'Top Chef: New Orleans': Gail Simmons puts up with the heat for the gumbo

gail-simmons-top-chef-s11-bravo-325.jpgIn late May, Bravo's "Top Chef" arrived in New Orleans to film its 11th season, premiering on Wednesday, Oct. 2, in a city famed for fun, food and fabulous music. Production wrapped in early July.

But sitting as it does on the Gulf Coast in the Deep South of the U.S., the Big Easy is also known for warm weather -- and the "Top Chef" team could hardly have picked a toastier time of year.

Says judge Gail Simmons, a cook and former food journalist,to  Zap2it, "It was incredibly hot outside. It was definitely taxing on our chefs that are cooking and on our production crew, shooting long hours and long days in 100-degree, 100 percent humidity weather. Otherwise, that was a small price to pay to get to do it in New Orleans.

"We mixed it up a lot. We're indoors; we're outdoors. We go into the countryside. So there were plenty of opportunities for us to cool down."

On the upside, as Simmons mentioned, the cast and crew were smack in the middle of one of America's most distinctive metropolises.

"What's the most enjoyable thing about shooting in New Orleans?" Simmons says. "Everything -- the history, the culture, the music. It's such a unique part of the country. It's really unlike anything else. You feel like you're in a foreign country, because everything about New Orleans is just so completely New Orleans and of itself and special."

The show actually started online on Aug. 14, with the premiere of the Web series "Padma's Picks," starring show host and judge Padma Lakshmi. She visited top eateries to find 10 of the best and brightest local chefs. They then battled in the finale, in which the winner earned a spot in the show.

Joining Simmons on the judge's panel are lead judge Tom Colicchio, Hugh Acheson and famed New Orleans chef Emeril Lagasse. "He's given up the 'Bam!' " Simmons says. "We're taking him in a new direction."

Among the guests, culinary stars and guest judges this season are Jon Favreau, Lea Michele, Anthony Mackie, Questlove, Leah Chase, Paul Prudhomme, Jacques Pepin, David Chang, John Besh and Eddie Huang, along with local legends Kermit Ruffins and Dr. John.

In New Orleans terms, the name of Paul Prudhomme stands out.

"He certainly was one of the godfathers of Cajun cooking," says Simmons, "and taught so many chefs about that type of food."

"Top Chef" Season 11 aims not only to look good but to taste good -- at least to the judges.

"You're going to see beautiful locations that we shoot at," Simmons says. "And then, of course, so many of the iconic dishes of New Orleans appear on our show, everything from gumbo to snowballs to Louisiana seafood and lots of delicious oysters."
Photo/Video credit: Bravo
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