Interview: Gordon Ramsay of ‘MasterChef’

We recently got the opportunity to talk with the Master Chef himself, Gordon Ramsay, who talked about the explosion of domestic cooking, the skills needed to be a good chef, and offered some advice for wannabe home cooks.

On your show we know that you’re a very fiery, passionate person who can at times intimidate his contestants. Is that part of sort of a training exercise to kind of test somebody’s will and see what they’re made of or is it just generally your personality that was being conveyed on television?

Gordon Ramsay: Two reasons really; cooking is about passion, so it may look slightly temperamental in a way that it’s too assertive to the naked eye. But, more importantly, it’s a kitchen and it needs that kind of constant pressure.

When you cook under pressure you trade perfection. The pressure tests across MasterChef have been unique, from handling the most amazing wedding to doing a send-off extraordinary dinner at Camp Pendleton for Marines visiting Afghanistan ….

For me, I want it right. So, whether you’re standing in the MasterChef kitchen and pushing yourself to the extreme on a pressure test, taste test, service test, initiative test, even knowing how to cook an egg perfectly, a laid back atmosphere with a laid back contestant doesn’t really produce a great sparkle. And when you push these individuals to that level of pressure they get to gauge what it’s like to cook under pressure, but more importantly, they understand a lot about themselves.

And it’s quite interesting, not just professional chefs, but domestic chefs never get the chance to be under that level of pressure. And, as you know, not everyone is going to make it. But those that do, it’s quite amazing to see how they handle it and sometimes, for the very first time.

Is there one piece of equipment in the home kitchen that people should invest good money in? What would you say is the most overrated ingredients as a chef?

Gordon Ramsay: The one piece of equipment, right now I would go for a $45 to $50 stunning pasta machine. The diversity across that is extraordinary.

Do you ever have flashbacks of your early days when you’re judging cooks on the show and you’re thinking, oh my God, they’re doing the same thing I did or whatever?

Gordon Ramsay: Yes, I can relate to them, very much so, whether it’s my first day getting my ass kicked overturning sorbets and sticking the ice creams in Guy Savoy’s restaurant in Paris, or over proving the bread with the… brothers at Gavroche or even poaching a Dublin Bay prawn or a lobster for 30 seconds too long and watching; you need to make these mistakes to understand that you learn through your mistakes.

I’m fine on the first time; I’ll always forgive first time. The second time, I’m going to get a little bit cranky as there’s no excuse. So, yeah, I do and I can explain that, so if it’s a chocolate souffle that comes out of the oven three minutes prior to being cooked I would turn around and say, that’s it, you know what it’s like. Don’t throw away; taste something that’s undercooked – you should never go there again – don’t just throw it away because you’ve undercooked it, taste it.

Taste the mistake and it registers. We had one individual across this competition; I had never seen this person cook a souffle like this in my entire life, ever. This individual put the souffle in the oven, hadn’t even tested it beforehand and knew exactly when to pull it out. And there was a lot riding on it, and the souffle came out and it was on the money with 100% perfection. I’ve never seen that kind of confidence together, not even in a professional kitchen let alone a domestic kitchen.

It kind of sounds like you’re saying some of the best cooking that’s happening in this country is actually happening in home kitchens.

Gordon Ramsay: The transition has been ridiculously brilliant because there has been that necessity because it’s been hard felt and everyone’s been feeling the pennies in terms of cutting down, so you put that extraordinary amount of time and energy and money you haven’t got into a humble star ingredient.

We had one challenge; that was to do something unique with an egg, one single egg. Well, my God. You want to talk about scrambled or poached or egg white omelet, trust me, this was better than we’ve ever seen before and it was a level of creativity from a coddled egg to a baked egg to this amazing brioche with a baked egg inside the brioche with rashers of turkey bacon.

It was just what you didn’t expect from a domestic cook, so, yeah, I think the timing and the climate has been suited to MasterChef because the level of concentration in the domestic cooks now, at home with a little bit more time on their hands and a little less disposable income has become evident and I can see that in the standards of what these – I hate that word contestant because they’re not contestants, they’re cooks. And one of them becomes a chef.

So, it’s been a little bit of a, not a wakeup call, but we sat there on those stools after getting that close the final cut and we just looked at ourselves after tasting those dishes and went, oh my gosh, we’re in for a roller coaster here.

