Judges for Top Chef season 6, Toby Young, Padma Lakshmi, Tom Colicchio and Gail Simmons
Photo: Justin Stephens
Oscar®-winning actress Kate Winslet told Harper's Bazaar she's obsessed. Neil Patrick Harris, Zooey Deschanel and the Foo Fighters couldn't stay away. Even Luisa Acevedo Vilá, the first lady of Puerto Rico, lent her palate.

The show that has everyone salivating is Bravo's hit reality series Top Chef . This culinary competition—now in its sixth season—challenges chefs to braise, roast and barbecue their way to the final showdown. To advance to the next round, competitors must please a panel of judges, which includes a rotating cast of accomplished chefs, celebrities, professional athletes and dignitaries.

Over the past five seasons, Gail Simmons, a culinary school grad, food critic and special projects manager for Food & Wine magazine, has become a fixture at the judges' table. Alongside host Padma Lakshmi , British food critic Toby Young and head judge Tom Colicchio, Gail has sampled everything from seared quail breast to soggy corn dogs.

To keep Top Chef fresh, Gail says each season is filmed in a different foodie destination—San Francisco, Los Angeles, Miami, Chicago, New York City and, most recently, Las Vegas. "The city always plays a role—its cuisine, its culture, its locations, and obviously, its guest judges," she says.

Vegas is no exception. Though Sin City isn't known for a specific cuisine, it has defining characteristics that Top Chef producers worked into the competition. "The element of gambling plays a huge role in the show, more than ever before," Gail says. "Not just that the chefs are taking a gamble by being on the show, but quite literally, there are moments when the chefs have to gamble, and there's a lot of money at stake. It's a twist on the show, which is really fun and definitely ups the ante…no pun intended."
The competitors and judges for Top Chef season 6
Photo: Justin Stephens
Before joining the ranks at Food & Wine and Top Chef , Gail worked alongside culinary giants like critic Jeffrey Steingarten and chefs Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Daniel Boulud, both of whom have restaurants in Las Vegas. Gail says the number of world-renowned chefs who set up shop in Vegas also sets this city apart.

"Every major chef in the world, pretty much, has a restaurant in Las Vegas, so our judging talent is over the top," she says. "If you don't have a restaurant there, you have a show. You've been there, you party there, you play there. There's the amalgamation of so many different industries that all come to Las Vegas to be at the top of the world."

Since Top Chef premiered in 2006, Gail says the series has become more legitimized and respected by industry insiders. Season 1 winner Harold Dieterle went on to open Perilla , a Zagat-rated restaurant in New York's Greenwich Village, in 2007, while other Top Chef champs have restaurants in the works.

Now, competitors know what's at stake. "Every year the bar gets raised," Gail says. "Every year the food gets better, the talent pool gets wider."

Gail says Season 6 features the most talented group of chefs yet. "We've never had this many great chefs cooking all together," she says. "That made our job really difficult, but it made our stomachs very happy."

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