'Top Chef' at 15: Judge Gail Simmons was 'horrified' by fan responses during show's first season

Nick Paschal
·Supervising Producer, Yahoo Entertainment
·4 min read

Back on March 8, 2006, Bravo debuted a new cooking competition show, Top Chef. The Emmy-winning series is coming up on its 18th season, has spawned multiple spinoffs, and has versions airing all around the world.

It has been 15 years since the show premiered, and while a few things have changed over the last decade-and-a-half, the show basically adheres to its original formula. Two people who were there from the beginning are judges Tom Colicchio and Gail Simmons. Yahoo Entertainment Zoomed into Simmons's living room and discussed that first season and how the show has evolved over the years.

Simmons said that it didn't even occur to her that there would be more than one season of the show. Luckily for Padma Lakshimi, who didn't start hosting until Season 2, the show did continue past Season 1. Fans may not remember, but the first season was hosted by Food Network's Katie Lee. Also, the contestants weren't all technically "chefs." That first season featured contestants with a wide range of kitchen experience, and since then, the show has moved to only using high-level chefs. "What differentiated us from anything else out there was that this was actually exclusively about professional chefs," says Gail. "And when I say, 'chef,' I don't mean someone who cooks in a restaurant. I mean the word chef, which by definition is the word boss. So really about chefs at their highest level."

One other thing that was a little different in the beginning was how the judges were portrayed.

My friends would say to me that people they knew, who didn't know me, would ask if I was really that mean in person. And I would be so horrified.Gail Simmons

Simmons recalled the early days of reality-competition shows, saying, "Remember at the beginning of reality television when every judge had to have, sort of, almost a caricature-like persona? There was the evil one, and the nice one, and I think at first, we all felt like we had to fall into those categories." The former special projects director at Food and Wine magazine hadn't ever planned on being a TV personality, so playing a role didn't really come naturally to her. But what Simmons lacked in presenting a caricatured persona on-camera, the producers and editors picked up the slack. "They did try to edit me to be a little more severe than I really am in person, and um, and a little more serious," Simmons says. "So I was sorta like the 'mean, judgy one.' Like the snobby editor, right, coming from a very exclusive food magazine."

Judges Tom Colicchio, Gail Simmons in the
Judges Tom Colicchio and Gail Simmons in the "Restaurant Wars" episode on the first season of Top Chef. (Photo: David Moir/Bravo/NBCU Photo Bank)

Simmons soon realized it was a persona she wasn't comfortable with when she heard through the grapevine that people thought she was mean. "My friends would say to me that people who they knew, who didn't know me, would ask if I was really that mean in person. And I would be so horrified," she continues, "that's, like, not at all my persona."

When asked if Simmons had made the conscious decision to lighten up or if she went to the producers and asked them to cool it with the mean edits, she said it was "both and neither all at once." She explains, "After a while, our producers realized, Bravo realized, and we realized that our viewers aren't going to invest in the show unless they believe us and can trust us with our opinions." Everyone came to the conclusion that Simmons, Colicchio and Lakshmi being their authentic selves was best for the show and they didn't need to edit them as deliberately anymore.

It was obviously the right decision as the show is entering its 18th season. Simmons is still amazed at the show's success and is proud of what they've accomplished. "It's just incredible to think of, you know, the trajectory of life in the last 15 years in the world," Simmons says. "I mean, so much has changed and food has come a long way too. So I'm incredibly proud of the fact that we're still making this show 15 years later."

Top Chef Season 18 premieres April 1 at 8 p.m. on Bravo.

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