Interview: Graham Elliot previews the return of ‘MasterChef Junior’

“MasterChef Junior” returns this week in a higher profile home than FOX expected when the network announced its schedule in May. 

Originally announced for Fridays, “MasterChef Junior” will premiere in FOX's Tuesday 8 p.m. slot on November 4, a move the network hopes will boost the fortunes of struggling 9 p.m. comedies “New Girl” and “The Mindy Project.”

Yes, the new Tuesday home for “MasterChef Junior” speaks to the swift and decisive failure of “Utopia,” which was originally set for Tuesdays at 8, got pushed to Fridays and was finally cancelled over the weekend.

But it also shows a vote of confidence for “MasterChef Junior,” which delivered solid numbers on Fridays last fall and also generated some of the warmest reviews for any recent competition reality show. 

Speaking personally, I've been only an on-and-off “MasterChef” viewer in its summer installments for grown-ups, but I found “Juniors” a charming variation in a market glutted with interchangeable cooking shows.

In August, I sat down to Graham Elliot, who judges with Gordon Ramsay and Joe Bastianich on “MasterChef Junior.” We talked about his own culinary upbringing, the different tone that kids bring to the “MasterChef” format and a couple of the little things that still bother me about the show.

Check out the Q&A…

HitFix: It felt to me, and this may just be my own skewed perception, as though “MasterChef” is a show that has always done well and been reasonably well-received, but but with the “Juniors” season, people were saying even nicer things about it, that it took off in a different kind of way. Did it feel that way to you?

Graham Elliot: Yeah, I think it was interesting to see the judges in, not more of a mentor role, but kinda fatherly, you know? Really trying to do everything we can to put a nice, positive spin on things and do a little more hand-holding. I think that was great and then, obviously, kids being the stars of the show, doing what they do and just letting them cook and talk and I think a lot of people identified with it and really loved it.

HitFix: Did you worry at all that the format and judges might not be suited to bringing in children?

Graham Elliot: No, I don't think we worried. I think it was, “This'll be fun. People love kids and kids like to cook.” But we didn't know it was gonna be as big as it was. It's the one that everybody talks about.

HitFix: Then why do you think this specific format lent itself so well to having the kids?

Graham Elliot: I think it's because you're see the kids under pressure, but also seeing them just as that innocent childhood deal, where you're teaming up with people and you get to hang over here. It's like the lunch room. There's the cool kid, the skater guy, this is the cheerleader… And everyone does their thing. And then because they're just so good. That's the biggest thing. These kids come in, we thought, “Maybe they'll do a cute little apple pie” or whatever and they're doing rack of lamb and all these other things and it's just crazy.

HitFix: I think a lot of us had the worry about what would happen if Gordon decided to tear into these kids. 

Graham Elliot: That's what everyone said, yes!

HitFix: And then, of course, he wasn't like that at all. Did you guys know that side of Gordon already? Did you know that's what he was going to be like?

Graham Elliot: I've been with Gordon for years now and I think that he's the greatest at getting the best out of people and to see him communicate with the contestants on “MasterChef” and with Joe and I and everyone else behind the scenes no different than how he is with these kids. Gordon has four, I have three, Joe has three, so 10 kids between us and I think you see that come through with how we talk and work with the kids.

HitFix: Is that what your dynamic has been with Gordon off-camera? That sort of mentor relationship?

Graham Elliot: Oh yeah. Absolutely. Everything from cooking to getting healthy, all those things, I think Gordon's a great cheerleader and really does get the best out of people, so it's always inspiring to be around him.

HitFix: Have you ever been on the receiving end, off camera, of that louder yelling side of Gordon?

Graham Elliot: No, no, no. I don't think so. When he gets in the kitchen I think it's a totally different Gordon and it's not like acting or “Oh, he has to play this role” or things like that. It's really that when he puts on a chef coat, he is so focused on what he does, it's just like being in a regular restaurant, so that's always an interesting thing to watch.

