"Top Chef" returns Wednesday at 10 PM on Bravo for its tenth season. Based in Seattle this time around, "Top Chef" has undergone a few other changes since we last saw the cheftestants in Texas, including a twist to the eliminated-chefs' cook-off web series, "Last Chance Kitchen," and a new addition to Judges' Table – Wolfgang Puck, a culinary powerhouse for over thirty years.
Yahoo! TV spoke to Puck's fellow judges Hugh Acheson and Gail Simmons about Puck's positive influence on the panel; dishes the "cheftestants" always seem to foul up; and what they snack on when no one's looking.
We spoke to Hugh Acheson last week...
We just read a blog post out of Seattle where Wolfgang Puck went on at some length about this season's contestants' "ineptitude" with eggs; it seems like we see some variation on the omelet fail every season. Does that surprise you, when the cheftestants can't make basics like that?
Have you watched the first episode?
No, not yet.
The first episode has an omelet challenge in it, so I don't know if you're writing about this before or after, but that's why he's talking about that so much. We're all supposed to test the chefs on one certain skill set, and Wolfgang chooses to do a classic omelet, to challenge them on that.
But yes, eggs are always an issue. It's funny: there're a couple of dishes in "Top Chef" history that people should just not attempt to do – and it's often things that just don't sit very well; eggs are one of them. Risotto is always this, like, albatross around people's necks; people just go home all the time for risotto, and there are another couple ones that pop up here and there that really give people trouble, and they're relatively simple dishes overall. But … with that stress, simple food is sometimes the most difficult to cook.
Right. Anything else besides eggs or risotto that they tend to foul up frequently?
I'm blanking on specific things, but it really seems to be the simpler things kind of screw with people a lot – pasta's another thing that just, it's really risky. In my season of "[Top Chef] Masters," Alex Stratta went home for a pasta, pretty much, and John Currence went out for a risotto; the egg challenge definitely gives a couple of hiccups in the first episode to people – so it's really, it's the simpler things. When you don't have a number of components, you're fixating on that one, and you'll find some flaws with it, if it's not done right.
We were going to ask why you thought that was – do you think they just have too much time to think about it?
I think so. I think you can oversimplify sometimes, as you can make things far too complex for the plate as well.
You mentioned the sort of pressure and that stress of the situation; as a judge who's also been a contestant, do you think you're more sympathetic about the constraints they're under? Or are you less likely to view those factors as excuses?
I don't think there's ever any chance for an excuse for me, based on the pressure of it; you have to deal with it. I think my experience being a contestant – I fully understood the stress; I never used it as an excuse, though. And you can't; you know, you signed up for it, it's a pretty stressful experience enduring the show, and you have to be able to confront that, but you know, in the kitchen every day we confront stress, changing situations … so you have to be ready.
Right. Getting back to Puck for a second: how has his addition to the panel changed the dynamic of the panel?
Wolfgang brings this gravitas, and he's just really smart on camera, he's really quick on camera, he's just such a skilled and iconic figure in American cuisine that it's fun to listen to him go off, you know. I think he's a good addition; we've got a pretty amazing triumvirate or quartet, I guess, with Gail [Simmons], and me and Emeril [Lagasse], and Wolfgang, so it's a lot of fun, but yeah, those guys are my mentors, so it's fun to sheepishly hang around them.
Can you give us some insight into what gets left on the cutting room floor from Judges' Table? Is it technical stuff most viewers wouldn't "get"? Is it extended debates about sous vide? Do you wish they'd include more from Judges' Table?
Uh, it's usually me picking my nose or something like that…
No, I don't think it's kind of stuff that really – you know, filming TV has always got a lot of blips and spurts to it, it's just, a lot of stuff doesn't need to be there, it would be really boring; I think that's pretty much what gets left on the floor. I don't think there's much else – I mean, they definitely pick up on what good insight we have, and there's no need to typically talk about stuff too much; if somebody screwed up a technique of something, it's pretty abundantly clear, and we explain that I think pretty well, but there's no need to get into the mundane of cooking science, things like that.
Right. Have you found that judging on "Top Chef" and actually cooking and working at your restaurants – have those things helped each other for you? Has one deepened the other, vice versa?
The experience of filming it, on it for a continuous basis, it always makes me – a) I go out to eat in other cities a ton more and getting knowledge by the food on my plate, to look at it is kind of eye-opening, and then I'm served stuff on set that's exciting and new a lot of the times, and you see failures, and you want to be like, "Oh, let's avoid that in the future," so it definitely heightens my excitement to get back in my own kitchen and sort of play off what I've seen.
