What does it take to charm Chef Gordon Ramsay into giving you a white apron? A Scottish accent and the audacity to serve up some foul-tasting haggis.
That's how one of the contestants manages to land among the top 18 hopefuls when Season 2 of "MasterChef" returns Monday night with a two-part season opener to choose who will compete for the $250,000 – and the title of the best home cook in America.
The show was such a hit last year that submissions and auditions skyrocketed for this season, and so did the number of professionals trying to sneak their way onto a show that is for amateurs only. Each contestant undergoes a background check to make sure they are not ringers.
"I love the ambition," Ramsay crowed last week. He said viewers will see a marked difference between Season 1 and Season 2: "The cooking is just phenomenal." In fact, he said, the cast was so strong that challenges had to be retooled to better challenge contestants.
Ramsay was so impressed by one man's baking skills — he served up a stunning carrot cake – that Ramsay has already earmarked the recipe for the menu of a new gastropub he plans for Las Vegas. "I said, 'I have to have that recipe before anyone else gets it.'"
Equally grand this time around: The egos. "The standard was so much more arrogant than ever before," he said. "They come in with all the bravado, and feathers up ... and ready to roll. "
The show opens with 100 finalists who must cook the dish of their lives for Ramsay and fellow returning judges chef
and restaurateur Joe "Death Stare" Bastianich. At least two of the three judges must agree before handing out the coveted white aprons that will allow competitors to move to the next stage.
"We saw more of restaurant quality food than 'This is a stew from my grandmother' kind of thing," Elliot said. "We kept looking at each other as we were getting down to the last 5, 10 contestants and saying, 'Jeez, we could hire these people, they could work in our restaurants.'"
In the mix this time around: A surgeon, a fork-lift operator, a tattoo parlor owner, a pool maintenance man, and many, many homemakers. The Scottish woman who earns a white apron from Ramsay (also of Scottish heritage) is a middle-aged real-estate agent.
That cross section paves the way for a rich examination of "American" cuisine, Bastianich said. "This is really a look at the diverse regional bounty of America's cooking style. "
Challenges include being dropped into a
-starred restaurant and taking over the kitchen as well as preparing lunch for workers in downtown Los Angeles. And those challenges get a whole lot tougher this time around because the players get real-time feedback amidst it all — and are expected to respond.
"It adds to the tension and the dissension as well," Elliot said.