Graham Elliot is a busy man. He has been the culinary director for Lollapalooza for the past seven years. He wrote his first cookbook, Cooking Like a Master Chef, which is coming out later this October. His all-new show, Craziest Restaurants in America, just debuted on Food Network. And aside from running his Chicago restaurant, Graham Elliot Bistro, the 38-year-old chef can also be found co-hosting the mega-hit reality cooking competition shows MasterChef and MasterChef Jr. on Fox, where he, alongside fellow judges Gordon Ramsay and Christina Tosi, puts ordinary home cooks through a variety of grueling culinary challenges every week. We were able to chat with Elliot and talk to him about a variety of topics, including how involved he is with coming up with challenges for the contestants on MasterChef, how he engages with fans on social media, and his foreseeable future with the show.
You and Gordon Ramsay have a new co-host, Christina Tosi. After filming the show for so many years alongside Joe Bastianich, what was that first day of filming with her like?
What’s funny is, Gordon and I have done this for so many years and we had Joe the entire time. So we thought, “Ok, how do we change the dynamic?” Not for the show’s sake, but for all of us and making sure it’s a good fit. Christina came in with an amazing background and you always wonder how it’s going to be—it’s like getting a new member in a band. And immediately, literally, within the first five minutes, we were all laughing and it seemed like we had known each other for years. So, it was a no-brainer. From the first day of filming, just being able to get a whole new perspective on baking, but also just a fresh set of eyes and input into what we did. I think it was a great call. I don’t think anybody could be happier.
Every episode features a mystery box that contains a secret ingredient. How involved are you with the selection of the box’s contents?
We’re constantly discussing challenges, what we want to do, what we need to do. And a lot of it also depends on how good these contestants are, especially when you do MasterChef Jr. You might say, “Well, let’s do this for the mystery box.” And then you see how they are so advanced that it’s like, “Ok, some of these challenges we are thinking of are way too easy.” Then we got to go back and fix it.
Every season, there’s always a contestant that has a disadvantage. Someone might be a vegetarian or they can’t eat a certain protein because of a religious belief, but they have to cook with whatever curveball ingredient they’re given. Do you ever find yourself in the same shoes as some of these contestants?
There’s no ingredient that I cannot work with, whether it’s religious reasons, allergies, or anything else. I always greatly respect the ingredient. So even if it’s something like a carrot. I think of the farmer who planted the seeds, who grew and watered this carrot, and then harvested it and brought it to the market. I’m going to grab it, cook it with just as much love and give it to somebody to cling to their mouth and use it as sustenance and joy. So there’s a huge spiritual aspect to it.
I’ve always used the food and music analogies. I can listen to The Beach Boys or The Beatles and tap my foot to every song because it’s so poppy and great. And then listen to opera. Now, I’m not an opera fan, but I can completely respect it for the notes that they can hit or the message they can get across. So it’s similar to food. I’m not a fan of licorice or I don’t really drink, so if there’s dishes paired with certain alcohols, I’ll still try it and I’ll totally get the idea like, “Well, the heat from this is supposed to pair well with that and cut through this richness.” I get just as much pleasure understanding the story behind the dish as opposed to what my mouth is telling me.
Some of these contestants often stumble on what might be seen as a simple or easy ingredient, like an egg. What simple ingredient do you think has been the most deceptive and challenging test so far?
The hardest thing to do is to make something simple really delicious, like an egg or something like a carrot. Everyone will just steam or roast them or whatever—but can you perfectly peel, cut them and glaze them with a tiny amount of butter and the right amount of stock and sugar? So when you give them something like our last mystery box, here’s some rice—there are 20 different kinds. You see everyone just throw it in the rice cooker, because it’s what they know and they make a dish with a big ball of rice on it versus, “I’m going to grind it up and crust something with it, or I’m going to soak it this way.” I think that that’s what we as chefs are really looking for. But we also have to realize that these are home cooks, it’s not like Master Professional Chef, where we’re bringing in these guys to make restaurant quality food, but they do need to have an understanding of how cooking and food actually works.
On MasterChef Jr., you and Gordon have often told some of these kid contestants that their cooking is just as good as the adults and that some of their stuff is restaurant quality. Do you think we’ll ever see a MasterChef vs. MasterChef Jr. spin-off and that some of the kids might stand a chance?
You know, I think we’ve talked about it, maybe as a special or something where we bring some of the winners back to compete. Honestly, we go into MasterChef Jr. thinking these kids are talented and that it’ll be really fun. But look at the level they’re at—Alexander, who was the first season winner, he stops in my restaurant and was working the hot app station and could absolutely be running a kitchen probably by age 17. We had an 8-year-old this year that wants to go and do the Bocuse d’Or. And it’s like, “Well, you have 10 years until you’re even eligible to try out.” Things like that, that you just would never think kids would be into. It’s really, really cool, and I hope we have a hand in some of that.
