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.
College student Christine Ha went on quite a journey last year on FOX’s MasterChef. The blind contestant was the biggest underdog in the show’s history, overcoming challenge after challenge on the competitive-cooking reality show. Standing in front of judges Gordon Ramsay, Graham Elliot and Joe Bastianich, Christine blew through the auditions, making it to the top final contestants and eventually won the competition. She took home the title of MasterChef and walked away with a cookbook deal.
FoodBeast got the pleasure of speaking to her and about some of those struggles and what’s she been up to since she was announced the winner in the season 3 finale.
What were some of your biggest challenges during the competition?
The biggest challenge is just not really knowing what to expect on the show, what the challenge would be, who would be going home. I think the highest level of stress is not knowing. By nature, I’m a person that would rather know bad news than not know.
After you lost your vision, what was it like for you to get back in the kitchen and relearn to cook?
It took a while to get back in the kitchen. It was just something I thought maybe I had to give up. I didn’t think that I would be able to cook again. I thought I could only make very simple things like sandwiches or things that don’t really require too much heat or too many knives. I think that just over time, because I love food so much and I love cooking, I wanted to find to get back into that kitchen no matter what. It was just slowly but surely just getting back into it and getting the right tools that would help me adapt to cooking without vision. Those sorts of things helped and a lot of practice honestly. [I] just started off cutting slowly again and eventually you just learn to do everything by feel.
Do you remember the first thing you made after you lost your vision?
My first attempt at making anything was a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. It was actually very unsuccessful, so that’s why I thought I would never be able to cook again. I couldn’t even make a PB&J sandwich let alone cook anything. That’s what I attempted when I first lost my vision.
Can you talk a bit about how you lost your sight?
I have an autoimmune condition called Neuromyelitis optica, or NMO for short. It’s similar to MS where it’s the immune system attacking the neurological system thinking it’s a foreign object. With my condition, it tends to attack the optic nerves, which is how I lost my vision, and my spinal cord, which sometimes affects my motor and sensory skills as well.
I was diagnosed with [NMO] in 2004 but I started losing a little bit of vision in one of my eyes before that in 1999. In 2004, it worsened and in 2007, it decreased to the level that it is now.
What’s it been like for you since winning the MasterChef competition?
It’s been a whirlwind. My life just got turned upside-down.
There’s been some amazing opportunities, my favorite, obviously, being able to write this book and having it published. I’m also a creative writer and so this naturally marries two different things that I enjoy: food and words.
It was a great opportunity and good fortune that I was able to write this cookbook after I won and I think that’s the best prize that I got out of the whole competition.
Speaking of your cookbook, how does it feel to have yours hit the shelves?
It’s like a long-awaited thing that finally has arrived. There’s been a lot of anticipation, not only for me, but for everyone that has been waiting on the cookbook since I was announced as the winner. I probably every day get a question on one of my different means of social media about when my cookbook’s coming out. It’s been a while, so it’s exciting and I’m glad that people are finally going to read it and cook from it and I’m looking forward to see what people think of it.
Was Vietnamese food something you loved growing up?
I think it was something I loved but I didn’t know I loved. It was something I ate because it was there and it was good and I took it for granted. I didn’t think about how great of a cuisine it was. It was good but it wasn’t like I knew a lot of other things. Now that I’m older, I have an even larger appreciation for Vietnamese cuisine just because I think there’s a lot of fresh ingredients. Humble ingredients. It’s really tasty and it’s not expensive. In those ways, it’s really accessible.
I think the first thing that comes to mind (as a favorite dish) are the egg rolls. My mom made really good egg rolls. They were a treat when I grew up. She’d make them for my birthday parties or if we had International Festival at school. I loved her egg rolls. She didn’t leave a recipe so after she passed away, I just sort of learned to re-engineer the recipe all by memory. I figured out how it tasted, how it smelled, how the fillings felt. I kind of remembered certain ingredients. I sort of, over time, tested that recipe over and over until I felt it was pretty close to being my own mother’s egg roll recipe. I do have to say it’s pretty good. My egg rolls are something that I hoard when I make them.
Can you describe the feeling you had when you were announced the winner of MasterChef?
It was shock. A lot of shock and surprise and just being really proud of what I was able to accomplish. It was definitely one of the greatest moments of my life. It was shocking and surprising and just an awesome, awesome moment.
As a MasterChef, you have any advice for all the Foodbeasts out there?
In order to really cook or learn about good food, you really have to be willing to try everything with an open mind. You don’t have to like everything, but I do think you should try everything twice and really try to open up your mind to it and figure out what it is about that food that people like about it. I think being able to be open-minded about that sort of stuff, really helps you learn about different flavors and the world’s cuisine. I think that translates really well into what a person can do in their own kitchen.