HitFix: We know “MasterChef Junior” brought out a different side in Gordon than we saw in “MasterChef Senior.” Did you feel like it brought out a different side of you as well? Did it force you into a different role, maybe?

Graham Elliot: No, I think that maybe with “MasterChef,” I have to be a little more serious. Or not “serious,” but “This is why I would do this, but I appreciate you did that and this is where it could have been better.” I think with the kids I get to be a little more fun and goofy, which is kinda how I am all the time.

HitFix: OK, so one thing that was a little problem for me with “MasterChef Junior” was that it was hard to sorta get the gradations of what was genuinely excellent, because you guys couldn't tear into the kids who less good. What is the responsibility on your part to help us understand when something is genuinely awesome versus when something is awesome by the standard of having been cooked by a nine-year-old?

Graham Elliot: Yeah, I think that the thing, especially with this Season 2 coming up, is that the level of cookery is even much more than we saw in Season 1, so by the second episode you forget that they're kids. You're still very positive and being nice, but you are saying, “This is supposed to be mid-rare and it's obviously medium-to-medium-well. It's seasoned great, but it's not what it's supposed to be.” So I think it's a little more direct in how it is?

HitFix: So you actually did feel like there was a little bit more… I don't want to say “criticism,” but…

Graham Elliot: Trying to make them better. Exactly. Being more direct and not, “Oh, it's all perfect. Everyone's great.”

HitFix: Was there a difference in the contestants from the previous season just in terms of how they responded to being on TV?

Graham Elliot: Absolutely. I think that because we cast North, South, East, West of the country and you see a huge swath of different types of people and also kids that maybe didn't know that any kind of food or cooking show existed for them and then they saw “Junior” and immediately everyone at school, parents, soccer coaches, everybody is like “Oh, you should do that because we know you love to cook.” So they come in and just the gates are wide open and everyone just cooks at an awesome level right away.

HitFix: Is there a responsibility to open things up in terms of economics or class backrounds for the contestants? Because some people, they just don't have access…

Graham Elliot: Absolutely. Yeah, we all know that. In Chicago, it's like food deserts and things like that. It's easier to go buy hamburgers for your families than a bag of carrots, that whole idea. So you look at where people are from and what they do and that's part of our job at the same time is to try to coach and teach. Like, “Here's our pantry. Here's the 50 different varieties of mangos. Have you ever had one? Try this, this and that.” So that they start seeing things differently, which is really fun as well.

HitFix: How much of that don't we see on TV?

Graham Elliot: Obviously there's a huge amount that goes on behind the scenes that you don't see, just because of time and how that works — with “Junior” and regular.

HitFix: Tell me a bit more about that. There were a lot of things that the kids were being asked to do last season where I was like, “Well, if I were a 10-year-old, I wouldn't have a clue how to START doing that…”

Graham Elliot:  Right, right. There's things where, like, “OK, you know that this challenge is going to come up: You have an hour to make something using these organs.” Maybe right before we start, because you've seen what these ingredients are gonna be — You know, “You have to cook with brains, you have to do that…” — so it's: “OK, what would do?” “Well, I'm Gordon, I might make this.” “Well, Joe, he might do this spin on it.” “It's all up to you guys, whatever you think, but these are our ideas and our input.” It's the same thing with a team challenge. “Well, this is how I would plate it and cook it. This is the best way to set up your line so that you can it out.” Things like that.

HitFix: So there's also a conversation where you say how you want to avoid destroying brains, for example, when you get them as an ingredient.

Graham Elliot: Exactly. Right, right. It's really interesting, because yeah so many kids… Like, you know, somebody from Detroit probably hasn't cooked with that.

HitFix: I would say probably somebodies from many other places haven't cooked with that either!

Graham Elliot: Right. Exactly. So yeah, that's what's really different. But then if we had a dish based on Southern food or Creole food, then somebody from New York probably hasn't seen it. So that's what's really fun to be able to pull from everywhere.

