'Top Chef: Chicago' Premieres

Hung Huynh and Gail Simmons
"Top Chef" Season 3 Winner; "Top Chef" Judge,
Wednesday, March 12, 2008; 12:00 PM

With Top Chef: Chicago set to premiere, Season 3 winner Hung Huynh and judge Gail Simmons were online Wednesday, March 12 at noon ET to take your questions about the show.

A transcript follows.

Simmons is the special projects editor for Food and Wine magazine. Building on his victory last season, Huynh is the guest chef this month at Solo in New York City.

"Chicago" will be the Bravo show's fourth season. The first episode airs tonight at 10 p.m. ET


Hung Huynh and Gail Simmons: Hung: Hi, this is Hung, Season 3 Top Chef winner! I am spending this month at Solo, a kosher restaurant in New York City, and looking for restaurant spaces.


Hung Huynh and Gail Simmons: Gail: Hi, I'm Gail Simmons from Food and Wine Magazine and I'm a permanent judge on Top Chef, which has its season 4 premiere tonight on Bravo.

Hung: permanent judge? Wow!


Richmond, Va.: Hung, I loved you last season. I felt the skill level you brought was so important to the competition, but you confidence is what really brought the win. Some people thought you were arrogant, but how could someone expect to win if they did not truly believe they were the Top Chef? Did some of your teammates hold a grudge or is everybody okay now?

Hung Huynh and Gail Simmons: Hung: I think everyone is OK now. I've kept in contact with people but it's been so busy. It's all fun and games.

Gail: That's what I loved about working with Hung so much. His food was great, but he never backed down, he never lost his confidence.

Hung: Thanks, Gail!


Silver Spring, Md.: I was so happy that Season 3 of Top Chef brought class back to the show! I watch to marvel at the talent of the cheftestants, and to learn more about food and cooking. I don't watch to see people behave like undisciplined jerks or junior high school bullies like in Season 2. Wish the producers would understand that and not think people are attracted by the "drama."

Hung Huynh and Gail Simmons: Gail: I agree. As a judge we're all about the food and we don't want to deal with children. On the other hand, it's television and these people need to talk and cook at the same time. Just because you're a good chef doesn't mean you're good on TV. Our casting directors have a hard job because they need to make sure the contestants have both. If you like Season 3, you're going to love Season 4. We eat really well in Season 4, and the people are really interesting.


Hung Huynh and Gail Simmons: Hung: For tomorrow night reservations at my restaurant have tripled. I think people want to talk about Top Chef.

Gail: People are craving your food!


Baltimore, Md.: Hung,

Congrats on your success on the show. When people recognize you on the street how many want to talk about food and how many want to know just how gorgeous Padma is in real life?

Hung Huynh and Gail Simmons: Hung: Let's say 70 percent want to know about food and the other 30 want to know about Padma - and Gail!

Gail: Thanks for the shout out!

Hung: I always tell them they are much prettier in person.


Boston: Gail, what are your favorite restaurants in the country?

Hung Huynh and Gail Simmons: Gail: Let me assure you I have not eaten at every restaurant in the country. In Boston, some of my favorites are B and G Oysters, Craigie Street Bistro, Salt, and Radius. This season is set in Chicago. I ate so well there. We ate at North Pond, one of the coziest restaurants in Chicago. Also Sepia. Rick Bayless and Gail Gand's restaurants are excellent.


Silver Spring, Md.: One thing that's always fascinated me about shows like Top Chef and Iron Chef is the ability of a chef to look at an ingredient and know what to do with it. How do you create a sophisticated dish out of an ingredient? Do you taste things in your mind or do you start with techniques that you know will work?

Hung Huynh and Gail Simmons: Hung: I look at the technique and what inspires me, maybe a memory spark, something I ate recently that was great and I want to reproduce it. But technique is huge.


Kalorama, Washington, D.C.: Hung, as a Vietnamese-American, how does Vietnamese cuisine influence your cooking? And what's your favorite Vietnamese dish.

