as host is completely different on Just Desserts. My role on Top Chef has been pretty easy. It's been exciting, challenging and interesting, but basically it's been to show up and eat. Hours of shooting are double the time now on this show. I'm there for all the quick-fires and eliminations like Padma (Lakshmi, host of Top Chef). Being the host, you are the person who needs to deliver the business of all the challenges and all the rules and guidelines. You're the person there to make the chefs understand what they're there to do. I've watched Padma and she's been super helpful.
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Desserts are so recipe driven. How does the pastry-making process differ from "savory" cooking on the other show?
The profile of a pastry chef is so completely different from other chefs. There's also a massive difference between the two kinds of kitchens. Pastry is so precise and needs to be so meticulous, down to the micrograms of flour or sugar. There's no fixing it if you make a mistake. If your measurements aren't exact, you're done. Also, the before and after of a piece of pastry is so different. It goes in the oven looking like soup and comes out as a soufflé. Pastry to me is magical.
How do you keep the show from being one long variation on chocolate cake?
There are actually very few chocolate cakes on our show. What's interesting is that people think a pastry chef is a pastry chef. A pastry chef from a hotel is totally different from a restaurant pastry chef from a bakery chef.
A pastry kitchen is about so much more than a chocolate cake or cupcake. It's sugars, butter, jams, caramel, fruit, sculpture and artistry. It never crossed our minds that we would not have enough content. It was endless. Every time we thought of a challenge, our problem was we had too many ideas. Don't forget ice cream. That could make a whole show. The colors are so incredible compared to regular Top Chef. Pastries are so much more beautiful aesthetically than regular food. I think a slab of raw steak is beautiful but it's not as beautiful as a pink, blue, brown and green sugar-dusted cake. Pastry chefs are artists.
Are pastry chefs more or less volatile personality-wise than other chefs?
The most exciting thing is how extraordinary these personalities are. The mind of a pastry chef works differently from the mind of a regular chef. They're so exacting, so precise and they're artists. With that comes a lot of drama. This was the most fascinating cast to watch in five years of doing Top Chef. This cast blows them all away. They're all so talented and all so competitive. Lots of strategy and sabotage. Desserts lend themselves to that, because they're so delicate and fragile.
How do you deal with eating so much sugar?
I never got sick of it. I thought I would. When I shoot Top Chef, I won't eat lunch because I know I'll be eating dinner at the show. Finishing a day of shooting now I realize I haven't eaten anything nutritious. Craving cheeseburgers isn't good after eating 17 ice cream sundaes. Luckily we shot in LA where I could always get outside for some exercise. When we finished filming, I stepped up my routine. I've been eating professionally for more than a decade. It's a small price to pay to be able to enjoy the food.
Why do you think the Top Chef shows are so popular?
The caliber of contestants is the No. 1 most compelling thing about the show. That's what won us an Emmy. It certainly took us a while to figure out the formula, but the last few years of Top Chef have had such high caliber professional chefs. The show is not about rants and rampages. It's about chefs who are at the top of their class in terms of abilities. It's not like they're plumbers or schoolteachers when they're not on the show. They're professional chefs. That's what legitimized the show in the eyes of the food industry. That's what makes it so interesting to viewers. It's a window behind the doors of the kitchen. Nobody gets to see beyond the dining room into what happens in the kitchen. That's what has made the franchise successful for sure. It's always been about these talented people who will do this for the rest of their lives.
Do you have a favorite dessert?
I'd say it's like choosing my children, except I don't have any children. I get in certain moods. I go into times when I'm craving certain desserts. Right now I'm in a pudding phase. Butterscotch pudding. Chocolate pudding. I always put some sort of cookie or crumble on top of it. With fall starting to creep in, I'm looking for decadent desserts like butterscotch pudding.
Of all the world cuisines, who other than the French makes the best desserts?
At the moment, maybe I would say it's a tie. Spain because they really know how to fry their desserts. Last time I was there, I had grilled ice cream that blew my mind. They're at the cutting edge in many ways in the culinary world and have developed incredibly delicious desserts. And America. It's the way we were raised. When I think of comforting food, we've perfected comforting desserts. Peach pie. A beautiful, moist, rich, decadent slice of chocolate cake. A perfect chocolate chip cookie. Life doesn't get better than that.