You guys have a huge following on social media. Do you like to read fan comments about the show on Facebook or Twitter?
I do every one of my own Tweets. I live Tweet almost every single episode. I’ll try to get a dialogue going but then answer everybody at the same time. But I’ll flip back onto another app and watch what everyone is hash-tagging and saying. I feel like I get a really great idea of what people are saying—people really didn’t like this, they absolutely connected with this challenge—I feel it’s great to see that kind of feedback. You can filter it as well and know what’s opinionated versus what it maybe a little more factual. Like if you read Yelp, ten people might say they like this dish, they like that dish, but if you see twenty people say, “I had to wait half an hour for my drink,” then clearly that’s something you need to go back and fix. I think it’s really interesting to have a connection and be able to do that.
In a recent Q&A, Gordon Ramsay told Bon Appétit that gluten-free, paleo diet and veganism were all a “pain in the ass.” Do you try to accommodate all the diet crazes at your restaurant?
You know, I think that whether or not you call them a fad or something trendy, it’s still here. You need to learn to adapt. Who knows if it’ll change, but really with our menu, I have one restaurant that maybe does maybe one-hundred people per night, we’re doing the food that we do, but of course we can accommodate things. But I think if I was having ten-thousand people a day, then that’s when you have to put ten-thousand things on the menu. Luckily, I’m not in that spot. We play to a captive audience that kind of knows what we’re all about. 99 percent of the people order from the menu as is and if there is some kind of “I can’t have this, can I do this instead?” it’s like, “Yea, of course.” I don’t judge that whereas maybe I used to. I used to have the ego—whatever I say goes and this is my deal. But my diet has changed as well. I try to eat a lot healthier, a lot more protein and grains. That whole paleo idea is something I think we as chefs have done for a long time, but maybe not labeling it as such.
What’s it like when you’re the customer and you want to go out and have a nice sit down meal? I would imagine since you’re on a hit cooking show, people instantly recognize you, chefs get nervous or restaurant managers might ask for your opinion on their food all the time.
I guess a couple of things. One is that the only real issue you ever get is, as chefs, we love to show what we can do. So a restaurant manager or chef will send out a lot of extra things. But, how can you say that that’s a bad problem? Its like, “Poor you, your life is so hard that you get a bunch of extra free food.” The other thing is, 9 out of 10 people recognize me because of my white-framed glasses. So if I take them off, put on contacts or wear a hat—no one knows me. If I take my kids to a Cubs game I can always do that, it’s like the reverse Clark Kent kind of thing. But for the most part, I love that people know me and want to say hi or want to take a picture. I love baseball and I remember being a kid and waiting for hours trying to try and get an autograph and most of the time, they didn’t have time for you. So if I’m running late for a flight or I’m out with my kids, I don’t think I’ve ever once refused taking a picture with someone. I’ll stop and do that. Because I think if you don’t, then they’ll go and think about that for a long time and tell people, “Yea, he didn’t do this. He blew me off. I don’t like that guy.” Its part of the deal, you know?
Do you have a guilty pleasure food?
I love ice cream and I love Cheez-Its [laughs]. Those are my two guilty pleasures. Obviously everything in moderation. I’m trying to think of some other things. String cheese. Things if you saw in my fridge, you’d be like, “Really?” But you got to be honest.
Do you watch other cooking shows or Food Network on your spare time?
Yes I do. I love Michael Symon. I think Guy Fieri is clearly entertaining. Andrew Zimmern is a great friend and so enjoyable to watch. And Anthony Bordain—sometimes I think it gets fun and silly to watch people call out other people all the time, where it starts to seem like an act. But when you see him on CNN and taking it in more of almost like a political direction—that’s something I would love to do as well.
Will you ever appear on Gordon Ramsay’s Hell’s Kitchen as a guest judge?
Maybe. Just as long as I don’t have to be a contestant [laughs]. I cooked with Gordon about 15 years ago and I have a photo of it. It’s so funny to look at. I remember we were jockeying for a position on who could cook next to him. There were six chefs that flew from around the world to come do this dinner. Gordon was there with his sleeves rolled up, cranking out raviolis. The guy is an absolute 24-hour day work horse and is super inspiring because of that.
Joe left after five seasons. How long do you see yourself on MasterChef? How long would you like to see it go?
When I first started it, I had no clue how any of it would go. I figured I’d just do it for fun, and then I realized that it is a great thing and that it really does affect the public at large. So, as long as the show is on the air, I’m going to be a part of it. I do hope that it continues to grow and evolve and I love everyone that I work with on the show. And now having Christina there—it’s super rewarding.
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