'MasterChef' Judge Graham Elliot Previews Season Four: 'Lots of Surprises'

Masterchef Judges Portrait - H 2013

Masterchef Judges Portrait - H 2013

Chefs Gordon Ramsay and Graham Elliot and restaurateur Joe Bastianich are back on the hunt for America's best home cook in the fourth season of MasterChef.

The show returns with a two-hour premiere, featuring the auditions, from 8-10 p.m. Wednesday on Fox. Meanwhile, celebrities including Eva Longoria, Paula Deen and Jane Lynch are set to make appearances throughout the season.

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Ahead of the premiere, Elliot gave The Hollywood Reporter a preview of what viewers can expect in the upcoming edition of the cooking competition.

The Hollywood Reporter: What can you reveal about the upcoming season?

Graham Elliot: I think what everyone needs to know is that the level of cookery out there in this country is at an all-time high. We've seen the democratization of cooking to where it's something that everybody does, regardless of income or status. It's something that connects you to your family, and you cook on weekends for fun, and it's an artistic outlet. We're in for a huge surprise this year by seeing how competitive it is, especially compared to the last few seasons. Everybody watches at home. And they're not looking to be buddy-buddy with everyone. It's not a darker tone, but you can tell how bad everybody wants to win.

THR: What can you tell us about the competitors?
Elliot: There's a single mom from South Philly, an "American Dream" guy from Italy trying to make it happen in New York, a delivery driver. Just really people from all walks of life who are able to really cook their asses off and impress us. We had to keep going back -- Gordon, Joe and I -- and tweaking the challenges even the day before. "Oh this is to easy, let's turn it into this or go in a different direction." They are that good.

THR: So you've seen a lot of change in the competitors from season to season?

Elliot: It's incredible and so cool because in season one, it was, "Here's a grandma who can make an amazing apple pie." … We're seeing so many young people too, much like I might go to a show or concert in a weekend, they are going to markets to get things to cook for friends that night, things like Moroccan spiced lamb and homemade couscous. They're not just out there grilling chicken and stuff. People are taking it super seriously. They can really cook. I don't know if maybe we had a hand in that and these other cooking shows, if people are watching and then getting better.

THR: What are some of the challenges we'll be seeing this season?

Elliot: We have so many different challenges, the mystery boxes and things like that. We take them into the woods and leave them with a piece of flint, and they have to gather wood and cook rabbits and find and make a tent, sleep overnight and cook a meal the next day. In another one, a hundred surfers come out of the ocean, and [the competitors] have to make fish tacos. The production has so much energy; everything is just much more than you've ever seen before.

THR: Have you been able to keep in touch with past competitors?

Elliot: I have. I have kept in touch with [season three winner] Christine [Ha], and I did a Q&A for her book [Recipes From My Home Kitchen: Asian and American Comfort Food from the Winner of MasterChef Season 3]. And so many ex-contestants have come and worked in the kitchen and spent time with us. There is a number of people I've kept in touch with; there's no excuse not to with Instagram and Twitter and everything in between. I never pretend to know it all. I think that comes through in person and on the show. But I'll always bet there as a cheerleader and support [the competitors].

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THR: Is it hard for you having to send competitors home, especially as you get to know them?

Elliot: It's super hard, and it's always something that's sad, even if somebody made egregious errors or are totally taking down their team. I look at people as peers and try to help guide them along, and so when someone that's super talented that you really expected to maybe win the whole thing -- but in a challenge like, where their soufflé doesn't rise, no matter how great that person has done [in previous challenges], and everybody knows it, it's hard because they're always judged on whatever the last challenge is. Someone can be the frontrunner the whole time, and if that soufflé doesn't rise, then they've screwed up.

THR: Without giving too much away, is there anything else about MasterChef's fourth season that you can reveal?

Elliot: There are just lots of surprises, everything from dealing with each of judges' families to different celebrities making appearances to the kinds of food they have to cook when doing the mystery boxes. It was incredible, things Joe, Gordon and I have never seen. It's very exciting. And we [the judges] also cook on this season. All three of us do, and we're showing and teaching a little more. It's exciting all around.

THR: You are developing a pilot with Spike TV [Covert Kitchens, which also hails from MasterChef producers Shine America, in which chefs are tasked with putting together one-night-only culinary events in such random locations as alleyways, train cars and tattoo parlors]. Can you talk a little about that project?

Elliot: We're filming the pilot in the next week and a half. The whole idea is giving somebody the opportunity of a lifetime, somebody who's maybe been sitting on the bench waiting for the coach to put them in and show what they have. They'll use the skills they have and try to turn any kind of place we give them into a kitchen and cook. They will have a big surprise if they pull it off. It's going to be an opportunity to change somebody's career in a great way.