06/16/2010 at 01:00 AM EDT
is bringing something new to the plate this season: French-born chef, Eric Ripert
. And the gig is a promotion for Ripert, who's previously appeared
as a guest judge on the cooking competition. This season (which premieres Wednesday at 9 p.m. EST) he has a regular role, as a recurring judge, when Top Chef
takes the competition to Washington, D.C.
And it's a city he knows well: Ripert was a sous-chef at the Watergate Hotel
in Washington D.C., before opening his New York City eatery Le Bernardin
. Before the big season 7 premiere, Ripert chatted with PEOPLE.com about his new title, his judging style and what it's like cooking for the CIA. What's it like going from an occasional guest on the show to a recurring guest judge?
It’s a little bit different. When you’re the guest, you judge the Quickfire challenge. You have a direct interaction with the candidates. You talk to them a bit and give them tips. When you’re the permanent judge, you basically never interact with them until they present their dish.Do you miss getting to know the contestants on a personal level?
I’m not judging them on their personality. I just judge them on what I see on the plate. It makes it easy for me. It’s amazing. I guess it’s because we use all our senses -… the nose, the tongue, the eye … - so I remember tiny, tiny details about the food. I have a tendency to forget their names, but when we’re talking about the dish, I remember every detail.
Are the challenges this season inspired by the Washington D.C., backdrop?
We shot in the executive dining room of the director of the CIA. That was an amazing experience ... What I remember is that some of the CIA employees were laughing because basically the secret was so well-kept that nobody at the CIA knew that we were shooting. And Top Chef
has a crew of about 100 . But nobody in the CIA knew!Do this season's chefs measure up to last season's?
I wasn’t there last year so I can’t judge. I judge from eating not watching. I wasn’t there to taste their food, but they looked strong. This year testing the food – the contestants are very good.What’s your biggest challenge as a judge?
The biggest challenge is when someone does a dish and it’s not necessarily my taste but it’s very well-executed. Suppose I don’t like coffee and someone gives me a dish with coffee. I will have to judge on the technical aspect and harmony of the dish. I have a very strong philosophy, but I understand when someone has a different vision. I have to judge them on a different level. –Liza Hamm and Alison SchwartzWho's who? Read bios, watch video and get to know all the chefs competing on season 7.Tell us: Are you excited that Top Chef is returning? Will you watch this season?