Any food trends that you would like to see retired lately? Ramps?
Ramps? No, ramps are awesome. Not their season right now, but– you know, I love bacon just as much as the next guy; I don't want to see bacon in desserts too often? Things like that, I think that foraging has a definite beauty in a plate and a place, but I think if we all do it, there's not gonna be much out there anymore.
Last question: what is your favorite prepared-food guilty pleasure? Ours is the cheddar-cheese-cracker Combo.
Anything you grab at a gas station that you're like, "I really shouldn't, but – hey, Twinkies"?
That Ben & Jerry's American something ice cream with Stephen Colbert?
Yes. We've had two chefs come and go that way, dishes that most chefs can't get right – we know they know how to cook it, but I think that in the "Top Chef" kitchen, when they are sort of on the spot, that they fail, even I know they could do better. Desserts are certainly one of them, and that's for different reason.
Oh yeah, Americone Dream – good choice.
It's got crisp waffle chips in it, and caramel. It's awesome.
Hurricane Sandy threw a spanner in the works, but we were glad to talk to Gail Simmons earlier this week.
Wolfgang Puck has joined Judges' Table for this season of "Top Chef." Can you talk a little bit about what he adds to the overall vibe of the panel?
Sure! Wolfgang Puck, it's a pleasure. I think no one can deny his power and his force in the culinary world. He really was what I refer to as the original gangster of celebrity chefdom. He was – him and Emeril were really the first chefs to really go mainstream, to take their fine dining and make it accessible to the masses … he's just an incredible machine, and you know, thirty years later, he still runs some of the top restaurants in the country, as well as so many outposts everywhere from in your grocery store to the airport. He's kind of done it all, he's lived an incredible life, he has tons of culinary knowledge and experience; he's still just so incredibly relevant, he's had an amazing career, so you know, I think that lends itself to so much in terms of what he can help the chefs with, the critique given to them, his understanding of food, but also, I have to say we all learned, listening to him.
He was interviewed recently about the premiere episode, and he talked about the cheftestants' problems with egg dishes – and Hugh Acheson also mentioned that simple dishes tend to get in the contestants' heads. Are there any dishes that, every season, you're like, "Heeere we go"? Eggs, risotto?
For a long time there was a gnocchi problem; chefs stopped cooking gnocchi as much, but we had, in the first several seasons, so many chefs trying to make gnocchi for us, and every time it was such a failure. They were either gummy, or they were falling apart, or they were overseasoned or they were overcooked – they just could not nail it, and still, that happens.
Pasta is tricky for the chefs when they're making it from scratch, because I think it's hard for them to gauge the cook time, and then a certain time, when food sits out – you know, we try to never let our food sit out, someone always eats the food as soon as it's ready, so I just think there's so many factors, in the "Top Chef" kitchen versus their regular kitchen, that the chefs just can't control, and so, a lot of it's food that relies on very delicate cooking methods and cooking time can trip them up easily.
We were going to ask about desserts vis-à-vis this question; viewers know by now that when a chef on a team says, "Oh, I'll do the dessert, it's totally cinchy," that it's probably going to bomb. Do you as judges have a similar reaction to that – "Here comes dessert fail"?
Well, I don't think it's actually that simple. Part of the reason we created an entirely different show, "Top Chef Desserts," for that reason – it's not as if, if you make a dessert, you're going home; not at all. Over the years desserts have gotten better … but what usually is the issue with desserts on "Top Chef" is that the chefs on "Top Chef" are savory chefs. They are not pastry chefs, they are not dessert chefs. Yes, they should know how to make a few great desserts, without fail – every chef should know. But they just don't have the time and experience in the sweet kitchen that they do in the savory kitchen the way a pastry chef would, so even the simplest desserts on "Top Chef" often get tripped up, because they just don't have the requisite experience to understand what's needed in those circumstances to make good desserts.
That's not to say there haven't been great desserts; desserts have gotten better over the years. But it's true that we have had a lot of really mediocre desserts on the show, and that's mostly because they're not pastry chefs. It's not what they do every day. It's like saying, just 'cause you're a doctor, you should be able to deliver a baby, but if you're a psychiatrist, I don't want you delivering my baby; I don't want you performing heart surgery on me; and I don't want a heart surgeon prescribing me medication for the flu or whatever it may be – that's a bad example but you get the idea. Just because someone's a doctor, they don't have the same experience in the same…concentration, and it's the same in the kitchen. Sweet and savory chefs have very different training, and their strengths are different, so that's why desserts become an issue.