How much mentoring is going on? Are they actually learning or is this an opportunity for them to show skills that they already have?

Gordon Ramsay: Yes, that’s a good point. As you know, there’s no service running. So, they’re not running a restaurant. They get put into the restaurant environment and they even get to go up against Beat the Chef, which is just extraordinary where they actually go on and take on a chef and go head-to-head with a phenomenal chef.

So, they get a lot of mentoring. There are books, there is a MasterChef kitchen, they have access to us and then we sort of don’t pick our favorites; but I look for the weaknesses because once you’ve got a weakness in an individual, you turn that into something extraordinarily positive and so we all took it in turn and sort of harbored our own sort of styles and we sort of carried it across the cast and honed in on them, so quite interesting mix.

I was wondering, what advice do you have for home cooks who might just be average, but they aspire to be on your show one day. What’s the best way the average person can improve their skills?

Gordon Ramsay: The one way we can all improve is just asking a friend, family member, boyfriend, girlfriend to cook something simple. It could be a penne aviata, it could be the most amazing spaghetti Bolognese, it could be a stunning smoked chicken Caesar salad and unknown to you, make sure that you don’t know what the dish is. Put a blindfold on and start tasting food with your eyes closed.

The level of sense and the speed of acceleration of identifying flavors, textures, contrast is extraordinary. I take my professional chefs and we dine in the dark and when a new cook arrives at Claridge’s, we’ll go out and we’ll dine in the dark and we’ll eat three or four courses and then they have to memorize those dishes and write down – because we can write down in the dark quite easily – write down those particular flavors.

If they don’t get 80% of what they’ve been fed, then they shouldn’t be cooking it. And it’s very similar when you’re training at home and you want to become excited and understand, if you don’t know what it tastes of, you shouldn’t be cooking it. So, we play those sort of initiative tests where you blindfold each other, and trust me, from a partner, I do it to my wife, it’s very sensual, you know, great fun, sometimes you didn’t get to finish the dish would you believe; however, that’s a different chat for a different time, but try dining in the dark or with a blindfold, you’ll be surprised how quick your senses work.

At the end of the day, what would you like the viewers to walk away with after seeing the show?

Gordon Ramsay: What would a viewer gain? For me, this has all been about that level of simplicity, how the better the ingredient, the little it needs doing to. But combining four or five ingredients becomes magical; eight, nine, ten becomes confusion. And then I want the viewer to go on that journey because I want them to shout, “I can do that!” And they will get up and they will go and they will try it literally 15 minutes after watching it, whether it’s creating the perfect salad, making a stunning pasta sauce or… a chicken or making a wonderful chicken Parmesan, it’s done with class.

So, we had a chili con carne tasting session where we had to get the contestants and the young chef to taste on this taste test and identify the ingredients. It was extraordinary. There were nearly 20 ingredients in this chili, including all the spices, and there was one individual that got nearly up to 15 ingredients right. That’s not normal in the professional world, let alone the domestic world.

One of the things that first got people into American Idol was the early rejections each season. What are we looking for in terms of some of the worst cooks in dishes on your show?

Gordon Ramsay: There was one gentleman who turned up with applies that he had carved all these faces out of. As Joan Collins rightly said one, “My face looks like the map of Wales.” But I’ve never seen such a wrinkled apple in my entire life! He carved faces, characters into these apples and then presented them to us.

He dehydrated them for three months and then he’d give us this apple. Well, I mean I don’t mind looking like that at 93, but at 43, I don’t look that bad and this apple made me look like a prune that had been baked for three weeks. However, then there were individuals that were sort of over-excited and a few little mismatches of combinations.

There was a potato and cheese soup that looked like something out of my English bulldog’s bottom. It was pretty horrific. It was like toxic scum on a stagnant pool, almost like it had been infected with yeast. It was bubbling like something out of Harry Potter. I couldn’t quite believe that somebody could make such a bad soup. However, I took a sip and it came straight back up within seconds.

How do the judges react when they taste dishes like that?

Gordon Ramsay: Not very well. The secret is I know tasting is important and it’s a part of understanding great flavors. It’s called Pepto Bismol. It settles the stomach like no tomorrow.

MasterChef sizzles Tuesdays at 9/8 Central on Fox.