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Bravo's Gail Simmons talks 'Top Chef,' California cuisine and latkes

They quake in their clogs when they hear her name. Still, young chefs across America are dying to have Gail Simmons – along with Padma Lakshmi and Tom Colicchio – pass judgment on them in Bravo’s cooking competition “Top Chef.”

In the upcoming 13th season, Orange County restaurateur Amar Santana will compete as the show treks through California. Simmons, the special projects director at Food & Wine magazine, has contributed to cookbooks by chef Daniel Boulud and others. She is the author of “Talking With My Mouth Full,” a memoir, published by Hyperion in 2012.

We caught up with her to get a preview of the new season of “Top Chef” and the recipe for her latkes, just in time for Hanukkah.

Q. Tell us about Season 13. Was it fun to come to California?

A. California is great. I’m definitely East Coast, but I’m here about two months of the year, I have a lot of friends and family in California.

We traveled so much. We weren’t just in L.A. and San Francisco; we were in Palm Springs, Santa Barbara and San Diego. It was a great adventure.

Q. What makes a good contestant? Is it personality, skills, a chef at a turning point?

A. It’s a very equal balance of all those things.

They have to be interesting and have personality and be determined. They have to be exceptional and professional – not amateurs. They’re either executive chefs or sous chefs, and they’re ready to get to the next level. And this is TV, so they have to be fun.

Q. Tell us about Amar Santana, of Broadway by Amar Santana in Laguna and the soon-to-open Vaca in Costa Mesa. Did he make a good chef-testant?

A. He’s fun, and he has a big personality and a big ego in the best sense. He has a strong background and resume. He went out on his own to do his own restaurant, he’s on top of his game and he’s ready to grow. ... He has a great handle on Latin and French cuisine; he’s a great chef.

Q. We saw Rick Moonen (RM Seafood, Las Vegas) at the Newport Beach Wine & Food Festival hugging Shirley Chung (Twenty Eight Restaurant, Irvine). “Top Chef” alums say they make fast friends. True?

A. Even though they’re competitors, they’re the only ones who can understand what they’ve been through.

It’s incredible to see how close they are by the end of the season ... Win or lose, we’ve created this brotherhood and sisterhood.

Q. How has “Top Chef” made its mark?

A. It’s really changed the face of restaurants in America. There are over 100 restaurants opening in the states, and no question that they would have not opened had it not been for the show.

Q. Thanks for the preview! Now let’s talk latkes.

A. This is a recipe my mom made every single year, and now I’m making it for my daughter. I hope she’ll make it for many years to come.

Q. Cheese grater or food processor?

A. Food processor; it makes a long strand of potato. If you do it on a grater it makes a short strand and they’re packed together and more dense, and that is much more traditional.

Q. Serving suggestions?

A. If I’m serving to kids, I’ll just put out bowls of sour cream and applesauce. If it’s for a cocktail or dinner party, I will put creme fraiche or smoked salmon or caviar on them.

Q. Your latkes are perfectly golden. What’s the secret?

A. Make sure there’s a quarter inch of oil in the pan; they will soak it up, so keep adding it between batches. And you can’t put potato batter in if the oil’s not hot or it’ll get absorbed and the latkes won’t brown. And don’t be tempted to keep flipping. You’ll know it’s ready when the edges are nice and brown. Flip it once.

Q. Any special holiday memories?

A. My memory of Hanukkah was of my mom having a big party and she would cook latkes a week in advance – batches and batches – and then freeze them and thaw and reheat them in the oven.

The week before the party the whole house would smell delicious, and my brother would eat as many as he could and she would be furious.

Renée’s latkes

Yield: About 40 latkes

3 1/2 pounds baking potatoes, peeled and halved

1 large yellow onion, cut into 8 wedges

1/2 cup all-purpose flour

2 eggs, lightly beaten

2 tablespoons chopped dill

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1/4 teaspoon baking powder

Canola oil, for frying


1. Set a large strainer over a bowl. In a food processor fitted with shredding disc, shred potatoes and onion in batches. Add each batch to the strainer and let stand for 5 minutes, then squeeze dry. Pour off and discard all of the liquid in the bowl, then add shredded potatoes. Stir in flour, eggs, dill, salt and baking powder. Scrape mixture back into the strainer and set it over a bowl; let stand for 5 minutes. Discard liquid.

2. In a very large skillet, heat 1/4 inch of canola oil until shimmering (very hot, nearly at the smoking point). Spoon 2 tablespoons potato mixture into canola oil for each latke, pressing slightly to flatten. Fry over moderate heat, turning once, until latkes are golden and crisp on both sides, about 7 minutes. Drain latkes on a baking sheet lined with paper towels. Serve with applesauce, sour cream or smoked salmon and a dollop of creme fraiche.

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