There’s no shortage of cooking shows that put chefs on a pedestal, with their gastriques, foams and gelees.
But perhaps it’s time to celebrate the most unheralded and hardest-working chef of them all: The home cook.
Chef Gordon Ramsay says “MasterChef” — his newest cooking competition on Fox — will do just that as it plucks 50 amateur cooks from across the country, average folks who have a passion for cooking, but no formal training. And, in the spirit of Fox’s “American Idol,” it’s Ramsay’s job to see if he can find “a little gem” among them, someone who can go to the next level with the right guidance and grooming.
The winner gets a check for $250,000 and his or her own cookbook, and of course, the title of America’s very first “MasterChef.” (“MasterChef” has been a hit elsewhere, including the U.K. and Australia.)
Among those trying out for a coveted spot in the competition: a doctor, who cooks in her spare time because it makes her feel closer to her late mother, and the bartender who wanted to go to cooking school but instead had to get a “real” job to support his wife and their newborn.
“That’s what makes this show so relatable,” Ramsay said during a break in the shooting earlier this year. The tension comes from the contestants themselves, who see “MasterChef” as their last, best chance to make their dreams come true. “These are folks from every walk of life who love to cook, and want to follow that passion and see where it takes them.”
Ramsay dubs the show “Chef Idol” and says audiences will be shocked to discover that some of the best cooking being done in this country is actually being done in home kitchens, not restaurants. “It’s taken us all by surprise, it has been eye-opening.” At one point, the home cooks will face off against some of the most noted chefs in the country, Ramsay said — with surprising results.
“The cooking being done at home now is incredible,” he said, crediting the downturn in the economy with encouraging people to eat at home, as well as a renewed appreciation for hearth and home. Ramsay says “MasterChef” will also give him an opportunity to do what he loves best: cook and teach. “You cannot believe how rewarding it is,” Ramsay said.
That was on display earlier this year while shooting an upcoming challenge that finds the competitors at Camp Pendleton, preparing lunch for a throng of hungry Marines. One contestant was charged with cooking up pounds upon pounds of bacon that would be a component in another dish. After some hand-holding by Ramsay — the bacon needs to fry, not boil, so turn up the heat, was one of his pointers — the bacon was brown and crisp and ready to go. And go it did: The contestant upended the tray. As it crashed to the ground — strips of bacon flying everywhere — the clatter brought the kitchen to a halt.
Ramsay raced around the corner to find out what had gone wrong. And the contestant went white, visibly bracing himself for a tongue-lashing.
But it never came.
“What a waste,” Ramsay said, no anger in his voice, just regret: “It was perfectly cooked.”
What??? No screaming? No throwing of bacon? No calling anyone a “donkey” or a “doughnut”?
“That wouldn’t be fair … you have to keep in mind that these are not professionals,” Ramsay said.
OK. Who kidnapped “Hell’s Kitchen’s” overlord and replaced him with this touch-y, feel-y version of Gordon Ramsay?
Ramsay claims that his hot temper on exhibit in “Hell’s Kitchen” is more the exception than the rule — but you rarely see his calmer side because it doesn’t make for good TV. He said the contestants on “Hell’s Kitchen” can take it, and they volunteer for it, all in a bid to earn a high-paying gig at a restaurant where pressure is part of the job.
The contestants on “MasterChef” are different.
While they can’t be coddled — and indeed, many of the contestants in the first episode who prepare a signature dish for the judges are told in no uncertain terms that their food is inedible garbage — they are not subjected to Ramsay’s full wrath.
But they are nonetheless put through the wringer by Ramsay, who is joined at the judge’s table by restaurateur Joe Bastianich (Mozza, among others) and chef Graham Elliot.
“When you cook under pressure, you create perfection,” Ramsay said.