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INTERVIEW: MasterChef's Graham Elliot on makeshift shivs and other perils of Week 9's wilderness challenge

A native of the storied coastal city of Charleston, South Carolina, Julie Sprankles has been a lover of words her entire life. As a Southerner, she certainly has what her mama calls “the gift of gab.” When she’s not writing, Julie can be...

What, no campfire songs?

Last night, MasterChef's remaining contenders headed into the wilderness for the mother of all outdoor challenges. Judge Graham Elliot gives us the scoop on who was afraid of the dark and who made the wilderness their chump.

Chef Graham ElliotSheKnows: Not everyone was super-excited about a challenge in the great outdoors! Who was the girliest about being in the wilderness?

Graham Elliot: That would be Eddie. We were laughing because Eddie didn’t want to be out there. We all went out and checked on them — the night-vision footage you saw was like 2 in the morning — and Eddie said he wasn’t going to go to bed. He was just going to stay up and watch the fire the entire time, because he knew nothing would come and attack him if he was standing right beside the fire.

SK: Ha! That’s totally not who I expected you to say. Are you a camping-out kind of guy?

GE: Yeah, I love it! I actually have a tent out back to camp with my son this summer in the backyard.

SK: Aww, so cute! What little tricksters you guys are, swapping the teams on the team captains. Were you worried about Krissi ending up with Bri?

GE: No, it’s funny because we knew we were going to switch them going into it, so it was funny for us to think like what would happen if it went that way… and it did. They were given minimal things like a small little ax, a Swiss army knife, stuff like that, and we’re like, “Sheesh, we hope one doesn’t shiv the other one.” (laughs) "But they immediately went into a team mentality to get things done, because it was a daunting task to get done with very few tools out in the middle of nowhere. So we were happy it didn’t turn into a Lord of the Flies kind of thing.

SK: I bet. But y’all seemed pretty impressed with the results.

GE: Making pasta from scratch in the woods with quail eggs and perfectly spit-roasting mid-rare pigeon over a fire you had to make — both of those are hard to do in a restaurant kitchen setting, much less when you have nothing. I went out and watched them, close up, trying to peel and dice things like carrots with the nail file component on their little Swiss army knives. It really was bada**. When the cameras were off, Joe, Gordon and I were just like, “Holy s***. I cannot believe that these guys just nailed this the way that they did.” Especially with the pigeon. We were saying that a lot of our cooks have trouble getting it like that, and we don’t know if it was just luck, but to do that with the farro with the perfect little quail yolk sitting on top of it… we didn’t really expect to even get properly cooked food, much less stuff that was that way.

SK: What are some of the challenges with cooking rabbit and pigeon?

GE: Rabbit — there are two parts of it: the white meat and the dark meat. The white meat, which is like the loin, goes dry in a second. More of the meat is in the legs, which is the dark meat, and that takes longer to cook and can get really tough. The squab — there really is no room for error, because you can’t eat the legs and you can’t eat the wing. All you have are the two breasts of the bird and, if they’re overcooked, they’re done. It’s like cooking venison, where it's very gamey red meat and has to be cooked to, like, a perfect temperature.

SK: So pretty much the toughest things you could have given them...

GE: Yeah, but [it was] what we thought really represented nature and the whole spirit of the challenge. And, just so you know, out of four seasons, this is my favorite challenge we’ve done so far! I thought it was super-cool, super in-keeping with the whole idea of using what’s around you and thinking out of the box, but also that connection to nature. This is where your ingredients come from — whether you are a vegetarian or you eat whatever — and fishing, hunting, foraging all come into play. I think that’s always missed. A lot of times people don’t get past the local farmer’s market... that’s as close as they get to the process. When all of that is taken away and you’re just out there, it’s a very Zen type of a deal.

SK: Yeah, it’s a cool lesson — I mean, you never know what’s going to happen in the future. We should all learn to be more self-sufficient in nature.

GE: This prepares them for the zombie apocalypse.

SK: Totally — they're a step ahead of us now.

GE: Exactly! (laughs)

SK: Well, when you got a chance to watch the footage, were you shocked that Bri spilled an entire plate prior to presenting the blue team’s food to y’all?

