'MasterChef' Judges Dish on 'Idol,' Food World Stars, American Cooking

PHOTO Gordon Ramsay converses with contestants on "MasterChef," the newest additions to the ever-expanding cornucopia of food-centric TV shows.PlayCourtesy Fox
WATCH 'MasterChef:' The Next 'American Idol?'

They slice, they dice. They sear, they simmer. They plate, they wait. And more often than not, after all that, they cry.

They are the contestants of "MasterChef," one of the newest additions to the ever-expanding cornucopia of food-centric TV shows. More than any of its ilk, "MasterChef" takes the "American Idol" approach to chef competition: contestants are numerous (the series started out with 50), their stories are tear jerkers (one came to set toting her deceased mother's book of recipes) and the criticism is harsh (hell hath no fury like Gordon Ramsay repulsed).

VIDEO: Gordon Ramsay stars in one of the latest additions to food competition TV.Play
'MasterChef:' The Next 'American Idol?'

Though there's no audience participation because viewers at home can't sample the hopefuls' blow-your-mind barbeque or out-of-this-world cupcakes, the similiarities between Fox's "MasterChef" and that other uber-popular competition series on the network are clear. "MasterChef" and "Idol" share the same sense of drama. At stake for the less than 10 non-professional cooks currently left in the competition: a grand prize of $250,000 and a cookbook contract.

Just as Randy Jackson and company can pluck a future Billboard chart-topper from a pack of wannabe Justin Biebers, "MasterChef's" judges -- Ramsay, TV veteran, restaurateur and recipient of 12 much coveted Michelin Stars, Joe Bastinach, wine maker and owner of a slew of critically acclaimed Italian eateries, and Graham Elliot, winner of the 2004 Best New Chef award from Food & Wine magazine -- are arguably better equipped than any other TV team to launch the nation's next Rachael Ray or Mario Batali.

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Below, they dish about the "Idol" comparison, what they really think of American cooks and who's truly worthy of wearing the MasterChef hat.

ABCNews.com: What do you think of the comparisons between "MasterChef" and :American Idol?"

Bastianich: Comparing the show to Idol is the best way to describe it -- 'MasterChef' gives amateurs a platform to perform and shine the way 'Idol' does. The challenges they undergo [Ed. note: like chopping onions until the tears take over and whipping up a road-side feast for one hundred road-worn truckers] are designed to build their repertoire of culinary skills, enabling them to be the best they can be- for the duration of their time on the show and hopefully afterward if they want to pursue this professionally.

Elliot: I think there are definite similarities between the two, what with both shows providing a level playing field for the average American to showcase his or her talents. Singing and cooking are both artistic and creative outlets, are full of emotion and romance, and touch people on a primal level.

ABCNews.com: How do you define a MasterChef?

Ramsay: A MasterChef is an amateur home cook who has an overwhelming amount of passion and is able to take their skill, knowledge and creativity into the kitchen to make the most magnificent dish.

Bastianich: A MasterChef should have the combination of the right culinary skills, a focus on regional cooking, and also be able to tell their story through what they serve on the plate.

Elliot: MasterChef equals someone who has an innate sense of cooking, appreciates ingredients for what they are, knows when to use restraint, isn't afraid of salt or seasoning, makes everyone around them better and happier by the sheer enthusiasm and passion they have for food.

ABCNews.com: How would you compare being a "MasterChef" contestant to being a line cook in a restaurant or going to culinary school and becoming a chef the traditional way?

Elliot:I feel "MasterChef" contestants sometime view cooking as a hobby, something they love doing but might be frightened of doing as a career simply because they don't know much about the restaurant lifestyle. There are great home cooks that wouldn't be able to endure a night on the line, and likewise there are great line cooks who never cook at home. As for cooking school, I am a firm believer in the idea that there are way better ways to waste money.

Bastianich: "MasterChef" can sky rocket you to the top, and you might be able to bypass the time spent by others getting into the field the traditional way. The show gives tremendous opportunity, however, you've still gotta walk the walk.

ABCNews.com: Who in the food world do you deem a MasterChef? Who are the chefs that inspire you?

Ramsay: I was lucky enough to train in some of the world's top kitchens including Guy Savoy and Joel Robuchon. I sweat blood and tears in those kitchens but it was worth it -- they're incredibly talented chefs. There's so much young talent coming through at the moment -- from Clare Smyth at our own flagship to Tristan Welsh at Launceston Place.

Elliot: I get inspiration from everything around me. Here is a short list of the chefs I respect and look up to: Matthias Merges, executive chef of Charlie Trotters, Grant Achatz, chef/owner of Alinea, David Chang, chef/owner of the Momofuku empire, Wylie Dufresne, chef/owner of wd-50.

Bastianich: Every grandmother in Italy is a MasterChef!

ABCNews.com:How has your faith in the American home cook been affected by judging "MasterChef?"

Ramsay: Seeing the passion and creativity the home cooks brought to the competition has been very refreshing. I was surprised to see them prepare the most amazing dishes. One of my favorites was an open faced BLT, they took such a simple sandwich that everyone has made at home and created a delicious dish.

Bastianich: Faith renewed -- the home cooks taught me that American cookery is back and better than ever. I was extremely impressed with what some of the contestants were able to prepare with no professional experience.

Elliot: I'm proud of where America is on a culinary level, in an almost patriotic sense. The regionality, technique, approach -- all of these play into the varied cooking style that represents this country.

ABCNews.com: What do you want budding cooks at home to take away from "MasterChef?"

Bastianich: To start cooking! And also to look at where their food comes from, and to try as much as possible to incorporate what is local in their area.

Elliot: Regarding home cooks, I hope they gain insight into how cooking can be an artistic outlet, a way to connect with people, and a vehicle to having a better relationship with Mother Nature and her abundance of edible goodies.