There's no better time for a cook-off than summer, and the heat is on when Fox's culinary competition "MasterChef" returns May 22. Yahoo! TV sat down with the trio of top tasters — chef Gordon Ramsay, chef Graham Elliot, and Joe Bastianich, a restaurateur and winemaker and son of Italian cuisine queen Lidia — who mentor, host, and judge the show to see what's being served in Season 4.
We've heard the challenges really raise the bar this season. Can you tease a few?
Joe Bastianich: We've got a huge "Glee" crossover. Surfers.
Gordon Ramsay: Firefighters.
Graham Elliot: I loved the woods one. Dropped in the woods is going to be the coolest ever. It is like an episode of "Lost." They are almost eating themselves by the time we're done with them, like the soccer team in the Andes.
Ramsay: They have to choose whether they maintain the dish for us to judge or take a little off for their own dinner because we don't give them food for 24 hours.
Bastianich: It's "MasterChef" meets "Survivor."
Ramsay: We threw them in the deep end and gave them a live wedding. And unknown to the bride and groom, Graham and I also decided to cook to make it more special. We needed the contestants' dishes to match ours. There's no way on earth we'd allow theirs to look substandard because Graham and I would look stupid. We took a page out of "The Voice" book. We were far more hands-on this year than in the past three seasons. We rolled up our sleeves to show them that we are judges for a reason and that we aren't just saying things to hear ourselves talk. We are trying to help them grow.
Elliot: It was put up or shut up time.
Get a behind-the-scenes look at the new season:
And you shoot an episode in Las Vegas.
Bastianich: What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. We have nothing to say.
Ramsay: No, we do. That's one of the most competitive culinary cities in the world and every chef wants to play there. (Alain) Ducasse, (Joël) Robuchon, (Hubert) Keller, Mario (Batali) — you name it, they are all there. Our chefs took over one of my spaces in town and literally had the pressure of Vegas on their shoulders. It was almost crack point for them because they didn't fully understand that this is what real life is like if you want to go full time as a pro chef.
Bastianich: We dare to ask, "What kind of a burger does a stripper really want to eat?" You will find out the answer this season.
Why do you think there such a proliferation of cooking competitions on TV?
Ramsay: Cooking has become the new stay-in activity. The economy has had a lot to do with it in terms of what disposable income we haven't had to spend in restaurants.
Elliot: I think you're seeing the hipster-ization of food. If you don't have the photo, it didn't happen.
Bastianich: Is that a good thing or bad?
Elliot: It can be both. Through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and so on, everyone is taking shots of food, talking about it, writing about it. It's helping others discover the most incredible dim sum in Chinatown in the middle of nowhere. People are sharing their great meal experiences like when they got 20 courses that blew their mind at Gordon Ramsay's. It makes cooks at home start expressing themselves and experimenting more. There is such an exchange of ideas. It's almost a challenge.
Bastianich: This show is an insight into the foodie-ism going on in the country, food trends and what people are cooking regionally.
Has the quality of contestants gotten better as the seasons go on?
Ramsay: A hundred percent. Christine (Ha) raised the bar last year and gave so much hope that was unfound in this competition previously. I think "MasterChef" has helped to make cooking cool. The amateurs are getting better, the competition's getting bigger, and we have to raise our game like never before.
Elliot: You don't just have the 80-year-old grandma making a pecan pie anymore. You have people doing incredibly intricate work and producing food at a totally different level.
Ramsay: We have an NFL player who played in the Super Bowl competing. To see his level of competitive edge through food is quite thrilling. He reached a level in sports that thousands only dream of, but is at the bottom in a new field. Two or three of them have had to ignore their passion for food because of the image their parents have of chefs. People put the lie in their heads that cheffing isn't as glamorous as doing IT or being a lawyer. We have a photographer here who plates food as well as any professional in any of our restaurants. His attention to detail is extraordinary. He has this amazing eye and he cooks like a dream.
Bastianich: We are lucky to gather the best of the best of home cooks here.
Who do you think contestants think is the toughest judge?
