Canadian-born, NYC-trained gastronomic guru Gail Simmons is a master multitasker — in addition to being the Special Projects manager at “Food & Wine” magazine, she’s also relishing her second year as the host of Bravo’s “Top Chef: Just Desserts.”
The spin-off of the hugely successful “Top Chef” pits cream-of-the-crop pastry chefs against each other for a chance at $100,000 from KitchenAid, a spread in “Food & Wine” and a spot at the Annual Food & Wine Cayman Cookout. And this year, the kitchen competition is only heating up.
“The chefs on this season are really just the next level,” Simmons says. “Last year we had a much broader range of people who worked with desserts — bakers, hotel chefs, restaurant chefs, cake-makers — and this year they’re really all top pastry chefs and the challenges we give them really, really test their skills. It’s just really making them think about desserts in a different way. We’re not asking them things that they shouldn’t understand how to do; we’re just making sure that they’re doing them at a really high level.”
Simmons was coy about spilling any juicy contestant gossip, but she did give us a taste of what’s to come on tonight’s episode.
“We have Ad-Rock [from the Beastie Boys],” she says. “He’s a hardcore New Yorker and he was just so awesome and such a good sport. We created a challenge all around him and I think it just blew us all away.”
She credits the show’s success not to just the contestants and guest judges, but also to the audience, who she notes has become quite knowledgeable in the five years since “Top Chef” premiered.
“I’ve seen such a major explosion in interest and savvy from our audience about food,” she says. “The ‘Top Chef’ and ‘Top Chef: Just Desserts’ viewer is so smart and knows so much about food and cooking and baking. They don’t want to see amateurs because they can do better: they know more, they eat out, they cook at home, they are interested in food, they love to eat. And even if they’re not really into food, they just are into the competition and have high expectations and I think that’s exciting because it forces us to raise the bar. I’m just always impressed season to season how much they learn and know and understand.”
And it’s not just the audience that’s evolving with the show: Simmons’s hosting style is too.
“It certainly has improved,” she says. “When I first started hosting ‘Top Chef: Just Desserts’ I was pretty nervous. My big fear was that I would just sort of be a poor excuse for Padma [Lakshmi, the host of “Top Chef”]. I wanted to make it my own and I had her voice in my head, because I’d been listening to her do it for so many years [as a “Top Chef” guest judge.] I didn’t want to sound like her or try to be her in any way, so it really just was about finding my own voice.”
And although she says it’s always hard to eliminate someone each week (“We don’t take it lightly,” she says), the process has gotten easier over time.
“It’s still hard when you know that someone is really great but that they just messed up,” she says. “They always accept our decisions with such humility and with great grace and I know that’s a hard thing for them to do.”
Watch ‘Top Chef: Just Desserts’ hosts Gail and Johnny talk about the new season, and, of course, candy.
Follow Meredith Engel on Twitter @MeredithatMetro.