Hung Huynh and Gail Simmons: Hung: Growing up with it, eating it every day. I like how it has fresh herbs and lettuce on every table.

I love the flavor of fish sauce, if I could add it to every dish I could.

My favorite dish would be a soup from Hue, their version of pho but much more spicy.

Gail: Hung, I think I am going to Vietnam on my honeymoon! We need to talk...


Winston-Salem, N.C.: Was Clay really that terrible of a chef?

Hung Huynh and Gail Simmons: Gail: It's hard to say. I ate one dish that he made, and it was not made in his own kitchen, it was made in a short amount of time. You don't get the full experience of a chef on this show. He just failed that challenge. But let me tell you: that dish, NOT good.

Hung: Clay has a lot of passion for what he does. Everyone has bad days. I had quite a few.


Washington, D.C.: Ms. Simmons: It seems like you like to disagree with Padma, is there sister rivalry there?

Hung Huynh and Gail Simmons: Gail: I didn't know I disagreed with Padma! If anything, I do feel like she's sort of my big sister who gets me into trouble. We have a really great friendship. If she wasn't on the set, Tom and I would be bored to death. We all disagree for hours and hours and they only show 3 minutes. We come from very different places in terms of how we approach food, because of that we have different criteria for what we're judging on. She brings the diner's perspective, and I'm more of the critic.


Harrisburg, Pa.: Would either or both of you please provide us with this hint: what are some of the most common mistakes, or perhaps something that most Americans do not realize, when they cook at home? What can most of us do at home to best become better chefs?

Hung Huynh and Gail Simmons: Gail: Seasoning is the most basic thing. Washing your food properly, really cleaning lettuce and mushrooms, buying the best ingredients, tasting at very step. Don't be afraid to get your hands dirty, that's how you learn. Don't make it fussy, the simpler the best.

Hung: Don't be afraid to use salt!


Cubicleville, USA: Gail, who have been your favorite contestants in past seasons? Who are your favorites in the new season -- who should we be watching?

Hung Huynh and Gail Simmons: Gail: I have favorites from all seasons. In the 1st season Tiffani and Lee Anne blew me away. They were such great female chefs and their personality came through in their food.

Season 2, I had a soft spot for Marcel, I really did. He was totally out there. I thought he was misunderstood. He was passionate and I liked that about him.

Season 3, I loved watching Hung. CJ brought such levity. Howie the bulldog! He brightened my day. A really articulate person, that's what surprised me the most about him.

This season, so many funny people. There's a lot of really strong women, it's a very diverse cast. I'm reluctant to name names because I want people to form their own opinion.


Woodbridge, Va.: Gail,

I know the show is called Top Chef, but there are lots of fans who love wine as much as food. Why doesn't wine and a chef's knowledge of wine pairing appear more prominently in the show? Do most chefs really not need to know much about what wine goes best with their food? It would be a great quick-fire challenge to give all the chefs some interesting ingredient and ask them to cook a dish and pair a wine with it.

Hung Huynh and Gail Simmons: Gail: Chefs definitely need to have a knowledge of wine, but you have to walk before you can run. We can't cover too much, it's a cooking show first. It would be too much to do it all...

Hung: I do know about wine, but I don't drink wine that often, I'm a little allergic to it. There was a challenge at the FCI where we had to pair a wine.

Gail: Yes, we did do a wine challenge! We bring it in, we just need to keep our focus.


Lewes, Del.: We are big fans of Top Chef and of just about any other food show. Do you watch other food shows, and if so which ones?

Hung Huynh and Gail Simmons: Hung: I watch Iron Chef! And Anthony Bourdain's show and Andrew Zimmerman.

Gail: I watch both of those as well. They both have adventure travel food shows. Occasionally, as a guilty pleasure I watch Alton Brown. He's very smart and the information is very useful.

Hung: That's a great show.


Washington, D.C.: Hung -

Who do you think was the second best chef from your season? You are the man, by the way.