Bastianich: Who gives a s---?
Ramsay: Depends on the kind of challenge.
Bastianich: We don't look at it that way though.
Ramsay: No, but it happens with contestants. If it is Italian, they immediately think Joe will be the hardest to please. If it's fine dining, Graham jumps in. We all have over moments.
Even Graham? He seems the most like a teddy bear on the panel.
Elliot: No, I was the one who was really intense and demanding on the wedding challenge. We all invest evenly in contestants and have our own way of pushing, communicating, and coaching. But at the end of the day, all of us are trying to make them better. With Joe, it's the New York thing. "This sucks and you know it. Get out of my face." I don't think I'm the nice guy necessarily, but I just try to say what I would have done.
Ramsay: But they can breathe when you stand in front of them. They don't with Joe and I. They should remember that we have all made more mistakes in this industry than they will ever make. They see us only as successful, but they forget that we were just starting out once too.
Elliot: That's why it gets harder as we go through because they start to understand what we have really done to get here whether it is being raised the way Joe was, Gordon cooking through France or my travels. It's not like we are just three pretty TV faces saying, "We like your food or we don't." We've cooked that dish before. We know how to rest steak and how to carve it and that's how we know if you screwed it up.
Is there an ingredient that makes you cringe when you hear it is part of a dish?
(In unison accompanied by snickers) Truffle oil.
Bastianich: And pine nuts. Those two are the most abused.
Ramsay: I swear to God truffle oil is the worst though, and we have eaten more truffle oil than Paris Hilton has had pink bubbles in her mouth.
Bastianich: Are you going on about her knickers again?
Ramsay: I meant Champagne. Christ almighty. I don't talk about Paris Hilton's knickers.
Elliot: Actually the biggest problem is not an ingredient. Underseasoning is the biggest issue. In four years, I don't think any of us have ever said, "This is too salty." No one has been in danger of overseasoning.
Ramsay: We want to crown someone King of Salt. "Congratulations, you did it. You seasoned it."
Elliot: You are the next MasterSalter.
On the flip side, is there a dish or ingredient that gets them closer to a white apron?
Bastianich: Graham, isn't yours chocolate?
Elliot: I like chocolate, but I'm not a big pastry person even though I probably look like it. I love seeing seafood, especially if it is properly cooked, handled, and shown respect too. I can't wait to try that kind of stuff.
Bastianich: I am a sucker for pasta. We see it a lot and often it is mediocre, but if you do it right, man, it will always win me over.
Elliot: Just don't give him risotto though. You're not gonna win with that. Never ever.
Ramsay: Mine would be lamb shanks, pork butt, cheap cuts, because it is reminiscent of growing up. We had little to work with, but it forced me to get creative. Cheap cuts glamorized into something delicious.
Elliot: And curry.
Ramsay: True, it's the nation's favorite dish in the U.K. That's the reason I went to live in India: became Indian for three months and vegetarian for a week. We've even made Joe a fan of curry now.
Elliot: You should see Gordon's eyes when a good curry is cooking. He starts to smell it and his face lights up.
Ramsay: The only thing is that it makes you smell as well.
Bastianich: It makes you feel like you are in a taxi.
Elliot: Totally New York cab smell.
Gordon, you've been in a war of words with Bobby Flay in recent months. Will you ever settle this like men — in the kitchen with knives?
Bastianich: Oh, I'm gonna leave now.
Elliot: I think the public call-outs are funny.
Ramsay: I would love to do "Iron Chef." Especially after Jamie Oliver got his ass kicked on there and every chef in Britain is like, "C'mon Gordon you gotta go and beat the Americans." I'd love to if I could find the time, but between my restaurants and shows and Bobby's busy schedule, time is not my friend at the moment. And I have my Ironman coming up in October in Kona and I'm not going to sacrifice that. Once I've completed that race on Oct. 12, I'm ready. Tell Bobby to sharpen his knives. I'll be there on the 13th. Let's make it happen. I love Bobby by the way. This has all been in good fun.
The new season of "MasterChef" begins May 22 on Fox.