Interview with Chef Graham Elliot and Joe Bastianich

MASTERCHEF Godon Ramsay
Graham Elliot and Joe Bastianich. Florian Schneider/FOX
FOX's new culinary competition series, MASTERCHEF, features Michelin-starred chef Gordon Ramsay along with judges restaurateur and wine maker Joe Bastianich, owner of some of the most-celebrated Italian restaurants across the country; and Graham Elliot, the youngest four-star chef in the U.S. and mastermind behind Chicago’s first “bistronomic” restaurant. The premise of MASTERCHEF is to find the best home cook in America.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with Graham Elliot and Joe Bastianich.

When you guys are working together and judging along with Gordon, do your personalities kind of assume certain roles? I know we all have different versions of ourselves. We all have nice guys and harsher people within us and they come out at different times. Do you kind of play off each other, one of you maybe being a little bit nicer when the other one's being a little bit harsh or do you pay any attention at all to what the other judges are doing or saying?

Graham

I think that each of us were brought onto the show because of our personalities, as well as our backgrounds. I don't think anybody had to change their positions or style, if you will, when critiquing based on what somebody else was doing. As you'll see throughout all the episodes, we're pretty consistent in our personalities coming through with our judgment.

Joe

Yes, I think it's apparent that Graham was brought in to coddle the media and I was brought in to cry with the contestants once they're booted off the—no, I'm only kidding.
I think that all of us obviously, yes, it's definitely a trio of different perspectives, and I think it's that kind of chemistry of our different perspectives on what we bring to food and cooking, and how we view it differently and make it fun and interesting. I think that as Graham said, that's what … the show become a very diverging perspectives and opinions, and I think that's what makes it fun for both the contestants and the viewers.
As you guys go up and you taste the various food, and people are obviously trying to impress you with various things, versions of which maybe they're trying to be new to you or whatever, how much time do you guys actually need between dishes to sort of cleanse your pallet, if you will, and be able to try to appreciate the next person? I'm just curious technically, how long do you give yourselves between contestants?

Graham

Yes, I remember that each of those first few days that turned into the first episode that you see were 12+ hours.

Right.

Graham

I know that they all condense it in Hollywood land into these little snippets, but there was a lot of time between one person going and one coming. At least a half an hour I'd say. Okay.

Joe

I don't think that it's such an intellectual process. Good is good, the bad is bad, and it's pretty easy to distill through them to get to what's a valid dish, it doesn't take psychotherapy and green apples to get ready to eat a good one. And as Graham said, the days were long and it requires a lot of serious competition, and we're there to seriously judge these people, so they had to remain focused and you have your eyes on the prize. Between the three of us it was very diligent and actually a very professionally executed competition.
It was a competition.

What makes MasterChef different from the many other cooking competition shows on the television now?

Joe

I think that MasterChef is unique because first of all it's a global brand. I think that it was born as the search for the best amateur in the United Kingdom and then Australia where it became a huge success. I think the search for America's greatest amateur cook done in the style and with the importance and relevance and gravity that the MasterChef brand brings to it certainly puts it on the forefront of being the most important, most well-done show of its kind.

Graham

Yes, I agree with what Joe said. I think that it is a globally recognized show that people know right off the bat and have something to compare it to. But also when you look at some of these other popular shows, they're competitions where you have to have a certain amount of technique and background and understanding of cooking. The idea is you're going to go and run a restaurant or get $100,000 to put towards opening your cooking empire or whatever it is.

And I think in MasterChef, it's people that are not in the business so to say, but people that have different careers, different backgrounds, and are able to let that show through the cooking that they do day in and day out at home with their family and friends. And what we're trying to do is kind of cut through it and be honest and say, “You know what, this is better as a hobby,” or, “That's awesome that you cooked that, but it's not MasterChef quality.” And then really try to find the few hidden gems of, “Wow, this person could actually turn into something really solid.”

These folks are billed as amateur cooks and I'm wondering if you can talk a little bit about the skill level. Did you find that some of these folks needed help really knowing how to chop an onion or are they far beyond that and you're really kind of grooming them in some of the finer points of cooking? If you can talk a little bit about their skill level and what they needed to learn, I'd appreciate that?

Graham

I was more surprised at seeing the regionality of cooking and how people were coming from all these different places from Mississippi to Washington State or New York to LA. We're cooking with things that were very representative of their specific areas. I was much more intrigued by that than by their technical skills. You come up, you cook your dish, we taste it, and we might say, "Yeah, this is pretty good, and we're going to let you go to the next stage."

And then we get to that stage and it's like, "Oh, my gosh, they don't know how to really hold a knife," or they can't cut an onion or they don't realize that when you put something hot in the oven that when you take it out it's going to burn yourself. Just little things that we all take for granted I guess. And that all factors in to are they going to really understand and be able to make it and go forward or is this where they're going to stop?

