Gail Simmons Dishes on Top Chef Season 12, Premiering Tonight

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·Food Editor
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  • Gail Simmons
    Gail Simmons
    Canadian food writer
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Top Chef judge Gail Simmons. Courtesy of Estancia

Season 12 of Bravo’s Top Chef debuts this Wednesday, October 15, at 10pm ET/PT. We chatted with judge Gail Simmons this morning to see what’s in store for this season, which was shot in Boston, Massachusetts. Don’t forget to tune in (and check in with Blue Apron afterwards for the winning recipe)!

Twelve seasons in, how do you keep it fresh?
Top Chef makes it easy for us, because every season there’s a brand-new set of chefs who bring their own personalities. On top of that, we change locations, so we’re not going back to the same old set. It’s always a new city with different inspiration and new food. So that sets us up for an enormous amount of creativity.

We’re coming from Season 11 in New Orleans, which has a totally different cultural reference point. Boston has an equally rich history, but the setting of New England is so completely contrasted to New Orleans.

What’s Boston’s culinary scene like right now?
It’s really exciting. There’s a lot of young blood in that city: chefs like Jamie Bissonnette and Michael Scelfo and Tiffani Faison and Joanne Chang and Matthew Gaudet and Tony Maws… There’s this young, smart energy. They’re really serious cooks with incredible resumés who have worked with pros like Ming Tsai and Barbara Lynch and Ken Oringer.

Boston’s really diverse, as well. At Oleana, I had some of the best Lebanese food I’ve ever had, there’s great Spanish food at Toro, and there are a lot of other great ethnic restaurants there: good dumplings, great Chinese, great Korean food… It’s a really manageable city, so you can walk everywhere and eat well.

What are some of your other favorite places to eat in Boston?
Sweet Cheeks, which is Tiffani Faison’s barbecue restaurant. I celebrated my birthday in Boston that first week and had all the food catered by her. One of my favorite Japanese restaurants of all time, O Ya, is in Boston. Alden and Harlow: Michael Scelfo is an amazing chef, and it’s such a great new restaurant with creative, fun, casual, comfortable, delicious food. And I ate breakfast almost every morning at Flour.

Back to the show: What was different about this season?
Because the show has such a loyal following, especially in the chef community, a lot of the chefs come on thinking they know how it works. We spend a lot of time figuring out how to make that not the case. This season, we created sudden-death quickfires. In the past, there was no specific loser of the quickfire; this year, there will be. Some of our quickfires will mean that the person who did the weakest job actually goes home for it. That means you can’t just strive to get by in the quickfire… You have to work to save your life and stay in the game. [The elimination] doesn’t happen every time, but it’s just enough to keep them on their toes. 

It’s also a different judges’ table this year in two ways. One is the addition of Richard Blais, who is a former contestant from Season 4 and winner of Top Chef All-Stars. He also competed on Top Chef Duels and did well. Having him on the judges’ table adds a really amazing layer—the rest of us gain more insight into what chefs are going through because he’s been through it firsthand many times. It’s great having him on our side, and it’s great for the chefs to see this shining example of what’s possible.

Also, we used to bring out the strongest people [in one group] and then the weakest people [in another] and then send someone home, but now we bring everyone out at the same time to watch when we’re critiquing and complimenting. So you’re in front of your peers, and while sometimes you’re hung out to dry, we did it to provide valuable lessons. The trickiest thing about judges’ table for so many years was that if you’re not one of the top or the bottom [competitors], you get no feedback—you have no idea where you stand. So even if we’re not speaking to them about their dishes in particular, now we’re letting them understand our processes and get more insight.

Can you share any moments that stood out that you?
Over Thanksgiving, an episode will run where we had our chefs cook at Plimoth Plantation, where the first Thanksgiving ever took place. There were some great twists in there that really challenged the chefs; it was the most untraditional traditional Thanksgiving you’ll ever see.

We do an episode with a lot of the first responders who were part of that terrible, fateful day at the Boston Marathon. We give back to them and share a meal with them. I hope people feel that we serve Boston well.