HitFix: What was your youthful cooking experience? Like if you had been 10-years-old on this show, what would you have done?

Graham Elliot: Oh, the weirder the better is how it was for me. I've traveled all over. I've been to all 50 states. With my dad in the Navy, I lived in the Philippines from nine to 12 and I had dog, monkey, lizard, everything. Then I was in Hawaii and I'm spear-fishing, catching octopus with my hands. So if someone said, “Here. Cook all this weird stuff,” it would be the greatest thing in the world. I can't stand making just basic food. It's really boring, because food and cooking is taking something raw and applying head and then it's cooked. But how do you really make it fun and exciting?

HitFix: The “signature dish” has always been a “Hell's Kitchen” thing, but if you at 10 had asked to cook something that showcased who you were, what would you have done?

Graham Elliot: Probably a curry. My dad would go to the Middle East or Southeast Asia. He'd come back and then we'd be using a wok all the time and a rice-cooker and making different condiments. “So here's shredded carrot and coconut and raisins and these are the things that you would put in your dish…” And I think that that's something that I always loved, was that spice and flavor.

HitFix: The first season was very well-cast with some natural heroes, but also some villains insofar as you can have a 10-year-old villain. Did you feel as if the second season had, again, those same types?

Graham Elliot: Yeah, but again, I think that you just see so many different personalities of the kids. You have somebody from a wealthier background and that comes through. Like, “What kind of restaurant do you want?” “Well, one that is tasting menu only and you have to make this much money in order to do eat there.” And it's just like, “Where does that come from?” And then there's other kids who are like, “I wanna have a veterinary clinic with the restaurant in the back so you can eat while your animal gets fixed.” So it just runs the gamut and it's super-fun to watch and listen to.

HitFix: Do you ever get impatient on the show?

Graham Elliot: No, I don't think so. I'm not that way in “MasterChef,” the regular show, or in my own kitchen. I really see food as subjective. It's a creative outlet. It's something that you do for fun. It's a gray area. It's not black and white or right and wrong. I think that's something that I think Gordon probably sees much differently and so does Joe, where it's like, “That's over. This is over. That's bad. This is good.” And I try to be like, “Well, I can see what you did here and maybe I'd do that…” Which is fun, because it brings all of these different ideas to the actual judging.

HitFix: Do you watch a lot of reality TV yourself when you're just killing time?

Graham Elliot: No, not really. I don't get to watch a lot of TV. I just do all my news and reading and “Meet the Press,” all that fun, exciting stuff. But there's no shortage of food shows nowadays. That's the biggest thing.

HitFix: But I mean any reality. Like if you could think of other formats that you'd think would be great with kids. Like “Meet the Press: Juniors.”

Graham Elliot: Exactly. “What do you feel about Russian and The Ukraine?” Yeah… Other shows for kids? Maybe “So You Think You Can Dance” and “Dancing with the Stars”? You could do “Dancing with the Kids.” I think that would be funny. Yeah, all that stuff translates really well. But kids now? What I was at 20, now a kid's like that at 14. It's just grown into a different era. I sound the old grandpa, but mobile technology and social media and online and everything, kids are a million miles ahead of where any of us were five or 10 years ago. You see that an eight-or-nine-year-old on this season who could easily hold her own in a debate with you on any subject, just knows it, the precocious kinda thing. But yeah, it's just crazy to see how fast everyone's growing up now.

HitFix: Are your kids going to be ready for “MasterChef Juniors” Season 10 or something?

Graham Elliot: I don't know. My seven-year-old's not really big into that, but my four-year-old loves it, loves coming in and grabbing all the fish and things in the cooler and tries getting on the line at the restaurant and cooks the pasta. Yeah, he's just naturally drawn to it all, which is cool.

“MasterChef Junior” premieres on Tuesday, November 4 on FOX.