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As MasterChef returns for the home stretch of its seventh season Wednesday, Gordon Ramsay argues that the Fox reality competition series is the most competitive he’s seen.
He’s not just talking about the contestants. Following the departure of Graham Elliot, who had been with the show throughout its first six seasons (and coming a year after Joe Bastianich left), the Fox cooking show went with a rotating cast this year. Alongside Ramsay and Christina Tosi, Wolfgang Puck, Aaron Sanchez and Edward Lee have taken turns as guest judges.
“More than any other season, this one is packed with sheer talent because of the guest judges; they help raise the bar,” Ramsay tells The Hollywood Reporter, adding that the mix of so many new judges has given way to “a bit of psychological” warfare between chefs. “We’re all puffing our chest out and making sure that we’ve put our best foot forward.”
Ramsay continued: “Anytime you’re among the presence of any professional chef, you raise your game. From a judges point of view, I’d like to think that we’ve gotten better and we’ve gotten tougher because of the competition in the room.”
Kevin Sbraga, the winner of Top Chef‘s seventh season, makes his guest-judging debut when the show returns Wednesday. “He’s young, tenacious and very ambitious. When you’re on that crusade, there’s so much more excitement behind their food,” said Ramsay. “When you’re an established chef and you’re in your 60s and you’ve got that reputation, you lose a bit of magic because you just maintain as opposed to try.”
While Ramsay has enjoyed working with different chefs and injecting some new blood into the franchise, he admitted he misses having a more established roster. Though if the show sticks with rotating guest judges for next season, he does have one particular chef on his wish list: Thomas Keller of the famed The French Laundry in California’s Napa Valley.
“I know how precious his time is. I was hoping he’d yield it this year. Perhaps he can come and grace the floor next year,” he said.
Ramsay argued that for some judges, the glare of the cameras can affect their behavior and have them be a bit too forgiving, something the famously irascible Ramsay has never had a problem with.
“I’ve never shied away from it. I don’t like it when chefs come on and they’re not their true selves. I want them to come on and judge [the contestants] like they would do judging dishes at their own restaurant, because that’s what makes the contestants better,” he argued. “Some judges are a little bit scared to be brutally honest because they don’t want to upset their fanbase, but we need to be critical.”
“Honestly, down the line, if you said to me, ‘What would be one wish now?’ Personally, I’d like to see Joe Bastianich walk through those doors,” he said. “I think out of all the judges, he’s the one guy that I miss most. He has that level of competitive spirit; he wasn’t just playing PC because of the cameras.”
As network TV gets back into swing to close out the summer following the Summer Olympics in Rio, Fox’s cooking competition returns with back-to-back episodes Wednesday that will whittle the remaining nine contestants down to seven. Among the remaining are Las Vegas DJ Shaun O’Neale, elementary school teacher Brandi Mudd and David Williams, who gained notoriety for finishing second during the 2004 World Series of Poker.
“We’re looking at half a dozen talented individuals that are all vying for that top five or top four space,” said Ramsay. “You’ve got the poker player that is playing mind games with the challengers that’s left because that’s how he tips hand, but this guy has won millions of dollars in prize money and is certainly unfazed by pressure. Then you’ve got that incredible DJ whose release from playing in Vegas is getting in the kitchen and cooking. I’ve never seen a schoolteacher that can extract incredible flavor like the elementary school teacher. Now with Andrea gone, the competition’s blown wide open.”
Last time MasterChef aired earlier this month, Andrea Galan, whom Ramsay thought was a favorite to go all the way, was eliminated from the competition for a reason that had nothing to do with her cooking skills. “That was a tough one,” admits Ramsay. “I think we predicted her as a potential in the finale.”
During the Pressure Test in which the contestants had to make sausage from scratch within a 60-minute timeframe, Galan presented her dish a mere three seconds late — enough to get her disqualified.
“Three seconds may not seem like a lot and it upset a lot of viewers — the fact that she had to leave the competition — but rules are rules,” said Ramsay, who compared it to when an NBA player gets a shot off a few seconds too late. “If that ball is in your hand when the buzzer goes off… Three seconds is enough time to shoot a hoop. It takes you one second to put the ball across the line in a soccer game.”
And as in sports, whenever a supposed favorite gets knocked out during an early round, it leads to a wide-open field, and Ramsay sees the remaining challenges as anyone’s game.
“For me, this is the most exciting top 10 we’ve ever had. In previous years, you’ve seen two or three individuals in the top eight, top nine that have a shot.”
MasterChef returns on Fox with back-to-back episodes Wednesday at 8 p.m.
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