Hung Huynh and Gail Simmons: Oh thanks. I think Tre had great skills and Casey was great. They really stood out.

Gail: What about Lia?

Hung: I really didn't get a chance to see her. She didn't make it far enough.


Boulder, Colo.: Hi Hung, I enjoyed you so much on last season's "Top Chef." How has winning changed your life (other than moving to NYC)?

Hung Huynh and Gail Simmons: Hung: Every day is super busy. I have 3-4 interviews, photo shoots every other day. I've been doing cooking demos and meet and greets around the country.

I'm actually much more humble. You can't have a big head.

Other than that life's the same.


Washington, D.C.: Any possibility of an All-Star Top Chef season (bringing back folks from previous seasons)?

Hung Huynh and Gail Simmons: Gail: We have done that before, with the Season 1 vs. Season 2 cookoff. And a Christmas special with past contestants. There are lots of chances to bring back old talent and give them a chance to cook.


Washington, D.C. : Gail, how have the competitors changed since the show started? Are you getting more experienced people or are they about the same?

Hung Huynh and Gail Simmons: Gail: Definitely more experienced. The first season we didn't know what format would work best, nor what the audience would demand. This show is about professional cooking and we've been able to raise the bar every season. All the chefs in Season 4 are sous chefs, executive chefs, have their own businesses. As the talent gets better, I eat better! I'm happy to be there.


Washington, D.C.: Gail and Hung - as a judge and winner, what qualities does a "top chef" possess that separates him/her from the rest of the bunch? And since we haven't finalized our menu for tonight's Top Chef viewing, any suggestions for easy but delicious appetizers? Thanks!

Hung Huynh and Gail Simmons: Hung: Top Chefs need to have determination to succeed, don't give up. Like at work today, it's tough! Be a great leader, don't show too much emotions.

Gail: Don't blow up, stay calm, be a leader, and cook from your heart! Appetizers, in keeping with the theme of Chicago: Chicago Dogs, I am never above a good pig in a blanket. Great Chicago pizza, mini pizzas? Keep it local, keep it to Chicago. Chicago knows how to eat.

Hung: Go to Uno's!


Silver Spring, Md.: Gail, do you help come up with the challenges? Who's in charge of those? And Hung, which was your favorite challenge -- or least favorite?

Hung Huynh and Gail Simmons: Gail: I do not. We have culinary producers who come up with them and they are often decided before we get to the set. We often talk through the challenges with the producers and advise if we can.

Hung: My favorite challenge was the FCI challenge and the Le Cirque challenge because we were in professional kitchens and judged by professional chefs, the kinds we want to emulate.


Cleveland Park, Washington, D.C.: Gail -

Please tell me that Anthony Bourdain is going to be a guest judge at some point.

Hung Huynh and Gail Simmons: Gail: Yes, I can tell you that! Confirmed. In Season 4.


Vegetarian: I love Top Chef but I am a vegetarian so it is sometimes hard to find the food appealing! Would you ever consider doing a vegetarian challenge? It would be fun to watch for us vegetarians!

Hung Huynh and Gail Simmons: Gail: I think that's a great idea. There's been a salad challenge and stuff like that. Cooking and preparing vegetables well is more difficult than people think it is.

Hung: I think there should be one. Vegetarian cuisine is a whole thing in itself.


20009: Hung and Gail: Seeing as we're on a Post chat, have either of you been to D.C. recently? What are your thoughts on our restaurant "scene"? Any favorites?

Hung Huynh and Gail Simmons: Hung: I had dinner at Citronelle and it was really interesting food, fun food and classic. Michel Richard is a great chef.

Gail: I haven't been to DC in an absurdly long time but I have friends there and I know there are a lot of up and coming chefs. Like Eric Ziebold at CityZen and Cathal Armstrong at Eve, who have been named Food and Wine Best New Chefs. And Michel Richard, Jose Andres. It's shameful how long it's been.