MasterChef, is a FOX reality cooking show that pits home cooks from across the nation together in an all-out competition for the title of MasterChef and the prize of being able to write, and publish his or her very own cookbook. Oh yeah, they also throw in $250,000. Produced by Gordon Ramsay (who’s practically the face of FOX these days), the amateur chefs are judged every week by culinary icons Graham Elliot, Joe Bastianich and Ramsay himself. Each week, contestants are whittled down through pressure tests that challenge their skill and creativity in the kitchen until one remains as the MasterChef.
I got to chat with season 3 finalist Mairym Monti Carlo, who made it into the top five before being eliminated from the competition. Monti beat out of the tens of thousands who auditioned and 31 out of the 36 chosen to compete on air. This single mom and radio personality was a fan-favorite and underdog for the entire season, exceeding everyone’s expectations and making it to the top five this last season.
Can you describe the events that led up to the moment you walked into the warehouse in front of the judges during the audition show? What pushed you to get onto the show?
You know, I’ve never even seen MasterChef before I tried out. I’ve never even heard of the show, I’ve never seen the show. I was living in L.A. in a little tiny studio apartment 300-square-feet with my son, Danger, and my blind diabetic dog, Chewy Chew Chew Super Dog.
I was broke. I was living on a $10 dollar a day food budget. I’ve been unemployed at that time for two years. I couldn’t find a gig in radio to save my life. My unemployment was running out. So when I found out about an audition for MasterChef, I had no idea there was even a prize involved or anything, but one of my good friends was like,
Hey, you’ve been so stressed out about every thing, you never leave your house, why don’t you go to this audition have a good time, I’ll watch the kid. If anything you’ll have some funny stories to tell (Cause I also do comedy) on stage.
So I just went and I made an apple pie. I’ve been making this apple pie; it’s a very special recipe to me because when I filed for divorce it was really just an ugly time in my life. I had just left my job to be a stay at home mom, and that gave me all the time I needed to find out that my husband was cheating on me.
When you file for divorce, you put together all of your finances, and that’s when I found out that he gambled most of my savings. Suddenly I find myself in the craziest situation: I’m a single mom, mid-divorce, no money. It was very frustrating for me so I started to cook because I had to.
I was on this food stamp program. They give you these certificates to take to farmer’s markets. So that’s what I would do with my kiddo, we would go to farmer’s markets in Washington and Seattle and I’d get these big bags of beautiful Washington Apples and I’d chop one up for him in the kitchen when he was in his little high-chair. I would chop apples, sometimes for hours. It was my therapy. I started making apple pies. I must have made like thirty apple pies in a month. It was disgusting. My friends were so sick of my effing apple pies.
It really felt good for me to be able to put all my work into this one thing and have it be beautiful, unlike my marriage where I put all my work into it and it totally fell apart.
Cooking was like this beautiful blessing for me. I was so broke at the time, I didn’t even have anything to carry my pies in. So I dumped out a diaper box and I put three of the pies that I made into this diaper box and then I strung my dog’s leash around the handles of the box to make it like a purse. I was so proud of myself.
I walked up to this audition and there was like 1,000 people in line, and they all had the fanciest things. I was like, “Oh my gosh, I’m so ghetto-fabulous right now.” When were finally got in front of producers, they had us line up like nine people in front of the producers and I realized how ridiculous it was for me to be there. The producers where asking (the people lined up with me) crazy things like “What were the five mother sauces” and I had like no idea about any of it.
When they got to me I was like, I had no idea what the five mother sauces where. I told them I don’t think I should be here, but I ended up being the only person that they chose out of that group to continue on. The process took a few months, but finally they let me know that I made it into the top 100. I was supposed to go into this hotel to start this competition.
I had no one watch my son my little sister had just moved to L.A., she was going to be staying with me for a few weeks and I asked her if she would watch him. So she arrived on a Tuesday night and then that Wednesday morning she drove me to be sequestered. It was crazy.
I’d never been apart from my son before, which was part of the reason I couldn’t stop crying. Those first episodes, I was just out of my mind. I’ve never been apart from him, not even for an hour. That was really insane for me to be away from him. I knew so once I got there that I had to do my best because it was going to be one of the only ways to get us out of the situation that we were in which was just abysmal.
I had no money, I didn’t have a job. So I knew that this was going to be my one shot to try to make something happen.
And that’s what it was like for me walking into that warehouse with Gordon Ramsay, Joe Bastianich and Graham Ellioit.
What kind of emotions go through your mind when you’re standing in front of figures like Gordon Ramsay, Graham Elliot and Joe Bastianich?
It was so surreal. It was so crazy surreal. It felt like I was in a dream. I really felt like it wasn’t real. There was like a ringing in my ears, I don’t remember anything that I said.I honestly don’t remember anything that I said so when I watched the beginning of the first episode when they showed my clip for the first time it was like watching something that had never happened in front of my face even though it totally happened. The whole thing to me right now, it’s still so surreal.
