Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2009 | 4:02 p.m.
Since Bravo first announced that the sixth season of Top Chef would take place in the kitchens of Las Vegas, local diners and restaurant employees have been speculating about what the culinary competition will leave in its wake. A new level of acclaim to the city’s already topnotch restaurant scene? Bolstered interest in off-Strip eateries often neglected by visitors?
In the midst of an economic avalanche that has left high-end restaurants around the country scrambling to cook up discounted prix fixe menus, would a little primetime face time for Vegas’ restaurants bring in new business and help them weather the economic storm?
Call it the Top Chef effect; then admit that we’ll just have to wait and see.
However, there’s one thing we can see even before the first episode airs tonight: Top Chef’s Vegas is definitely showing.
Sure, there’ll be plenty of gratuitous Strip shots and poker tables making their way on screen -- we’ve already seen veggies cut like poker chip in the previews -- but according to judges Gail Simmons and Toby Young, Vegas pops up in other less expected places, too.
“For a few seasons we’ve filmed in very humid environments,” Simmons said. Vegas’ desert climate had “an amazing outcome for the cooking,” she added. “It made it easier for baking.”
As far as flavors, Vegas brought a diverse buffet of options to the chef’testants. “I wouldn’t say (Vegas) has its own cuisine the way Chicago does or San Francisco, but it has so many different and diverse elements ...” she continued. “So, the quality of ingredients is incredible.”
The Vegas effect will also be evident in the locations the chefs stage their culinary battles, local joints and Strip kitchens that would make many a chef drool onto his or her whites.
“So many times (the chef’testants) would walk into a kitchen that they were allowed to cook in and say, “This kitchen is 17 times the size of the kitchen back at my restaurant,” Simmons recalled.
And the competitors weren’t the only ones who got a real taste of Vegas.
“My biggest single regret in the four-week season was being taught how to play craps by Tom,” Young laughed. “Tom had this rule whereby he would only gamble with his per diem, and once he’d lost that he’d go to bed. So, I would kind of tag along and gamble along with him, but once I’d lost my per diem I’d sit right there at the table and go on to lose everything else including my shirt.”
The judges hit the tables at the Hard Rock Hotel, M Resort and Venetian while they were in town, and for Simmons, gambling went from a nonstarter to a hobby.
“I totally got the fever,” she said of her new fondness for blackjack. “I now carry a blackjack card in my wallet, cause you just never know where you’ll find yourself.”
When Simmons’ husband arrived during the last week of filming he found his wife an avid card player with a new taste for gin and tonics.
“He was like, ‘When did you start playing blackjack? Who are you and what have you done with my wife?’ ”
Whether or not Top Chef will have the same transformative effect on Vegas as Vegas has on the show, we’ll have to wait and see. But one thing is certain: The city has two new fans, and they’ll definitely be coming back to play.