When news came out that Fox's culinary competition series "MasterChef" was auditioning for its third season, a whopping 30,000 home cooks showed up for casting calls around the country, hoping to make it onto the show for a shot at $250,000. The cast of thousands has been whittled down to 100, and Season 3, which kicks off Monday, will throw plenty of food-focused challenges their way. As usual, TV staple Gordon Ramsay, restaurateur Joe Bastianich, and Chicago chef Graham Elliot will be deciding whose dishes are flops, and which cooks have the culinary chops to keep edging closer to the quarter-million-dollar prize.
The trio talked to Yahoo! TV in an exclusive interview, sharing their thoughts on why amateurs can be better to work with than the pros, the most disgusting dish of all time, how Ramsay feels about his celebrity status, and why, when Victoria Beckham asks for a salad without dressing, you'd better make sure she gets it.
What's the difference between working with home cooks on 'MasterChef' vs. professional chefs?
Ramsay: It's so much more rewarding than it is with professional chefs. There's only so far you can take professional chefs, because it becomes so much more tenacious because of the hunger and the determination beyond belief, because they've found their second calling in life where they are prepared to sort of work twice as hard. This is a natural burning desire.
Elliot: People come in that have a lot of heart and soul who do this because it's their passion. They spend half their paycheck on ingredients and their time off cooking. They're not getting paid to do it. And I think that once you get a taste of press and exposure and your name in the paper and things like that, you start believing it all and then it's a whole 'nother ballgame. So, it's a more genuine style that they bring to the table, more earnest cooking.
Bastianich: There are advantages [to being a home cook]. I mean, they're not quite as jaded in their vision and passion. And we see that people with a real passion for what they do deliver incredible food, even surpassing that of professional chefs because they just really believe in what they do.
How do you guys get along?
Bastianich: We have a great time. Well, I mean after 13 and 18-hour days, I'm ready to chop both of their heads off, but aside from that, it's great.
Elliot: We're really cool. And Gordon, above all, has really taken me under his wing and showed me how you can still be a chef, still run your restaurant, and be able to teach through television.
Gordon has a reputation for having a short temper, thanks in part to all that yelling and swearing he does on 'Hell's Kitchen.' Do you see a different Gordon here?
Elliot: It depends on the situation. On a show where the chefs are competing for a chef's job, he's going to push them differently than a home cook. This is Gordon, the husband and father that you see on the show. He really does have a softer touch and he emotionally bonds with people, and he really at the end of the day is a great, energetic coach. If he yells, it's because he cares more than the person actually making the dish.
What's new this season?
Bastianich: Bigger challenges. This year, we're going to be doing some restaurant takeovers, we have some three-star Michelin chefs coming to judge food for us, food trucks. The challenges get more intricate and more high-stakes, and so, overall it's pretty exciting.
One of this season's contestants, Christine, is blind. What have you learned from her?
Ramsay: That lady has an extraordinary palate, a palate of incredible finesse. She picks up hot ingredients, touches them, and she thinks about this image on the plate. She has the most disciplined execution on a plate that we've ever seen. But the palate is where it's just extraordinary. And honestly, I know chefs with Michelin stars that don't have palates like hers. So she's pretty unique.
What's the biggest mistake you've seen contestants make?
Bastianich: The one thing that these cooks are often guilty of is they don't season properly, which is a big, big amateur mistake.
Elliot: You'll see people spend an hour slaving over a dish, making something beautiful. All this technique, and there's no salt and no pepper. No lemon or acid. It's just flat. It's so disappointing.
Get to know the "MasterChef" judges better with this behind-the-scenes clip:
A lot of contestants focus solely on a certain ethnic cuisine. Can that hinder them?
Elliot: Yeah, they have to come out of their comfort zone. And when you get to a soufflé challenge, you're not going to make, you know, jerky soufflé. You know what I mean? So they have to learn to adapt.
Bastianich: In the early stages, it can help you stay afloat, but I think as the competition dwindles, you have to be able to do a little bit of everything to get through it. It can float you in the beginning, but it's not enough to win.
What's the grossest thing a contestant has made over the past few seasons?
Bastianich: We had some python tacos that were really gross. It was so bad.
Elliot: From the first season, there's a dish that we always talk about called funeral potatoes. In Iowa, when someone dies, you make this dish for everyone to eat and share. And it's, you know, a gallon of heavy cream with five pounds of butter and a potato. And it's just like literally he poured it out of a pan, and Gordon said you could run a car on it. It just looked disgusting.
One of this season's challenges involves food trucks. What do you think of the trend?
Elliot: I see it both ways. I mean it really started blossoming with the fall of the economy in a way, so I think it's a great way for rebellious, tattooed young chefs. Everybody is now doing their artistry and craft without having to spend $2 million to open a place and 30 grand a month on rent. So I understand that. But as a restaurateur, I am paying 30 grand a month for rent and taxes and everything else. So a guy pulling up in a truck trying to sell his food next to mine, you know, is going to get his tires slashed.
Gordon, you started in the restaurant business and now you're extremely famous. What are the cons that come with being a celebrity?
Ramsay: I hate that word "celebrity." I know that it comes with the territory. I work my ass off, and I keep it incredibly real. And I think, more than anything, I really enjoy it. Do I want to be in front of the stove for another 20 years at the age of 65? Not really, no. I still have one foot in the kitchen and one foot on television. And when I am on television, I like to think that I try to keep it as real as possible. "Hell's Kitchen" is a real restaurant. Fox runs a show, and I run a restaurant. "MasterChef" is about finding talent. And I've been at home nursing talent, so to do it in my own kitchen or to do it on TV is the same thing. And of course I push myself. I don't stand still.
You made headlines last year after you called out a Venice, California, restaurant for refusing to make a substitution for your friend Victoria Beckham.
Ramsay: There was no substitution. She was pregnant at the time. And all it was was an arugula salad with no dressing. Now when a chef thinks that he's far more important than the customer request, you know, it's not a smart move. There was no substitution. Should I tell you some good gossip and really good gossip? I sneaked back in there today for a takeaway, and I had the most amazing sandwich. And do you know what? They've started listening to the customers. When they want a tuna sandwich with no arugula, they do it. So they're doing it to go. Why wouldn't they do it last year when we asked them?
So, you're OK with substitutions in your kitchen?
Ramsay: The customer is king. Let's get that right.
The new season of “MasterChef” premieres Monday, 6/4 at 9 PM on Fox.