Washington, D.C.: One thing I find annoying about the show is that people are allowed to cook the same thing, or at least, in the same style, for each challenge, like "sous vide" Hung. Is that fair? Why not say they have to cook not only different things but using different techniques? Like maybe telling Casey to chop an onion, so very very sad.

Hung Huynh and Gail Simmons: Hung: I think the sous vide thing is like using a saute pan, it's just a way of heating up food. It's not an issue, I don't think.

Gail: We do give challenges that require them to do different things, but it depends on their comfort level. We also see their personality come out in the choices they make.


Washington, D.C.: I love Top Chef! Can't wait for the premiere. I was just wondering how the producers pick cities for the location? Was D.C. ever considered. I have lived here for 12 years and it's amazing all the new and excellent restaurants we have now. Plus a ton of type-A gourmand hyper-competitive people -- seems like Top Chef would be great held in D.C.!!

Hung Huynh and Gail Simmons: Gail: We don't choose the cities, it has to do with many factors: schedule, time of year, location for our crew. We have a crew of 60-odd people. D.C. would be great. I'd love to go to New Orleans, so many cities. But it has to do with the ease of production. Hopefully Top Chef will be on a long time and we can make our way around the country.


McLean, Va.: Hi Hung,

Congrats on the win last season. Are you gonna make a guest appearance during this season's competition? I remember season 2 guys made quite a few appearances during season 3.

Hung Huynh and Gail Simmons: Hung: I don't know yet, maybe! It's possible.


Dupont Circle, D.C.: Gail: Congrats on your upcoming marriage! We're all dying to know -- what's on your menu for the big day?

Hung Huynh and Gail Simmons: Gail: Good question! I'm still working on the menu. I have my dress, Carolina Herrera.

I'm working with an old mentor of mine, Chef Daniel Boulud. I don't know the specifics yet but I can promise it's going to be tasty.


Washington, D.C.: Hung,

Who was the most intimidating guest judge to cook for?

Hung Huynh and Gail Simmons: Hung: Anthony Bourdain, and Gail was truly one of them.

Gail: Really? That's fascinating.

Hung: You scared me every time.

Gail: I don't know whether I'm honored or saddened by that.

Hung: You are all about the food. I'm like, Damn, she's tough.

Gail: Now you know I'm all bark and no bite.


D.C.: Just a quick insider question: How much time passes between the challenges that we see each week? Do you get much "downtime" to relax/think during the course of the filming?

Hung Huynh and Gail Simmons: Hung: Only a few hours of downtime. They film all day and we're under stress the whole time. You don't know what's next so you can't prepare yourself.


Philadelphia, Pa.: I have this theory that a talented home cook could do really well on Top Chef now that we can get access to great ingredients and there are so many shows and blogs and groups and lessons for people wanting to cook. A skilled amateur also probably has more time to play in the kitchen than someone working full-time in the business! Are you seeing a lot of home cooks try out? I don't think I saw any in this season's lineup.

Hung Huynh and Gail Simmons: Gail: I don't think a home chef can compete on the same level any more. It's not just, hey, I like to cook. It's: this is what I would do every day even if I wasn't on the show. We want to give chefs the opportunity to live their dream in cooking.


State College, Pa.: Hung: You said that you would use fish sauce in every dish if you could. Are there ingredients that you just look at and have a tough time incorporating or being inspired by? Your aversion to elk late in your season for instance...

Hung Huynh and Gail Simmons: Hung: Elk was all right. I have a hard time with Swiss chard. It's kind of flavorless. I was traumatized by that at Guy Savoy.

Gail: That's like me and pickled ginger. One of my first jobs was in the garde manger position at a restaurant and I had this giant bucket and I had to put my hand in up to my elbow and by the end of the day I was brined! I could never eat it again. It scars you.


Hung Huynh and Gail Simmons: Hung: I can't wait to watch the show tonight! I'm going to run home and laugh my butt off.

Gail: Are you ready to hand over your tiara?

Hung: No, I'm not!

Gail: Hung's going to be around a long time.

This concludes today's discussion.


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