Graham Elliot Talks 'Covert Kitchens,' Pop-up Restaurants and Judging 'MasterChef Junior' Kids

Courtesy of Spike TV/Shine America
Graham Elliot

The chef's new Spike TV show debuts Saturday.

Chef Graham Elliot has a full plate.

He's a judge on Fox's MasterChef Junior, but he's also gearing up for the debut of his new Spike TV special, Covert Kitchens, and the return of MasterChef.

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In Covert Kitchens, he gives aspiring chefs 36 hours and $3,600 to come up with a pop-up restaurant from scratch, in such unconventional locations as an auto body shop. Elliot serves as a mentor, guiding the chefs through their menu and concept and taste-testing everything along the way, while chefs Nancy Silverton, Michael Voltaggio and John Shook serve as judges.

Elliot recently gave The Hollywood Reporter a preview of what's to come on all of his shows.

What can you tell us about Covert Kitchens?

The idea is giving an up-and-coming chef an opportunity to show what they can do by kind of going off the grid and, with 3,600 bucks and 36 hours, transform a space into a fully functioning restaurant. In the end, they have to cook a multi-course menu for 50 or so people -- bloggers and who's who in the city and chefs who can help their career. It's an exciting and fun show; I don't think anything like it is on TV now. What happens is one of the chefs will be able to offer the team a job, and with that help them on their culinary journey.

What kind of locations will these chefs be dealing with?

The first one is in an auto body shop in East L.A. You'll be seeing someone cook on the hood of a Camaro and using blowtorches. We also could do a tattoo parlor or an abandoned railroad car.

How popular are these pop-up restaurants?

[Many] chefs are not able to invest a million dollars into a bricks-and-mortar restaurant. This is how they can show everything they can do, and do it on the fly and cheap. These pop-up places exist for one night only. The word gets out via social media, and people show up on the spot. From food trucks to pop-up restaurants to covert-style kitchens, this is a rebellious way to cook. As people are [getting into] cooking younger and younger, it's very similar to music -- you're going to see a lot of people going this route.

Have you done one of these yourself?

We've done certain things where we put up a restaurant for two or three days. You're dealing with all kinds of things, like maybe the water doesn't work or you think it will be this many [patrons] and it's double that amount. It's exciting but it makes you pull your hair out. You really do only have that much money to design [the space] and pay for the staff and get food and ingredients.

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What happens if a chef can't meet the 36-hour deadline?

I haven't run into that issue, but I'd still find a way to encourage them to stick with cooking and find a way to get better next time.

What's your role on the show?

I’m not telling them what to do, but what I'd do in a situation. "Don't be too ambitious; [make] soup instead." I'm giving guidance, so I'm focused probably a little more -- not stern, but focused on pushing them to get it done. I still get to be myself, but it's a lot more pressure, so I'm pushing them to make things happen.

How does this role differ than what you do on MasterChef?

I think in MasterChef, there's more time to critique and go over how to make things better. In this show, the clock is constantly ticking.

How has it been working with the kids on MasterChef Junior?

The kids are awesome. They are super inspiring. Kids are open-minded and innocent and haven't been conditioned to cook a certain way, if their mom or grandmother did things a certain way. They try new things and are excited instead of being scared or intimidated.

How did you changing your judging style to work with the kids?

Between [fellow judges] Joe [Bastianich], Gordon [Ramsay] and I, we have 10 kids of our own. We went into this looking to be coaches and mentors and push the kids along no matter what. [To encourage them to] stick with cooking as a creative outlet. No yelling, but a lot of laughing and showing how food is a universal language.

What can you reveal about what's ahead for the rest of the season?

The most important thing is the restaurant takeover. You'll see these kids cooking for a dining room full of patrons. In the end, they get to see who's cooking, and people are tearing up and just can't believe that it's kids doing good food. It's really emotional.

Why do you think cooking shows are so popular?

Because it's something that everybody does. Lots of people are cooking. [There's also] this kind of hipster-ization of food, where people put photos on Twitter and Instagram. They show the different things they're making. It's very in vogue right now.

Do you think there's a limit to how many cooking shows can be on TV at any one time?

Yeah, but in the end, the viewers are the ones that dictate it. Crappy food shows get booted, and the ones they like grow and continue. I'm glad to be part of one that resonates with viewers.

Covert Kitchens airs at 11 p.m. ET on Sunday on Spike TV, while MasterChef Junior airs at 8 p.m. Fridays on Fox. Meanwhile, casting for MasterChef is underway, hitting Chicago on Saturday.

All three series are produced by Shine America.