Once "Just Desserts" had debuted, were desserts de-emphasized at all on "Top Chef: Mothership"?
No. Well, we've never emphasized desserts on "Top Chef: Mothership"; they've never been emphasized; some [challenges] have them make them on occasion, sometimes they haven't, sometimes they've chosen to make them even when they haven't had to. But we kept that the same, on the show. That kind of never changed; desserts were never a focus, desserts were never hugely emphasized, but they played into certain challenges, as were kind of needed, depending on what we were doing, and so once in a while it came up, and they still do.
And "Just Desserts"? Coming back?
I don't know! You'll have to ask Bravo!
We will ask Bravo. A question that's more about your writing – has serving as a judge on these shows helped or deepened your food writing? What does each experience bring to the other one for you?
I don't think it's that linear; I think that every eating experience helps you in your knowledge and understanding of food, so everything helps everything. The more knowledge I have, the better writer I am, the better speaker I am, the better communicator I am, in all forms of media, whether it's on TV or in the magazine or on my website or what I'm Tweeting – it's just knowledge and strength in that way, in every way, so I have to say, I think the last seven years, over ten seasons of "Top Chef," I have learned an enormous amount.
I obviously went on the show as an expert, in the beginning, but even if I think of myself in that first season versus my knowledge now, there's a vast amount of learning I've done over the last seven years – but you look at anyone in a seven-year period in whatever field they're in and how much you learn over time, every day, every meal, every place that we travel to, every contestant that we encounter and conversation about food that we have informs us, and teaches me something about flavor combinations, about cooking technique, about culture, the culture of food and the history of the place that we're in – food just says so much about us as human beings. It is what separates us from animals. Yeah, it's kind of amazing to think of all I've learned over the years doing the show, for sure.
And then it goes both ways; I've learned so much from the show that I've been able to bring to other parts of my job, but I've also learned so many other things, I've learned so many things in my travels and in other work that I've also been able to bring to the Judges' Table and call on from my knowledge, so that I can judge them better and understand the food better and give them the most constructive criticism I can give.
Are there any surprises coming up on the [Seattle] season that you can talk about? Any changes in the format, or things regular or longtime viewers are going to be surprised by?
There are many surprises, many exciting things coming up in future episodes. There are two huge twists this season, that go beyond anything we have ever done, but you're going to have to wait and see what they are.
One thing I think I can talk about is the digital component, and that's in terms of "Last Chance Kitchen." That has become a really great component to the show; we started it last season in Texas, so that every time a chef is voted off and eliminated, they get a chance to redeem themselves online [in] the "Last Chance Kitchen" series that Tom hosts, and there's a series of Quickfires, and each Quickfire, the most recently eliminated chef cooks off against whoever is the winner to date of all the eliminated chefs, and the final winner will get a chance to come back into the show, and so we're doing that again, although slightly differently, 'cause the chefs are all aware of it now.
But I still think it's really going to add a strength to the show, because there's so many strong cooks this season, every season the chefs just get stronger and more interesting and there's so many chefs that, often some of them go away before we know they should, you know? One bad dish and you're off, even though we know you're capable of better – and so this really gives them a chance to not only show the audience, but to show us that they still can win it. It's really anyone's game.
Just remind us: the "Last Chance Kitchen" winner came back in last season as well, but it wasn't in the finals [as it will be this season].
Right, they came back in earlier. Beverly [Kim] was the winner, and she came back for the last few episodes.
That's right. Okay, last question, which is sort of random: what is your guilty-pleasure food? Prepared food, weird candy?
I get this question a lot, actually; it's not so random. I hate calling it a guilty pleasure, because I don't always feel guilty about what I eat; there are certain things that aren't really good for you that you shouldn't eat that often, but I'll eat things once in a while; it's all about moderation, and balance. There's a couple things that I kind of can't help myself, if they're put in front of me I have a very hard time resisting, and I would say they include spicy chicken wings; salt-and-vinegar chips; and warm chocolate-chip cookies right out of the oven. My body overtakes my mind and I cannot resist.
Warm chocolate-chip cookies aren't anything to feel guilty about, you're right.
That's exactly what I was saying. And you know, one or two chicken wings or a handful of salt-and-vinegar chips are gonna be fine for you. I'm not condoning eating them often, but you know, in moderation. A little bite once in a while goes a long way.
"Top Chef" airs at 10 PM Wednesdays on Bravo.