Johnny Iuzzini and Gail Simmons
As the editor of AfterElton.com, I sometimes have to watch shows I don’t particularly care about and then interview those involved in making that program. Let’s just say that sometimes it can be a bit of a chore. (Who said anything about Most Eligible Dallas? I didn’t bring that show up!)
Okay, maybe I did mention MED, but perhaps I shouldn’t speak ill of that particular show because it’s thanks to my having interviewed Drew Ginsburg, one of the “friends” on MED, that I stumbled into an opportunity to interview someone else from a show I actually like a lot. I’m speaking of Top Chef and the person I had the good fortune to interview was judge Gail Simmons, who also happens to be the host of another show I really like: Top Chef: Just Desserts. Even better, it wasn’t just Gail I got to interview, but also renowned pastry chef and TC:JD judge Johnny Iuzzini.
It all came about at the recent Television Critics Association Press Tour in Los Angeles. I had just finished interviewing Ginsburg in the bar of the Beverly Hills Hilton, and was talking with a Bravo publicist when I spotted Gail and Johnny doing an interview with another journalist. When I told the publicist how much I loved the show, she insisted I talk with Gail and Johnny. And despite their having already done a great deal of press, both were eager to chat with me about the success of Top Chef: Just Desserts, the strange course of their lives and, in the case of Johnny, all the gay men who have sent him naked pictures of themselves.
AfterElton: It’s serendipity that I’m getting to talk with you because I didn’t even know you were going to be here.
Gail Simmons: We love serendipity.
AE: I’m not a big reality show fan but I was a huge Top Chef fan from the very beginning. That said, I always wanted more of the desserts on Top Chef, so I was very happy about when the new show debuted.
GS: Well, we did it for you, Michael.
AE: [laughs] Yeah, sure. So, Gail, how excited were you when Bravo came up with this and said, “Gail, we want you to host this show”?
GS: It was amazing. It was also kind of serendipitous. Obviously, I’ve been on Top Chef since the first season as a judge and, in the course of, I guess it was six seasons before we started doing Desserts … and in our quiet down time on set we were always talking about it.
I’m not a pastry chef by any means, but I’ve always kind of found desserts magical because they are and because it’s not my genre of expertise … so I was sort of confounded by it. So I was talking with Bravo and the question would always come up, “Why are our chefs always failing desserts? Why can’t anyone make desserts?”
Because they are not pastry chefs! So we sort of toyed around with the idea and when we sort of decided to pull the trigger … I was ready for a new challenge and this kind of seemed like the perfect storm. And I’d known Johnny for over a decade.
Johnny Iuzzini: Yep.
GS: When they first brought him onto the show, which sort of worked out perfectly.
AE: Was he your idea?
GS: No, no, originally…
JI: I had been on [Top Chef] a couple of times. Early seasons as a guest judge and we were going back and forth, and as soon as I heard about the show [Just Desserts] I sent emails right away. I was like, “Listen, I’m interested.” They were talking to a bunch of different people and it just worked out. I got lucky enough that they picked me.
GS: They told me … they were casting simultaneously for the contestants and they would bring the contestants in and interview them and they asked every contestant, “What pastry chef do you admire the most?” Or “Whose career do you want to emulate?” And something like 90 percent of them said Johnny Z.
JI: I didn’t know that.
GS: It’s true.
JI: You never told me that. [laughs]
AE: I’m curious Gail, when you look back to the very start of Top Chef, do you sort of look at where you’re at now with your own show, and you guys won an Emmy last year…
GS: Yes we did.
AE: You did, well deserved.
GS: Thank you.
AE: Are you ever sort of amazed at…
AE: At the turn your life took because of Top Chef?
GS: I pinch myself, literally, everyday. I was just talking about it with Tori [the Bravo publicist] last night because I could have never ever imagined or created for myself, even if I wanted to like set a goal for myself ten years ago, I would have never have been able to put myself here.
I’ve worked in the food industry for 15 years, but I never imagined being on television. Not that I was against it, it just was never in my consciousness because 10 or 15 years ago when I first started out cooking, it didn’t exist.
I think back to when I was working at Food & Wine Magazine for seven years, and about a year into my time there the publisher came to me one day and said, “You know Bravo has come to us with this kind of crazy show idea. Would you go do a screen test for them?” and I was like A, I don’t watch reality television. I mean reality television at the time six or seven years ago was…
JI: Like The Bachelor.
GS: Yeah. The Bachelor and Fear Factor, so that was all I could think about in my head was “How am I going to explain to my mother that I’m going to be on a beach in a bikini tied to a tree eating maggots?” You know what I mean?
JI: I would watch that.
GS: Thank you. Well, that’s next season. Or Season Three on Top Chef: Desserts, people. And B, I remember saying to her “I don’t even know what a screen test is. I don’t even know what you’re asking me to do right now.”
I went to 30 Rock and I met with Dave Serwatka, who’s the executive of our show and has been from day one and he put me in a room and put a camera on and we started talking, and when it was over he was like “Okay, thanks! See you later.” And I was like “Okay, that was fun. I’m going to go back to my life.”
And a month later we were shooting our first season in San Francisco and even then I remember talking to Tom [Colicchio] and saying, “Why are you doing this?” And he said, “I don’t know. Why are you doing this?” “I don’t know, maybe we shouldn’t do this. What if it sucks? What if our peers annihilate us? What if no one watches? What if we make fools of ourselves?”
And we learned very quickly that Bravo and the Magical Elves were very serious about making great shows and giving respect to the genre and doing something new and kind of pushing that type of television and making really honest storytelling. We’re very lucky to be a part of it.
JI: What’s crazy is before Top Chef came out they contacted me and said “We’re doing a show called Top Chef and we’d like you to come out and spend a couple of weeks with us.” They wanted me to come out and the commitment was for October and I talked to Jean Georges [Iuzinni's boss at the time], and at the time it was our busy season. He said I can’t let you go for five weeks, but if you quit your job and do this, you can do it.
So we had to say no before we even knew what Top Chef was, before it even came out and it’s funny, years later … now I’m actually on the show again. But [at the time] I walked away from it and said, “No, it sounds silly. I don’t want to be on something like that.”
GS: Yeah, Tom turned it down the first few times they asked him. They were trying to find a host and Tom turned it down. I remember him saying, “What’s in this for me? I don’t understand.” Because we really didn’t understand the scope and the influence that it would have.