Before she catapulted to Top Chef fame, Gail Simmons was in charge of running the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, so it's no surprise that when we caught up with her there, she was completely in her element. She was, in fact, minutes away from hosting a seminar with Tom Colicchio and had just hosted her Last Bite Dessert Party with Johnny Iuzzini (that's the two of them, above, at said party) the night before. We grabbed her in haste to talk about Top Chef Masters, the Cronut craze, season 11 of Top Chef, and this Summer's coolest dessert trend.
POPSUGAR: Top Chef Masters 5 premieres July 24, and you'll be the head judge this time. What can you tell us about the competition level compared to previous seasons?
Gail Simmons: I've never been on Top Chef Masters full-time before, so this was new for me to see it through a whole season, and I loved it. The chefs are so solid this year. What's amazing about Masters, compared to the regular Top Chef, is that they're in it for different reasons. They're doing it for charity, and they're doing it to kind of be together. They all know each other, and we all know them. So it's not about the same level of stress and competition, but the good cause and the camaraderie. It's a chance for them to really be pushed and challenged again as chefs, which is great to see.
PS: You're the host of Top Chef Just Desserts. I have to ask: have you tried a Cronut? What do you think of it all?
GS: I've been living in New Orleans right now, because we're shooting Top Chef 11. The Cronut chaos erupted after I had left New York City. But I do know the Cronut. Dominique Ansel, who invented the Cronut, is an alumni of Daniel Boulud, and I worked for Daniel Boulud too, so I have known Dominique for a long time. He really is one of the most powerful and talented pastry chefs in America. Look, everyone loves a craze, and this is kind of the new thing. It's sweet and it's buttery and it's fried: I mean, what can be bad? But people are getting a little crazy. It's just a piece of dough, for God's sake. Calm down!
Dessert trends, Top Chef: New Orleans, and more, right this way.
PS: What other dessert trends are you seeing this Summer?
GS: It's not like it's anything new, but I'm just so impressed with how elevated it's become: popsicles and paletas. In New Orleans, there's an amazing popsicle shop, and in New York City on my corner, there's another beautiful popsicle shop. La Newyorkina in New York kind of started that craze, the Mexican popsicles made with fresh fruit juices layered on top of each other. To me, that's the ultimate Summer treat.
PS: The last time we spoke, you'd just come out with your memoir, Talking With My Mouth Full. How did its release impact you?
GS: It was like psychoanalysis, writing the book and having to dredge up my life story and put it together in a way that people could understand. It was an amazing experience, and I loved my book tour. The best thing to come from it is that people identify with the book. Also, just the idea that I never meant to be on television, and that this came as such a gift to me. How incredible the people that I work with are, and this sort of circuitous journey that I took. I think it gives people confidence that you can't have a master plan — that was sort of the MO of my book — but that if you love what you do and you find a passion, anything's possible.
PS: You're currently filming Top Chef: New Orleans. What can you tell us about it?
GS: Almost nothing, except that it's really sweaty. I love New Orleans. They are so supportive of us, and the people are so generous. The chefs are incredible. Emeril [Lagasse] is a judge on the show, so having him as our guide — he's like the mayor of New Orleans. We are lettin' loose in New Orleans. Tom and Padma [Lakshmi] and I have been out every night, seeing music, eating at restaurants. We have such a great crew, and we're all together in every dive bar, drinking a lot of Sazeracs.
PS: If you could describe the season in one word or sentence . . .
GS: I don't know yet. We haven't shot enough. It's still too early to tell. It's anyone's game.
PS: Not even one sentence?
GS: I got nothing!
PS: OK, fine. What else is new with you?
GS: I'm working on a new book, but I don't have a lot of details on it yet. It'll be a cookbook. Personally, I'm very deep in renovations, and that's all that consumes my thoughts now. I'm still in the city, but we're building our dream home in Brooklyn. And . . . I don't know. I hope to take a vacation one of these days.