Culinary Kings-Turned TV Judges Cook Up Verdicts on Gordon Ramsay-Hosted MasterChef

Chef Graham Elliot and Restaurateur Joe Bastianich join fiery TV chef to name a new culinary master.

In the new television series MasterChef, premiering July 27 on Fox, four-star chef Graham Elliot and restaurateur and wine maker Joe Bastianich will sit at the judge’s table beside famous chef and fiery host Gordon Ramsay, evaluating amateur cooks competing for the title of culinary master. (The winner will also receive a quarter of a million dollars and a cookbook publishing deal.) Based on the U.K. and Australian hit series, MasterChef promises to be a whirlwind of challenges that will test each contestant’s palate, food knowledge, and cooking skills. In addition to serving as judges, Elliot and Bastianich will coach contestants as they pursue culinary victory. Bastianich is a co-author of Vino Italiano and, with his business partner Mario Batali, he has established several world-class Italian restaurants in New York and Los Angeles. Elliot, also a restaurant owner, was named Best New Chef in 2004 by Food & Wine magazine. With excitement mounting as the show’s premiere neared, Bastianich and Elliot described their decision to do the show, working alongside high-energy Gordon Ramsay, and what their last meals would be.

WHY DID YOU DECIDE TO DO MASTERCHEF?

JOE BASTIANICH: Doing the show was a no-brainer. Identifying culinary talent is what I do every day, and getting to join Gordon and the MC crew was an honor I could not pass up.

GRAHAM ELLIOT: Doing the show was a great opportunity to teach and inspire everyday cooks, and allow American television viewers to see that cooking is alive and well in this country.

WHAT WAS YOUR FAVORITE MOMENT OF THE SHOW?

BASTIANICH: Most of the great moments centered on contestants rising to the occasion. A 27-year-old vegan of Hindu descent—who had never eaten anything that was a byproduct of a living creature—murdered, cooked, and ate a ferocious crab about the size of a small dog!

WHAT WAS IT LIKE WORKING WITH GORDON RAMSAY?

BASTIANICH: Working with Gordon was a pleasure and an education. This guy is intensity; he never stops. But it’s that energy and directed momentum that make all his shows great. Forget about acting—this is the real deal, and the best thing about Gordon is that he goes to extremes to “keep it real,” and it shows in the finished product.

WHAT QUINTESSENTIAL MEAL SHOULD EVERY HOME COOK KNOW HOW TO MAKE WELL?

BASTIANICH: Every accomplished home cook needs to be able to conceptualize and execute a complete dinner party. This requires not only cooking skills but menu-planning smarts. From the hors d'oeuvres to multiple courses, they should all complement each other and involve several techniques, such as a braised or roasted protein as an entrée and some sort of pasta as a mid course. Perhaps you could exhibit some sauté skills in an appetizer course. A stunning dessert will send dinner guests reeling, yet it can be the most challenging course due to the complexity and science of baking, and pastry skills in general.

ELLIOT: Steak and potatoes—something that allows you to show your skill by perfectly hitting the medium rare temperature on your steak and serving it alongside the silkiest mashed potatoes.

GRAHAM, YOU ARE THE MASTERMIND BEHIND CHICAGO’S FIRST “BISTRONOMIC” RESTAURANT. WHAT, EXACTLY, IS BISTRONOMIC?

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ELLIOT: Bistronomic would be the marriage of two different restaurant styles—fine dining and casual. We took the word “Bistro” and added it onto “Gastronomic” to define what we do [at his restaurant Graham Elliot], which is to serve super-creative food in a casual atmosphere.

JOE, ONE OF YOUR RESTAURANTS, DEL POSTO, OFFERS A 100-LAYER LASAGNE, CARVED TABLESIDE. WHAT WAS THE THINKING BEHIND THAT?

BASTIANICH: Aside from hospitality and delicious food, our job is to entertain people. Restaurants should make people feel special, excited and fulfilled. And 100 layers of lasagna at Del Posto is the most delicious pasta known to mankind! I’m serious—this dish will change your life!