GE: Yeah, and again, none of us were there plating it with them, so we don’t see that until the show’s out. We heard from them that something had dropped and they had to try to redo stuff, and you don’t want to say, “Oh, there are no excuses… we want the food.” I mean, that’s kind of how it is when you judge, but watching it last night, it was like, “Wow.” I didn’t realize the extent of it or that it was that much, so it just makes you appreciate more what they put in front of you and how they got that done.

SK: What ultimately gave red the edge over blue?

GE: It’s funny because when I was live-tweeting last night, everyone was like, “Blue should have won.” And I don’t think that maybe the home viewer understands the technique that’s involved. It’s easy to watch and say, “Well they made pasta with no equipment,” but taking a stick and trying to find a way to get your pigeon on that and then turning it constantly over the heat so that it doesn’t burn and it’s not so high that it makes fat drip on the fire and make it smoky-smelling… there are so many variables. That was hard to get across on the show.

SK: Were you surprised that the red team gave Krissi the save?

GE: Well, I thought they did it in a very strategic way — it was like The Art of War type of deal, where they're all sitting there going, “This one will be competition later, this one’s gonna do fair…” So I thought it was interesting, but probably the right call for them.

SK: Well, that left Jordan, Jessie, and Bri — a strong group, for sure. Who were you worried about most going into the pressure test?

GE: You know, it’s tough because, like, Jordan did the lemon meringue pie in the past and nailed it, so I don’t think that pastry is a big issue for him. He’s gonna get it. His were probably the best of the bunch that we saw. Between Jessie and Bri, I think Jessie has done better dessert things in the past. So I think we expected more from her than what she did. But when you put them all side-by-side, I always tell people, “We’re not ever judging based on how you’ve done from the first episode until now. It’s only on whatever’s in front of you.” And Bri’s éclairs were worse than everyone else’s.

SK: I don’t care how busted-up Bri’s chocolate éclairs looked in the pressure test... they still made me drool. What's the key to nailing an éclair?

GE: It’s baking, getting them cooled, getting the filling made and piping it in, and glazing the chocolate — which is the easiest part. It’s really making sure that the actual dough cooks through, so there are just a couple little components to it, but — of course — time is what’s lacking. If you had five hours, it’d be a lot different.

SK: I hated seeing Bri go home!

GE: I think everyone did — she’s so awesome! But that’s the thing… if Jordan went last night, it would be the same thing, or Jessie. I think everyone, now [that] you’ve been with [them] so long, you’ve seen what they’ve done and it’s always, “You haven’t seen the best of them.” If you gave Bri a full-on vegetarian mystery box of 50 things found at the market, she would be able to do incredible stuff! But it just doesn’t work that way. It’s sad, but that’s probably also what makes it so fair at the same time.

SK: Do you see a big career in the culinary world for her?

GE: Oh, absolutely. I think Bri is one of those people that is really funny and really humble and just a really good person, so if she decided to design cars or be a musician or an actor or a chef — whatever it is — she’s going to be able to pull it off in the best of ways because she just has that mindset. And she’s not driven to where she has to screw everybody over to get whatever she wants. I just see her being able to find a way to work with people and get great things out of people, and being a part of something.

SK: I think she’s precious. I vote for a Bri TV show! But, next week, you get the home chefs’ families involved. What can we expect from the kin?

GE: All I can say is that it’s kind of like being part of jury duty, where you don’t really know what’s going on in the outside world. When the families come and you get to see what reality is again, it makes them cook in a different way. I think some people get kind of stressed out, and then there are other people that want to cook 100 times better to please their parents or their girlfriend. So everyone’s unique, and it’s funny to see how they respond to the family coming to visit.

More on MasterChef

INTERVIEW: MasterChef's Graham Elliot says hello to sausage and goodbye to Bethy in Week 8
INTERVIEW: MasterChef's Graham Elliot on Eva Longoria and Week 7's shocking elimination
INTERVIEW: MasterChef's Graham Elliot says "I do" to Week 6's pig heads & patisserie treats

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Top image courtesy of Matt Hoyle/Fox
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