Joe

I agree with what he said and the regionality of it blew me away. I think that what triumphed over was passion and people who could put a little bit of themselves on the plate, when they were able to communicate through their food that always impressed us. I think that once we got to the final few people, it was a combination of their passion and the ability to put food on a plate in a way that told us something about who you are, with a combination of all those elements that led the people to the final rounds of this competition.

I only watched the first episode and so maybe I'm asking you to go into some future episodes with this question, but did you find yourselves trying to reign in criticism? Did you have to remind yourself that you're kind of dealing with average people, not someone in the kitchen who might be giving you some lip, but people who may not have experienced this kind of competition before or are you just letting people have the full brunt of it?

And Joe, you are so fearsome on that show. It's like every time ... you’re just like, “Whoa.”

Graham

I was just going to say, if this was Joe being nice because they're amateurs, I'd hate to see him on like Top Chef or some other kind of show.

Joe

Right. At the end of the day, it's nice to be nice, but garbage is garbage, and great food is great food. We had a limited amount of time as we were tasting lots of dishes one after another. And something that was just completely wrong or unfounded or without passion or technique or just technically screwed up or in some scenarios dangerous, we just had to like eliminate those dishes. There wasn't a whole lot of time for coddling and handholding and hugs and tears. It was just this is no good, next. There's not a lot to say about it.

Again, we were tasting a lot of food. We are judging a competition. Our goal was to identify America's first best amateur chef, so a lot of it was just getting down to business, tasting food, and distinguishing the good from the bad.

A little bit of business. And then I think that in the future as the episodes and the series progresses, we become more vested and emotional with various people. We get to know them, we can cook, they get to know us. I think more of that comes through later in the show.

Graham

Yes, I think that after day one or two of going through the show I kind of learned that really quickly that we're not going to have time to just hold hands and try to be nice with everybody, but that you do need to be decisive and just say there's no way that this can move forward. You can still do that in a nice way or whatever way you want. It's not like anybody was intentionally trying to be meaner or nicer than usual. But I think like Joe said, once you see something that's greasy and disgusting and horrible, it's like we're not going to spend an hour going over the guys background and his life and why he made that. You're just going to say, that sucks, we got to go.

Joe

With that being said, there were a lot of nice people out there. One day me and Graham are going to take a road trip and go have a beer with every one of them.

Have there been any surprises that occurred during filming that kind of took you by surprise?

Graham

I'll say that the one surprise that I had was it was great when certain contestants that we saw in certain situations that maybe weren't leaders, all of a sudden be put in a position where they had to lead. And everyone was kind of looking to them and kind of anointing them, the head of our group or whatever, and then they had to make decisions and say, "Do this, I need this done like that," and kind of step up.

Those were the most surprising and most rewarding, because I think that just like in a regular restaurant or kitchen or dining room, we're in the "make it happen" business.

And when you see situations arise and somebody jump up and kind of take over, like that to me has a lot to do with what a MasterChef is all about. It's not just being able to cook, but being able to do all these other things.

Joe

I was surprised, and maybe this is just because of where we come from being in the food business, but the true and real emotion and passion that people have surrounding them …. And I guess I should know this, but it was something that I came away with that these people have an incredible amount vested in their cooking and that says a lot about who they are. The successful ones and the less successful ones, it didn't diminish their passion for food. It's just a central and driving point in their lives.

And sometimes maybe a little bit dated from doing this for a living that you forget that there is so much passion for food out there from people who don't make a living doing it.

And that's kind of something that really kind of struck home with me is the amount of amateur cooks that happens with so much intensity, passion, skills, success sometimes, failure other times. But there's a lot of cooking happening in this country and a lot of people take it very seriously, dedicate a lot of time, and they do what they need to do to feed their friends, their families, and it's a way to communicate, to friends and their families. And I think that for our country overall that's a very positive sign of the state of affairs.

I'm wondering, because these are branded as amateur beginner chefs, are you guys and Gordon a little bit nicer to them in terms of how you would usually be treating his contestants?

Graham

I can't speak for Gordon or Joe, I can just say that I dealt with each contestant as I would people that I deal with in my own kitchen. They might be amateurs, but they're still putting themselves up into something that's super serious and has a lot riding on the line as being the first MasterChef from the U.S. with something that again is globally recognized as a brand and a TV show. I wouldn't say that I would be any nicer or meaner on a different show.

Joe

I would say that for me we were asked to come and to judge a contest and at the end of the day yes, there's a TV show around it, yes, it's the quest for first MasterChef, but a lot of it came down to just kind of getting down to business. We went from tens of thousands, to thousands, to hundreds, to ninety, fifty, and there's a lot of food to be eaten, a lot of decisions to be made. And it was all kind of about getting down to business and the real task at hand, both trying to figure out who is America's first MasterChef.

And that just kind of dictated, at times it became a little bit like work for me. Whose got talent, whose got passion, what can we put on the plate, what sells, what's worth our time, and what's not? When I realized that there was so much to do, it kind of became a little bit like all about business and maybe that would dictate that we were professional.