Being on MasterChef was it all anxiety and stress like the show portrays it? Were there times when you can just unwind with the other contestants and just relax and have fun?
It is the most intense thing I’ve done in my life, and I made a baby.
When you’re not on set, they’re taking us to the hotel. A lot of the contestants would hang out in the hotel lobby and get something to eat or drink and relax. But I would go straight to my room. Because one, I was still on a mega-budget. I wanted to save as much money as possible. I didn’t come there to spend money. Two, I wanted to study. So they have a library that we could access and that’s how I would fall asleep every night. I would just stay in this library and study, study, study.
But for me it was not all fun and games. Though there was some beautiful moments on the show that were thoroughly enjoyable and one of the highlights of the last year for me.
As a single mother, was it difficult to leave your son, Danger, behind to do the show? How often were you able to keep in contact with him?
I got to speak to him one time. I only spoke to him for 30 seconds to a minute. It was really tough. We were sequestered. We were not allowed to call family we didn’t have our phones or our computers or anything like that.
What’s been going on with you since the season 3 of MasterChef ended?
I’m super excited to be working on my cookbook; it’s going to be part autobiography, part recipes that got me through the crazy times. Definitely my apple recipe will be there. I’m going to put my recipe for Puerto Rican Shepherd’s Pie in it because it’s one of the first things that I remember my grandmother cooking for me, my grandmother raised me when I was a little girl, and it’s also the recipe that got me in the top 36.
I’m definitely going to put my Crab Scotch Egg in it because that’s the recipe that made me realize that I just might have it in me to be a MasterChef.
Do you remember the first thing that you ever cooked on your own?
The first thing that I remember cooking on my own was pancakes. I was a latchkey kid, I’m a twin, I have a twin brother named Joel. When we were seven-years-old, my mother had three jobs to try to make ends meet so she was never home. We would come home from school and I would make us pancakes.
We would sit in front of the TV and eat pancakes soaked in half a bottle of syrup and watch cartoons. We would watch Scooby-Doo and Donahue. And that’s how I learned to speak English, watching Scooby-Doo and Donahue.
If you could build your perfect pizza, what would be on it and why?
I love a very simple pizza. I don’t like pizza with a ton of stuff on it. It would probably be a Margarita Pizza. It would be a very thin crust, beautiful mozzarella cheese, fresh basil and hopefully some fresh heirloom tomatoes.
I would keep it very simple. I love simple food. I don’t like things that are complicated. I think it’s very easy to complicate things and it’s a lot more difficult to keep things simple.
Can you tell me a little bit about your radio show?
It’s a morning show in Phoenix on a station call My103.9. I have people from all around the world that listen in that are friends of the MasterChef show. I’ve had people call in from Libya, Australia, Toronto and Pakistan, it’s crazy.
I do it Mondays-Fridays 6 a.m. – noon Pacific Standard Time. It’s not your like your typical radio show. I don’t like to gossip, or kick celebrities when they’re down, or do anything crazy like that. I’m a mom more than anything else, so what I focus on is what I call “Mommy Radio” and it’s something like “Mommy and Me” content so if your kid’s in the car it’ll be a good experience.
I like to start off my mornings with a good news story, I think that there’s so many bad news stories in the world. People just love to talk about bad news. But I hate it. So every morning I start off with a good news story.
(Recently) I talked about this guy in Winnipeg, he’s a bus driver and there was this young man on his bus that was homeless and he didn’t have any shoes on. So when he dropped him off, this guy who’s homeless, steps out into the streets of Winnipeg in 41-degree weather with no shoes. And the bus driver, sort of driving away, stops the bus, pulls the bus over, got out of the bus, walks over to the homeless man and gave him his shoes off his feet and walks back on the bus in his socks.
It was a beautiful, awesome, selfless act of kindness and you have no idea how it’s going to save somebody’s life. When you do these little acts of kindness, you never know how they multiply. It’s like dropping a pebble into a lake and watching the circles get bigger and bigger and bigger.
That’s how I like to start my mornings off.
Is there anything you’d like to say to all the FoodBeasts out there?
Keep cooking. Cooking is a beautiful thing. It brings people together, across generations and across cultures. It’s one of the most beautiful, simple things to say I love you to someone. Keep cooking.
You can continue watching Monti cook in her new upcoming YouTube series Lunch Lady. It’s aimed for parents who are crunched for time and on a budget that sophisticated enough that you can pack for your kids’ to take to school but also take yourself to work.
And if any of you FoodBeasts think you have what it takes to be the next MasterChef, FOX is holding auditions starting early October through early November for season 4.