Fox's "MasterChef" is back (two-night premiere airs Mon., June 4, and Tues., June 5, 9 p.m. ET on Fox), and judges Gordon Ramsay, Graham Elliot and Joe Bastianich all promise that this season's contestants are the best yet.
"It's balls to the walls," Ramsay said, summing up the chefs in his signature no-nonsense way.
I visited the show's roaming set to catch up with the guys, and while they had to be tight-lipped about the final six who were competing the day I was there (more on that as the season progresses), they did dish about the crazy challenges, mixing things up to keep the home cooks on their toes and some amazing chefs coming to guest judge in Season 3
"We have three 3-star Michelin chefs, all French -- like the biggest names in the world -- coming to judge the final four," Bastianich teased. "That's a big deal -- for the show, for us professionally. Three-star chefs, there's not that many in the world."
Keep reading for more, then check back tonight after the premiere for scoop on one very special contestant ...
What has been your favorite challenge so far this season?
Bastianich: "We did a big challenge with marines at Pendleton, which was good, and we did another one with cowboys -- an outdoor challenge. You ever been to Norco? There's just meth labs and cowboys. [Laughs.]"
Ramsay: "The Marines challenge is always close to the heart, cooking for them before they went back to do another tour in Afghanistan and Iraq. The cowboys challenge was weird -- very weird. We were coming in on horseback. Joe was all dressed up -- he looked like fucking d'Artagnan. [Laughs.] I thought he was going all 'Brokeback' on me! And Graham, we couldn't find a horse big enough so we put him in a car. [Laughs.] I wanted to ride bareback and the producers said we weren't allowed. I'm talking about on the horse -- clean it up! I will guarantee I won't be opening a restaurant in Norco anytime soon. And we did a sushi team challenge that was crazy."
Elliot: "We did one with organ meat -- hearts and kidneys, stomach lining and testicles. Just really bad stuff that they had to turn into food ... then, sadly, we had to taste all of it. That was the one where, after it was completed, they had done so well and we thought it was going to be horrible, that we had to go back and start tweaking and changing the next challenges. They were at such a level that things started to get too easy."
So this season's contestants really brought their A game?
Elliot: "Oh yeah ... Everyone's going to see that it's not just searching for America's best home chef in the sense that it's a grandma making an amazing peach cobbler -- the contestants literally could work in any of our restaurants right now. They are super solid. It's like watching a professional cooking show. The talent has been way stepped up."
Ramsay: "They were better before they even came in -- they've been smart. I wish more professional chefs in 'Hell's Kitchen' would think along those same lines: training on how to roast a scallop, how to make the perfect risotto, how to coordinate time ... They're amateurs -- that's what we have to keep reminding ourselves. It's hard to remember that they all have other jobs because we're treating them all like proper chefs."
Bastianich: "The challenges are more intense, and we definitely threw a lot more curveballs at them. Three seasons into it, just when they were expecting X, they get Y. The level's a lot higher -- there are some really good cooks."
Now that you're in the third season, do you have a handle on how viewers and fans of the show see you? Who's the mean one, who's the softie?
Ramsay: "I've always been a great teacher, and these are amateurs. I've built my group on the elements of teaching. But I don't want to become too soft! I just want to keep it real. I get respect because I get straight to the point -- I think you need to be that way to get where you want to go in life. It's not everyone's cup of tea, because they want to have sort of a diplomatic way of telling someone to fuck off."
Bastianich: "They want to know why I'm such an asshole. [Laughs.] And I'm really not an asshole! We just don't want bad food to happen to good people, and it's our job to stop that."
Elliot: "It's funny, the No. 1 thing people ask is, 'Is Gordon really like that? Is he mean?' But this is the show where you see Gordon as the husband and the father -- he's a real guy. It's not the high-pressure 'Hell's Kitchen' deal. When you look at the judges, we are who we are. I'm fun and outgoing, Gordon's critical but funny, and Joe is like the refined, somewhat arrogant -- if you will -- foodie judge guy."
And you all come from such different culinary backgrounds. Do you get along off-screen?
Elliot: "This season, I think the three of us have gelled more personally than ever before. We've always loved each other, but now, when we're on a break, Joe and I will play guitar and sing together, do little duets, and we had a dance party in Gordon's trailer. It's funny."
For a lot of foodies, this seems like a dream job. Give me a nightmare scenario to remind me that it's really hard work.
Bastianich: "A low is when you're Day 3, 70 plates into the open tasting, and some yahoo from the bayou brings you some rattlesnake shit that's disgusting and makes you want to vomit, and his personal hygiene is questionable, and you have to eat it. That's a low point. [Laughs.]"