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INTERVIEW: MasterChef's Graham Elliot on schooling the contestants in Week 3

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...

A for effort?

Last night, MasterChef took the contestants back to school… to feed more than 300 hungry kids! For Week 3’s blog, Chef Graham Elliot gives us the scoop on picky grade-school palates, the power of cheesecake and breaking up bromances.

Chef Graham Elliot, MasterChefSheKnows: I have kids, but the herd of children tearing toward the home chefs during last night’s team challenge gave me a panic attack. Who cooked up the idea to feed an elementary school?

Graham Elliot: I think it's something we had talked about since Season 1 — you know, how fun it would be to not just incorporate kids but to take it to the schoolyard.

SK: Definitely! So, the goal was to create a delicious, healthy lunch for the kids. Why do you think the kids picked the red team’s chicken teriyaki over blue’s spaghetti?

GE: Hmm… I think that kids’ palates have changed, and chicken teriyaki is a great blend of sweet, sour and salty. And as much as everyone likes to think that kids only want to eat nuggets or peanut butter and jelly or spaghetti and meatballs, it’s kind of evolved from there. So, I think it shows a sign of hope for the future.

SK: What recipes do your kids — Mylo, Conrad and Jedediah — never get tired of?

GE: My kids will eat most anything, so we’ll do our own versions of stuff — everything from pasta to fish. It’s fun to get them started from early on, trying different things.

SK: All right, the pressure test came next... but not before Jordan, whose team lost, got to save three people. Tell me the truth: Would you have saved yourself like he did?

GE: Yeah, I think so. It's something that all three of us judges kind of spoke about — that it’s a contest. It’s a food challenge and it spans the entire show, with the goal being to try to win, so any opportunity you're given is fair game. You’re a captain until the point that your team has lost and now you're up there as individuals, and you need to go for any opportunity that you get. I think if it was Jordan or somebody doing something intentionally bad to someone else in order to get ahead, that would be a different story. But when you’re just given a choice of, “Hey, do you want to save yourself here and not have to deal with it?” It’s like, of course!

SK: Well, the next time the pressure challenge involves cheesecake, feel free to call me in to assist with judging...

GE: You know what’s funny? I had a live tweet going during the show and a bunch of people — for some reason with the cheesecake challenge — were like, “If you ever need, like, extra tasters, I’m free to come down.” So something about cheesecake resonates with people.

SK: Mmm, it’s the best. But, seriously, Krissi, Cathy and Eddie put out "stunning" cheesecakes. What did they do right that we can all learn from?

GE: Well, Gordon says stunning… I say yummy! (laughs) So, yeah, it was great — I think Krissi’s was my personal favorite. It was just delicious and done really well. With cheesecake, it’s about texture. I love a thick cheesecake that’s got all that creaminess to it.

SK: During the mystery box challenge, Gordon cooked alongside the contestants and whipped up a dish in less time than it would take me to pull the ingredients out of the box. Seriously, how did he do it?

GE: Well, he’s Gordon Ramsay — he’s able to do anything, which is what’s so fun about being able to do the show with him. I got to cook last season with the contestants, and it’s really fun… but you’re freaking out at the same time. So it was fun to watch Gordon get in the same situation, but take it to the next level — just walking around, drinking tea and hanging out was pretty funny to watch.

SK: Ha ha, it was. Not so funny was the fact that Howard pissed you guys off again, this time for plating raw fish. I’m kind of surprised Joe didn’t throw him out... do you think he has a soft spot for him?

GE: Howard’s a good guy, but I’m not sure why he continuously ends up at the bottom. I don’t think there is any soft spot or favoritism for him, but he does keep just barely getting by. He does good in the team challenges, though.

SK: On the flip side, James wound up in the top three, and his personality is starting to come out. I literally laughed out loud when he said, “Our fate’s in their little, tiny, creepy hands,” about the kids. Is he just a super-funny guy?

GE: I think some of that personality started coming out slowly from him, but those were some of the funniest lines of the night, I thought — when he was saying how he’s going to die when the kids came… and the Luca “he’s European, therefore unpredictable” comment was pretty brilliant.

SK: Well, Luca won the box challenge, picked cupcakes for everyone else and removed Jordan’s mixer. Do you think he chose the right person to try to trip up?

GE: Yeah, I think Jordan at this point is a frontrunner and also, by doing that move, Luca’s Mr. Character — calling him out for not going down with the proverbial ship and that whole thing. So yeah, I think he probably did make the right call. Jordan’s a tough guy that you’d like to take out early so, yeah... smart.

SK: Were y’all surprised when you called Luca back up to taste Jordan’s cupcakes that he was so sincere and complimentary?

GE: Well, I think that Luca is almost sincere to a fault! You know, he doesn’t really have a filter; he just kind of is very innocent in how he cooks and goes about the day. It's like, it’s time to go up and play tough guy and “That’s alright”— that kind of thing — but he was like, “It’s great, can I keep it?” I think it’s genuine.

SK: People — Jonny in particular — were really sad to see Graham go. How hard is it to keep your personal feelings about contestants from interfering with judging?

GE: It’s always hard, and everybody’s got a story. You know, for some of the people, they have kids at home and you can relate to that and want to make sure that they go out on top. It’s never fun to tell somebody that their time is up. And, yeah, you don’t realize a lot of these contestants have already forged relationships with each other, and that’s always sad to see as well… when those get broken up.

SK: I know, I think you broke up a bromance there! So, there’s just one more thing I’ve gotta know... whenever you taste food, you tilt your head up and slightly to one side and get an angelic, far-off look on your face. Like, every time. Where do you go in that moment?

GE: Somebody else was asking that too — I said I’m looking to the Lord for inspiration! (laughs) No, it’s funny… I guess I take a bite, and then I just kind of look away and try to analyze everything. I like to look at the fork and the shapes and textures and colors and then, when I taste, just kind of think of everything that’s going through my mind at that point, what the ingredients are talking about... not hearing the story, not thinking about the contestant, but just the actual bite in my mouth.

More on MasterChef

INTERVIEW: MasterChef's Graham Elliot dishes on Week 2
INTERVIEW: MasterChef's Graham Elliot talks Season 4 premiere
Top 10 Reality TV Freakouts: Gordon Ramsay

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Get behind-the-scenes deets on each episode by following our weekly Q&A sessions with Chef Graham every Thursday. Have something you're dying to ask the chef? Share via comment and your question may be featured!

Image courtesy of Matt Hoyle/Fox
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