Host Gail Simmons says Portland-filmed ‘Top Chef Amateurs’ was ‘born out of the pandemic’
The season finale of “Top Chef” Portland will air tonight on Bravo, but there’s more “Top Chef” in store. After the Season 18 winner is revealed, “Top Chef Amateurs,” a new spinoff that also filmed in the Rose City, will debut.
“We literally finished shooting the finale of ‘Top Chef,’ then we had three days to rest, put ourselves back together, alter the kitchen slightly to make it more conducive to this format, restock the kitchen, and started shooting again,” says host Gail Simmons.
Simmons is well-known to fans of the “Top Chef” culinary competition TV franchise, having been a judge on the show for several years, as well as for appearing on “Top Chef Masters,” “Top Chef Just Desserts” and “Top Chef Jr.”
Speaking by phone from her home in Brooklyn. New York, Simmons says the idea for doing “Top Chef Amateurs” was a reaction to the fact that, during the pandemic, people were staying home and cooking for themselves, after so many restaurants were forced to close due to safety protocols.
“Stuck at home, we all became short-order cooks,” Simmons says. “If not for ourselves, then for our families.” With home cooks often taking to social media to share their creations, Simmons says, it became clear that amateurs “are capable of doing incredible things. At ‘Top Chef,’ it made us think, maybe it’s time for home cooks to be part of this brand. Let’s see what happens when we let home cooks loose in the iconic ‘Top Chef’ kitchen.”
“Top Chef Amateurs” filmed in the kitchen set that was established at the Portland Expo Center for the “Top Chef” Portland season. In each 30-minute episode, two home cooks will compete in head-to-head challenges. The amateurs will be paired with “Top Chef” veterans, who will cook along with the contestants. The “Top Chef” all-stars will also rotate as guest judges to join Simmons in deciding who will win that week’s episode and take home the $5,000 per-episode prize.
“’Top Chef’ as a brand has always been about the professional kitchen, and showing professional cooking at the highest level,” says Simmons.
By contrast, “Top Chef Amateurs” is tailored for the home cook, and encourages them to keep cooking. The contestants came from around the U.S., and once in Portland, also had to observe safety measures put in place for filming during the pandemic.
“Every single amateur who came to shoot with us flew to Portland from anywhere across the country,” Simmons says. Then they spent several days alone in a hotel room, had meals delivered, got tested for the coronavirus several times. The contestants went through all this, she says, “to come to the ‘Top Chef’ kitchen to spend one day with us, and then fly home. It meant a lot that they were willing to do that.”
“They were selected very carefully,” Simmons says of the amateurs, whose day jobs include dental hygienist, hair stylist, international business consultant, real estate broker, high school science teacher, engineer and architect.
For some contestants who were big fans of “Top Chef,” being on “Top Chef Amateurs” was a “wish-fulfillment,” Simmons says, whether they were fumbling through a Quickfire-type of challenge or experiencing what it feels like to be at the judges’ table.
Coming to Portland to film the show represented the first time many of the contestants had gotten on a plane, let alone left their homes during the pandemic, Simmons says. “It’s a great way to end what had been such a difficult year.”
Examples of that difficult year were present in Portland during the filming of the “Top Chef” season here, says Simmons, who joined head judge Tom Colicchio and host Padma Lakshmi throughout Season 18.
“We arrived in Portland on the heels of major protests,” says Simmons. When the production filmed here last September and October, “downtown was boarded up.” Shortly after they started shooting, major wildfires broke out, “and we were all locked indoors.”
It seemed, Simmons says, that “Portland really experienced almost a triple pandemic while we were there, with racial justice protests, the pandemic, and the fires.”
Portland was, Simmons says, “A complicated place. We were lucky the city really rallied around us.” And the production was nimble enough to pivot, when need be. “We moved locations several times because of the fires and the protests.”
Simmons hadn’t spent much time in Portland before filming the “Top Chef” season. She was impressed by Oregon’s beauty, which made outdoor shooting desirable.
“For two-and-a-half months I relocated my family there,” says Simmons. “My kids did everything. Every day off we had we went on countless hikes, to waterfalls, and beaches. We picked peaches and pumpkins. We went on boats, and went to the ocean.”
The scenery was “breathtaking,” Simmons says. “And I think we really showcased that on the show.”
Simmons says that “Top Chef” always casts contestants with an eye toward diversity, and skill and knowledge, in equal measure. This year’s cast, she says, brought an especially deep, varied range of backgrounds and experience.
By setting each season in a different location and being thoughtful about casting, Simmons says “Top Chef” manages to show the audience the world through the lens of food. “It’s really about championing the industry, and championing these contestants. We are all rooting for them. Tom, Padma and I, who have all been doing this show now for 15 years together, we’ve always believed in that, and we have evolved, and honed that. It’s a compassionate show, and an honest show.”
“I learn from the chefs every say,” Simmons says. “Amateurs included.”
“Top Chef Amateurs” premieres with two back-to-back 30-minute episodes, following the “Top Chef” Portland finale; they air again at 10:29 p.m. Thursday, July 1, on Bravo.
— Kristi Turnquist