Graham Elliot: The Life of a MasterChef judge [INTERVIEW]

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I was lucky enough to speak with MasterChef judge Graham Elliot recently about his love of food, growing up and what’s it like to be a judge and father. MasterChef is a FOX reality cooking competition where 24 home cooks from across the country compete with one another to win the title of MasterChef as well as a cash prize. The contestants are judged by Elliot himself, Gordon Ramsay and Joe Bastianich.

What inspired you to get into food?

I used to sing and play guitar in a band. I was a dishwasher at the same time. I started working in a kitchen doing some prep work and stuff and seeing certain cookbooks inspired me and I realized that could be a creative outlet just like music was. I really loved it and enjoyed it and decided to drop out [of high school], get my GED, and go to cooking school for a year.

What’s the reason food is important to you?

There’s a million reasons why food’s important to me. The fact that I can find my voice by working with incredible ingredients. I use products that farmers put just as much love into growing and raising as I do cooking. I get to interact with the public, with guests at the restaurant, inspire younger cooks and try to teach them and lead them. There’s a million different ways and reasons why this is a chosen path.

Elliot’s father was in the Navy, so he moved around often when he was young. 

I’ve been to all 50 states and got to travel outside the U.S. as well

How has moving around so often growing up made you the person you are today?

By having to go to 15 schools, including three high schools, you’re forced to be outgoing and be able to disarm people,  speak right away and get along with everyone. You’re always reinventing yourself, you’re getting inspired by everything around you. Living in the Philippines and Hawaii and road trips throughout the U.S. and traveling Europe and everywhere else. You see culture, you see history, you see how different regions apply what’s around them to the food that they do and you take that into what you call your own cuisine.

How is working on television compared to working in your restaurants?

I think that it’s interesting how similar they are. Being a musician, painter, chef, you have some kind of vision or philosophy that you want to get across to people through your work. Entertaining and cooking with whimsy in a resteraunt, it’s awesome to speak to 50 to 100 guests a night and show them what you do in your restaurant and then to be able to do the same kind of thing for 5 million plus on television is equally awesome.

Have you changed as a judge from season 1 to where you are now? Are you any different or are you the same person?

I’m lucky enough to be able to be who I am. I think all three of us on the show have that where Gordon gets to be Gordon, Joe is Joe and I’m me. There’s no ‘you have to be really mean this time or you have to do this.’ I’m a very nice person to a fault. I love to try to teach, to get the reason behind something, and I think I’m a pretty funny person. I like to enjoy what I do and have a great time with everyone around me. That’s come through a lot this season.

Is there Anything big in store this season?

We have a couple different celebrities coming, as well as go out and cook in the woods. They have to make their own camp, start their own fires to cook and go forage for things. That’s when my favorites come out.

As a judge, is it tough for you to get to know a contestant and have to see them leave if they get eliminated?

It’s definitely hard. We form a relationship with all these people. You know the ins and outs and personalities and styles and you’ve seen them grow and get better and tougher. Then something they’re unfamiliar with they have to cook and they’re not able to pull it off as good as everybody else and they have to go home and that’s always sad.

Aside from the show and your restaurants, are you working on anything else?

I’m working on my own show right now that will be on SPIKE called Covert Kitchens. It’s based around the idea of ‘pop-up’ restaurants and giving somebody a one-time chance in a lifetime to take over. An auto repair shop, a bank, or whatever it is, turn it into their restaurant with limited budget, cook for 50 to 100 people that can influence the direction of their career based on whether or not they can pull it off.

What do you like to do on your free time to relax?

I play guitar, I got to shows. I have three boys. So I go to baseball games, play in the yard, go to the beach. Whatever you can think of, going to the beach, all those fun things. I am a family guy for sure.

Finally, Do you have any advice for all the Foodbeasts out there?

Find one fun dish that you really enjoy and find a way to absolutely perfect it. Then come up with a completely different twist or take on that. Then once you start getting comfortable with that, apply it to different things. That’s how you start getting a good feel for finding your own voice with food.

MasterChef airs Wednesdays on FOX. Next fall, they will also have a spinoff entitled Junior MasterChef for kids 8-13 who love to cook at home.

By Peter Pham

Pete's favorite foods include pizza, tacos and pretty much any kind of breakfast. He'll usually snap a photo or two while his food cools down.

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