In my perspective, I was professional. We brought them into a professional situation where I was kind of treating them like I treat line cooks and managers and people who work for me. We expected high performance, we expected quality, and they either delivered it or they didn't.

For people who are watching Top Chef right now, what would be your pitch to have them watch your show instead?

Joe

Well of course that me and Graham and our friend Gordon are hosting it is the main reason they should watch. A much, much better looking group of guys anyway. No, I would say that it's bigger, badder, realer, more nationwide. It's prime time, its network, it's the real deal, it's American … It's a big production, it's hugely entertaining. It is produced with an incredible amount of resource, attention and it is a global phenomenon in many countries before it's even reached here and it's the best of its kind. So why watch anything less?

Graham

I would tell people that while we do have a great foodie culture in the country as far as restaurants and the like, when you think about it, how many people really do relate to liquid nitrogen and cryovac machines and that kind of stuff; as opposed to somebody cooking catfish tacos from Mississippi or somebody doing some kind of bullion based inspired by seafood in New England. This is stuff that people cook at home and at the end of the day everybody eats.

Joe

I agree with Graham, it's more real for the average viewer across the country. They can relate to it. Maybe they could be a contestant next year. To be Top Chef Masters, you have to own restaurants. It's like it's out of the realm of most people, so it just becomes entertainment. This is reality and it's a reality that you could participate in if you wanted to.

This question is actually for Graham. What's your reaction of being compared to Paula Abdul?

Graham

I used to be a huge Paula Abdul fan back in the late '80s, so I think it's great, but not musically. But I guess I think that that's fine. People are going to make whatever comparisons they want and I think at the end of the day I don't go into judging anybody or any competition or contestant with that in mind, like I've got to be the Paula, I've got to be overly nice or overly this. I think that that's just for the most part who I am.

I think I'm a pretty nice guy. I want people to succeed. I try to inspire and be creative and whatever else it is.

So I'm fine with anybody wanting to compare me to anyone and everyone. At the end of the day I live with myself and I'm cool with that.

I was just curious how you guys feel about when you see all these different contestants come in and they have all these different jobs that they've done and a lot of this is a passion that they've had their whole life, and they've suddenly decided I'm going to go for it. Is that more inspiring to you when you're dealing with them as contestants and as people or as opposed to somebody like a French gentleman who was born and the doctor hit him on the butt with spatula and they've been cooking their whole entire life? How do you guys feel about those kinds of chefs?

Joe

I think it's inspired like it's kind of our way these days to say like FU to the man, like to turn around, to turn your life around from what's the drudgery of the job that you hate and the rut that you're in, and food is like in the '60s. It may have been Bob Dillon and reefer and now it's ceviche and risotto. It's a way of turning your personal passion and who you are into a reality in kind of a way and people taking that leap and trying to reach out for a dream.

Because at the end of the day your life is your life … and if you really love food, if you're talented, if you can give to others in that way, to not ever give it a shot, it's probably the saddest thing that could ever happen to anybody. So … young inspiring cooks who have passion passion. They see MasterChef as a way of liberation, freeing themselves of the monotony and grind and everything that they hate about their lives, and about bringing what they have passion for into their lives.

I applaud it, I'm inspired by it.

I feel like … luckiest person in the world, because every day I can make a living doing what I love to do, which is getting food and hospitality for people. I think it's one of the really wonderful elements of the MasterChef. It's a chance to go out there and to really do something incredible in the culinary world and let America know who you are and what you can cook and show america a little a piece of you.

You mentioned a couple questions back, the great foodie culture in America and all these great restaurants and obviously the country’s full of that, but then there's also the stereotype of fast food nation and all of these sort of unhealthy things going on. I'm wondering either what you discovered or what you hope viewers will discover about the state of American kitchens and maybe what some of the repercussions of a show like this can be?

Joe

Let me tell you, I think that the MasterChef is a great state for America … things that are happening in all these home kitchens all over the country. We're really seeing from California to Oregon, to Boston to Florida, to Mississippi what the state of people's passion for food are and how incredibly versatile and regional and how passionate people are … cooking and making it a part of their lives. I think that again on a major scale MasterChef will give a shout out to the whole country of where we stand as a foodie nation, and really how far we've come and how important food is to us.

And of course, yes, we have our history and we still struggle with processed food and the whole fast food nation, but I think that that's quickly changing, and I think it's kind of siphoning through the ranks, and I think every day we become more of a true food nation.

And I think that MasterChef in a big way will kind of be able to broadcast that for everyone to hear.

Graham

I can say that it was amazing to see that cooking was alive and well in this country. Even if not as a career in I want to run a restaurant or I want to have a TV show and be a famous chef, just everyday people from 20-years old to 60 coming in and saying, “I do this day in and day out. I cook at home for my family. I cook as a hobby. It's what I love to do. You guys are the pros. You tell me if you think I have what it takes to earn this title of MasterChef.” But being able to sit back and say, “... we've got people from everywhere in this country able to cook something,” and they do it, not because they're paid to, but this is just what they love, that was great, that was awesome to see.