By Lara Martin
Gordon Ramsay's amateur cooking competition MasterChef proved a big success when it launched last year, crowning student Whitney Miller its first-ever winner.
The 22-year-old from Poplarville, MS scooped a $250,000 prize and her own cookbook publishing deal in the tense finale, and later told Digital Spy that the accolade was a "dream come true".
Now, the show is back for a second season, and Ramsay has teased that viewers can expect a "highly creative, incredibly pressurised" season with "a completely different level of standard from this time a year ago".
Ramsay, who judges alongside Joe Bastianich and Graham Elliott, recently spoke to reporters about the brand new season, which premieres tonight on Fox. Here are some of the highlights of the call:
What do you expect from your contestants?
"The one thing I expected when they walked into the MasterChef kitchen was determination - determination with a really ballsy attitude. I think what's happened over the last 18 months or two years in terms of the disposable income, is that we haven't gone to eat out in restaurants as often as you would like. Everybody is watching the pennies, everyone is very careful. So, therefore, we'll be cooking more at home, and on the back of cooking at home more often, what's happened, naturally, is they've got better. They got more competitive because there's more TV shows, more magazines and sourcing food is so much more easier."
How do you think this season's contestants compare to last season's group?
"It's fascinating because obviously they've all seen the show and they all think they're going to sort of outsmart the judges. We raised the bar; we became more competitive with the mystery box challenges and we had some pretty darned difficult out-of-the-studio challenges - really tough and in some remote locations. I think they came in better, to be honest, because we had different sorts of cuisines - widespread - from a phenomenal lady who cooked Mexican food for her local school - and they wanted it almost on a daily basis and food to go home as well.
"When was the last time you heard food from school to be taken home to go? - to a molecular gastronomy chef that wanted to cook with lots of liquid nitrogen and CO2 and dry ice, to the most amazing classic American. There was a phenomenal baker this year as well. The guy's name was Ben Star, and what an appropriately named surname - Star - because he cooked like a star. I've never seen a man stick a carrot cake together with roasted pumpkin and come out as delicious as his did. It was quite mind-blowing."
What was the most standout meal that you've had cooked this season so far?
"The most standout meal I had cooked was quite early on and it was amazing. It was a chicken drum and a chicken leg, and it was done with this homemade Garam masala, so it was like a Southern take on a light Indian spice. The lady who cooked it was a brain surgeon and she ground her own spice for a living, and she sold it to her friends on the school run."
You've worked on Hell's Kitchen and MasterChef. Are you finding that some of the amateur chefs could possibly be at the level of the professional chefs?
"If you asked me that question three years ago I would have said that the difference was night and day. Now, hand on heart, the difference is pretty much insignificant and is quite scary in a way on how good the home cooks are becoming. It's a breath of fresh air really that the domestic front can give the professional chefs, me included, a boot up the ass. I'm not saying we got complacent - far from it - but they're getting good, they are getting very good.
"They obviously had a little bit more time on their hands, but they are obsessed foodies, and I would now confirm that we're a nation of foodies here. There was one lady in the competition who actually went to have her knives made to fit her hand. She actually went to a specialist that got the grip focused around her hand. Soccer players get their football boots made to measure, models get dresses and shoes made to measure, and you're having these domestic goddesses now that go and get knives made to fit their hands. I mean, Jesus, I've never heard of that before!"
What was the biggest thing that you took away from the first season?
"I got a little bit scared, to be honest. Whitney Miller, at the age of 22... I saw her again three weeks ago putting the final touch to her cookbook, I just couldn't quite believe how trained her palette was. I mean, MasterChef is a phenomenon in the UK and it is globally, but I didn't actually think it would be as big as it was in the States. You go to the food halls, you look at all the food trucks, you go to the shops, you go to the malls, you see how busy the restaurants are, you see how excited young kids are cooking... I'm fed up with that level of ignorance about chefs portraying the wrong image and chefs sending the wrong message out to kids with obesity and all that.
"It's not the kids' fault, it's the bloody parents' fault. You can't blame an 11-year-old for what they eat, it's the parents. There's a huge responsibility and the biggest scare for me was how competitive they really are at home. I'm not talking about glamorous ingredients. I'm talking about a box of anchovies, some dry spaghetti, sun-dried tomatoes, extra-virgin olive oil and some fresh lemons. That's not at all expensive."
Do you watch any other cooking shows on TV?
"I tell everybody else I never watch them, but, of course, I do. I'm obsessed with them. Top Chef, because everyone wants to see me on there. Iron Chef, because they want me to go up against Mario Batali. If they can film Iron Chef between midnight and six o'clock in the morning, I'll be very happy to take them on! All jokes apart, I do, and I watch them a lot. I quite enjoy Top Chef, and I quite enjoy the MasterChef Juniors.
"To see 9-year-olds and 10-year-olds coming in, especially in the UK, with that level of bravado and cockiness at the age of 10 to say, 'Hey, my spaghetti carbonara can knock yours for six', is quite funny. I'm quite excited about that. Although, Tana, my wife, has downloaded on my iPad Housewives of Beverly Hills and New York City. I sat on the plane last week, and there it was on my iPad. She said, 'I thought you might want to watch it'. I said, 'Ah, no. I'm a chef, darling, I don't want to see ladies arguing and fighting over a glass of wine about who broke their nail'."
MasterChef premieres Monday, June 6 at 9/8c on Fox