GRAHAM, AS THE YOUNGEST FOUR-STAR CHEF IN AMERICA, WHAT MADE YOU WANT TO GET IN THE KITCHEN IN THE FIRST PLACE?

ELLIOT: My dad was in the Navy, so we moved around a lot. That led to me seeing myriad cultures and cuisines. I have been excited about eating and cooking for as long as I can remember.

ON MASTERCHEF, WHICH ONE OF YOU IS THE TOUGHER JUDGE?

BASTIANICH: It may appear to the viewer that our critiques are harsh and insensitive…but what appears to be nasty is generally tough love that we dispense as a result of a disappointing or poor performance. As a judge, you become invested in these contestants and you honestly want them to excel! As I told every contestant through the months of the competition, we all rise and fall together!

ELLIOT: I think Gordon is the technician, Joe is the critic, and I’m the “Paula” [Abdul].

IF YOU WERE ON DEATH ROW, WHAT WOULD YOU ORDER FOR YOUR LAST MEAL?

BASTIANICH: Although I love all the great foods of the world, my death row meal would have to be cooked for me by my mother and grandmother (they live together and this happens on most Sundays). The dishes would be simple: fried calamari, a lobster risotto, roasted chicken with onions and potatoes, braised sauerkraut with smoked pork ribs, and Baccala alla Vicentina. More than satisfy our hunger, these dishes nurture the soul.

ELLIOT: I like to cook seafood, as it’s delicate and sexy, and I love Thai food and sushi. For my death row meal, though, it would have to be a “Scrapple Sandwich with a Fried Egg, American Cheese on Untoasted White Bread”...white trash but delicious.

Masterchef premieres Tuesday, July 27 on Fox. Until then, test your own culinary skills with recipes provided by Graham Elliot and Joe Bastianich, below—each in their own style, of course.

ELLIOT: Tomatoes, basil, mozzarella, olive oil, sea salt—enough said.

BASTIANICH: Pasta a la Norma

Ingredients:

Pomodoro sauce (recipe below) 1 medium eggplant Flour (enough to dust the cut-up eggplant) 2 garlic cloves Olive oil (enough for sautéing) 1 medium onion, thinly sliced 1 lb. rigatoni or other dried pasta 4 Tbsp ricotta cheese Salt and pepper to taste

Prepare pomodoro sauce (recipe below). While it simmers on low heat in a saucepan, remove the skin from the eggplant. Cut eggplant into one-inch cubes. Sprinkle with salt and place on paper towels to allow some of the bitter liquid of the eggplant to drain out. Dust the eggplant cubes with flour. Heat oil in a saucepan. Crush two garlic cloves with the heel of your hand. Add to the oil and sauté until golden brown. Add the eggplant cubes. Sauté at medium heat, turning frequently to brown all sides of the cubes. The eggplant should be crisp and brown on the outside and tender on the inside. Remove and place on paper towels to allow the oil to drain. In the same pan, sauté sliced onion in oil until tender. Add to the pomodoro sauce. Salt and pepper to taste.

Boil pasta. While it cooks, add eggplant cubes to the pomodoro sauce and heat. Two minutes before the pasta is done, remove from water and add to the eggplant and pomodoro sauce. Add a little pasta water if necessary to keep the sauce liquid. Cook until the pasta is tender. Serve with a dollop of ricotta cheese.

Pomodoro Sauce

Ingredients:

Six garlic cloves crushed 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil 1 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper salt (around a teaspoon, but to taste) 1 teaspoon of Sicilian (or not) oregano Three 16-ounce cans of peeled whole plum or cherry tomatoes

Heat oil in a saucepan on medium heat. Crush two garlic cloves with the heel of your hand. Add to olive oil and sauté until golden brown. While the garlic browns, pour the tomatoes into a bowl. Squeeze with your hands to break them up. Once the garlic is browned, add tomatoes and their juice to the saucepan with the garlic. Simmer over low heat for 45 minutes, adding water to keep the sauce from becoming too thick. Pomodoro sauce should be a rich red color. If it turns brick red, it’s too thick. Salt and pepper to taste.