‘Top Chef’ Stars Tom Colicchio and Gail Simmons Share What Sets Them Apart From Other Cooking Competition Shows: ‘We’re Real’ (Exclusive)

The longtime Bravo judges explain why 'Top Chef' continues to be the lodestar of cooking shows after 20 seasons.

Jordan Strauss/Bravo

When Top Chef first debuted on Bravo in 2006, it was something of a revelation. Although foodie TV fans had plenty to chew on in the way of entertaining one-on-one competitions with the Iron Chef franchise, this novel series changed the game. Rather than one pair putting together an exquisite dining experience for the prestige panel of judges, the series puts a whole kitchen full of promising contestants into daily quick-fire and elimination challenges, battling to avoid that now-iconic phrase, "please pack your knives and go."

Now in its 20th season, with Top Chef: World All-Stars, the series still boasts the same sophistication in styling, poignancy in critiques and array of talented chef contestants that made it such a small screen sensation in the first place. And even though it's got a lot more contemporaries in the television market these days, it still stands apart from the crowd for some key reasons.

Longtime show judges Tom Colicchio and Gail Simmons spoke to The Messenger at a Bravo event at Craft Restaurant in Los Angeles on Monday and maintained that the reason the show continues to be the seminal cooking competition show is that it has been able to adapt.

"It changes all the time," Colicchio said of the show's formatting. "If you look at Season 1, some of the things we did we have completely abandoned. Everything changes because the producers are open to making changes… Plus a decision was made I think in Season 3 that we had to bring on professional chefs. And at really a high level, we can't bring in students. You can't bring in cooks, you have to bring in sous-chef, chef of cuisine, executive chef, really, really high level or else there's no competition. I don't care how good of a home cook, you are not going to be able to think as quickly on your feet and compose dishes in the way a professional chef [can]. Once we made that decision, the level of food just got much better."

Tom Colicchio at Bravo FYC event
Nicole Weingart/Bravo

Simmons, too, has seen the show break new ground again and again over the years. "Every season we push [the chefs] harder, which allows us for the next season to get even greater talent. And that's been a big part of what makes the show work," she said. "And then of course, because we travel, we take the show on the road, it's not a formula. It's not set in a studio. We are out on the streets of a different city across America, across the world every day. And so that becomes the backdrop of the show. It informs the challenges, but it's totally new every season — a different city, a different history, a different pantry, and then a different narrative from each of the chefs. And I think that combination is what really has kept it so different."

Colicchio added that another major difference between newer seasons of Top Chef and some of its earliest runs is that the entertainment factor hinges more on the quality of the food that's prepared than the drama that happens between contestants behind the scenes in their dorms.

"If you notice over the years, all the reality nonsense, it's so far pushed to the background right now," he said. "We're not [a reality show] anymore… And that's great because we never cared about the reality stuff. We don't judge on it."

In fact, per Colicchio, the judges don't ever even interact with contestants outside of the taped moments we see in the show. 

"We're real," he said. "When we say you have an hour to cook, you have an hour to cook. When the dish is done, we're eating. I've heard in other shows, dishes sit around for hours. A lot of shows, I've heard, reverse engineer where they choose the winner before they even start cooking, and they just get there. We don't do that. Our show's real."

Top Chef FYC event
Nicole Weingart/Bravo

As a result of all of these efforts, Top Chef remains the standard-bearer for the subgenre, with a pair of Emmy wins and multiple other nominations, and it's not slowing down anytime soon, even after the next winner is crowned on the June 8 finale. 

"Considering when we started, we were really this tiny scrappy little show. We are not The Amazing Race, we are not American Idol or Survivor, these massive network behemoths with budgets [for] one episode [are] what we have for a whole season. So we're playing it with a totally different deck of cards. I think the fact that we've stayed relevant all these years and had the longevity that we've had was for that reason," Simmons said. "We like scrappy and hard working, and ... the crew has been with us for years. It's really a second family. We're like a traveling circus."

Top Chef: World All-Stars airs Wednesdays at 9/8c on Bravo. 

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