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October 6, 2015

Gail Simmons on Paying Tribute to 'Willy Wonka,' Sweet 'Desserts' and 'Top Chef Texas'

by Chris Harnick, posted Sep 14th 2011 4:00PM
Gail Simmons'Top Chef: Just Desserts' is not a new show. However, Season 2 feels like a completely different program compared to the first season. Nobody can attest to that more than 'Just Desserts' host Gail Simmons.

"The first season of a show, you want to test the waters and it's always a bit of an experiment to see what works and what doesn't," Simmons told AOL TV. "I think, as with 'Top Chef' the original show, we learned that we wanted to up the ante every season and that's what we did."

Compared to last season's wide array of dessert makers -- from more basic bakers to quirky pastry chefs -- Simmons said the Season 2 contestants are more focused, high-level pastry chefs.

"It's not so much about getting desserts onto a plate, or plating desserts," she said. "It's about constructing imaginative masterpieces that are edible. So it's much more architectural and it's really about the highest level of skill that a pastry chef requires. So much more than just a piece of cake."

On this week's episode (Wed., Sept. 14, 10PM ET on Bravo), 'Top Chef: Just Desserts' pays tribute to 'Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,' something Simmons said got quite emotional.

The 'Willy Wonka' episode looks amazing!
It's unbelievable. It's really one of my most favorite episodes of any show I've ever done, of all time. It was a really special few days for us. Having the original cast of 'Willy Wonka' back with us was outrageous and amazing, hearing their stories and spending two days with them, listening to everything about their experiences 40 years before when they were all 10, 12 years old.

Top Chef Just Desserts Willy WonkaWe recreated for them this world of pure imagination, as our pastry chefs envisioned their version of Willy Wonka's factory. It'll blow you away, what our chefs come up with, and the fact that they all did it in 48 hours ... and then the reaction of the 'Willy Wonka' cast was really awesome. The funny thing is, we kept referring to them as "the kids," like, 'Where are the kids? Oh, can you guys get the kids? We're gonna go back on stage, grab the kids!' They're all in their 50s ... you can't get it out of your head because they're the kids from 'Willy Wonka.'

I think there's very few people who have never seen that movie, especially if you work in the world of pastry. That movie has impacted us all. It's the ultimate fantasy for every child, so it was very emotional. There was a moment when I first introduced them to the cast, I kind of broke down a little bit, I got a little teary-eyed because I could just see the expressions on our contestants' faces. They could not believe what they were about to do and who they were going to do it for.

What else is coming up this season?
Oh my god, a lot of shenanigans. Some waterslides, some Beastie Boys ... there's just so many amazing challenges put in front of them and every one of them is totally different, and tests something different. There's never a time when they can relax. Every day is an adventure for me, I have to say.

We have some really great new guest judges coming on the show. Beastie Boys' Ad-Rock -- Adam Horovitz -- he's doing an episode with us which is great because I love the episodes where we're able to take our chefs completely out of the world they're used to, you know? When we bring a pastry chef or a savory chef in as a guest judge it's one thing, because they sort of know them, they know their palate, they know what to expect. But when you bring someone who's a totally, completely different genre, it really ups the ante.

Top Chef Willy WonkaDo you have a favorite dessert in general?
No, that's like picking children! I don't. It really depends ... it's really like picking your favorite restaurant in New York, you really can't. It's not that simple. It depends on what you're in the mood for, what neighborhood you want to be in, if you're looking for fine dining or something quick and casual, you know? There's so many options. It's the same with me with dessert, especially because I think dessert has such an emotional connection with people.

It depends on my mood. If I'm in a comfort food mood, all I want is butterscotch pudding. Or cotton candy, if I'm in a nostalgic mood. Or if I'm feeling a little fancy, sometimes I want a French macaroon, you know, some crazy modernist concoction, because I want to be blown away if I'm taking someone out for a special occasion. I love chocolate, but I also love fresh fruit when it's in season, when it's simple and caramel-y and delicious.

One of my favorite 'Top Chef' moments is when Toby Young came on and replaced you for that season and Carla yelled your name. Do you have a favorite all-time moment?
Let's be clear, he didn't replace me. He came on 'cause I had to go get married. Yeah, but he was on the rest of that season. That was one of my favorite moments ever, when Carla did that. I loved her for that.

Do you have any other funny little anecdotes like that over these past six years?
I mean, there's so many moments on the show where I've been hysterically laughing, or really moved by something that a chef has done. Two that come up just from the most recent season of 'Top Chef: All Stars' -- one, was when at the judges' table, when Carla, Antonia and Angelo, I think, broke out into song about the beef tongue.

And in that season as well, our Ellis Island episode -- the episode for which we're nominated for an Emmy -- was definitely the most moving, emotional episode we've ever shot, not just in the moment when we shot it but watching it when they edited as well. They all did an amazing job, but Mike Isabella on that episode really touched me. The dish he made was incredible and there was this moment when he was talking about his grandmother who'd just passed away, and how close he was to her and how after she passed away he wouldn't cook Italian food. But then he cooked this for her, and now he's since gone on and opened an Italian restaurant. I think it was truly a pivotal moment in his career, and in his emotional growth as a person, and we were all there to witness it. It was really touching.

Top Chef Just Desserts Willy WonkaThat's sweet. So this next question came from Twitter: Is there anything that you've eaten on the show that you had to spit out?
I get that question a lot. People love to be grossed out. Isn't that amazing? I have never ... have I wanted to? The answer is yes. Less so on 'Desserts,' because desserts can only be so bad, even if you don't like them. But you're judging on a relative scale between the desserts, so it's easy to pick the worst. It's rare that on 'Top Chef Just Desserts' I get something I have to spit out.

Although, there is one thing on the episode tonight that really was really terrible, and one of the people on the show, on the set, she wants to spit it out. I remember once in 'Top Chef' Season 2 we did a challenge at a fire station, and this one girl made a dish that was so salty that I really had a hard time swallowing it. Also, on that same season, Sam Talbot made this dish that was blue cheese and watermelon. It's not that I'm saying those two things can never go together, but in that moment, in that preparation, it was hot, it was really unappealing. It really left a bad taste in my mouth, pun intended.

I have to say, luckily I have never, in however many seasons and all the shows I've shot, I've never gotten physically ill from eating anything. I can't necessarily say that with everybody, but I have never. That's a pretty good track record, considering the things we've had to eat.

Definitely! You mentioned Texas. Is there anything you can tease for me about 'Top Chef Texas'?
I can just tell you this: Texas is really hot. We shot the season in the middle of an insane heat wave and it was just an extraordinary feat that we got it done at all. But we had a ton of fun. We move around a lot, we see a lot of different parts of Texas, and I think we can show people sides of Texas that most people probably don't know, in terms of the food. Texas had a lot to offer. I was impressed. I had never been to Texas before in my life until we touched down for the first episode. It was exciting. I think the season will sort of shake up the 'Top Chef' formula -- a lot.

'Top Chef: Just Desserts' airs Wednesdays at 10PM ET on Bravo

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