Top Chef returns to California for season 13, and the repeat location will take fans back to the competition’s first installment in more ways than one. “It brings us back to Fleur de Lys,” judge Gail Simmons tells EW, referring to Hubert Keller’s restaurant that the chefs cooked at in season 1’s initial Quickfire Challenge. “The chefs end in San Francisco cooking for the last meal that will probably ever be served at Fleur de Lys, in its current incarnation anyway. It’s very nostalgic.”
While episode 1 takes place in Los Angeles, as Simmons suggests, this season takes the cheftestants throughout the Golden State. “The biggest twist was they had no idea they were going to travel every week,” host Padma Lakshmi reveals to EW. “We come into the kitchen and are like, ‘Okay, pack up.’ But they were really good sports.”
See what else Simmons and Lakshmi have to say about season 13’s contestants, their favorite challenges, and if they’ve ever regretted sending home a chef.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How has California’s culinary scene changed since you were there last?
GAIL SIMMONS: L.A. has changed so much since we first shot there in 2005. I remember being in downtown L.A. for example and when we got there it really felt like a different place than it does now. And just the chefs in general — in 2005 there were so fewer restaurants than there are now at the level they are and the young chefs who have created names for themselves over the last decade is pretty remarkable.
PADMA LAKSHMI: It’s such a great culinary environment just because of the resources. Also California has so many influences like the Hispanic influence and the Asian influence. All of these things come together to make some really interesting and delicious things.
Are there any other locations you’d like to revisit, or new ones you’d suggest?
LAKSHMI: I would go back to Singapore. I had so much fun when we were doing the [season 7] finale there. It’d also be nice to go to Nashville.
SIMMONS: Right now, I think we all need to invest in Paris for a number of reasons. That’s where Western civilization’s culinary foundation started and France would be a dream of mine. Tokyo would be another dream of mine. In terms of the States, I could always go back to New Orleans and Hawaii. I’m from Canada, so I’d love to do a season in Toronto or Montreal.
There are multiple chefs from California this season, do you think they had an advantage because of that?
LAKSHMI: I don’t think it gives them that much of an edge because they don’t know the challenges.
SIMMONS: It doesn’t really matter if you know people or the neighborhoods, that has nothing to do with the food you’re cooking. I think it gives them a little more confidence because they’re in their home state or their home city, but at the end of each challenge it’s just about how good the food tastes and how skilled you are as a chef.
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Did anyone’s résumé impress you before you even tasted their food? Almost every contestant is an executive chef this season, you have multiple James Beard nominees, and even a previous Top Chef contestant.
SIMMONS: The people who impress us are the people that won the challenges. The more experience you have, the better the cooking will be. The better the cooking is going to be, the better you’re going to do. It’s all about experience this year, and across the board everyone’s amazing. [Including] Frances, who’s an executive sous chef, is an executive sous chef at a massive restaurant [Buddakan NYC] that does volumes more than six or seven of the other chefs’ restaurants combined.
LAKSHMI: It really doesn’t matter where someone’s coming from or where they cook. Sometimes you read a résumé and they’ve worked with such great chefs and then you eat their food and you’re like “Wow.” It doesn’t necessarily mean you get food that’s amazing. You’re only as good as your last plate of food on this show.
Because of that mantra, have you guys ever regretted letting someone go who was talented but had one slip-up?
LAKSHMI: There have been times when I’ve felt bad because I do think that a chef is capable of much more, but those who lose all have to play by those rules. I don’t think I can say that I actually had a decision handed down that I’ve felt was wrong, whether I wanted it or not.
SIMMONS: That’s the entire premise of the show. Any of the past challenges don’t matter to me. It’s today and today only. Even if you’ve won the last four challenges in a row, if you screw up today, then you’re out. Because that’s how we all eat, we go to a restaurant and even though I loved it yesterday, if I eat a terrible meal at the same place today, I’m going to walk out with a bad impression and I’m probably not going to go back.
Does this season hold any disagreements among the judges over who should go home?
LAKSHMI: Nothing that stands out in my mind. Even if I don’t like a particular dish, if it’s made in the best way that that particular protein or ingredient can be made, then you have to give it to that chef. That usually brings us to the same conclusion.
From Art Smith to Emeril Lagasse, season 13 has quite an impressive range of guest judges. Who was your favorite to have at the judges’ table with you?
SIMMONS: Max Silvestri, Hugh Acheson (of course), and MC Hammer.
LAKSHMI: I love having Art on the show. He’s always very inspiring to me. As for Emeril, I consider him a returning judge. He may have been sitting in that fourth chair, but he’s kind of like one of us now.
Emeril joins for the first elimination challenge in which the chefs must prepare a dish that represents themselves and where they’re from. Which season 13 challenge is your favorite?
SIMMONS: One challenge that I’m really excited for everyone to watch is when we did a mass gay wedding in Palm Springs. Art Smith was married in Washington a few years ago to his partner of many years in a big mass wedding with 30 or 40 other couples and that’s why we kind of created this. I can’t remember the final total, but it was 20 or 30 couples that we married. We got ordained and performed a real wedding in Palm Springs. That’s something that 10 years ago on Top Chef wasn’t even legal in this country.
LAKSHMI: It was definitely my favorite challenge, too. It was really exciting to be a part of it, getting ordained, writing the vows myself. The challenge was very moving for our whole crew, not just because we’re marrying a bunch of people but because there were members of our crew who had been together for about 20 years, they also got married. Art was renewing his vows in Palm Springs.
SIMMONS: One of the couples that were married that day was Sandee Birdsong and her longtime partner. Sandy was on season 3 of Top Chef, and now she’s our culinary producer. To watch her get married, there was not a dry eye — cast, crew, everyone.
Top Chef season 13 returns with a two-night premiere Wednesday and Thusday at 10 p.m. ET on Bravo.