In the world of competition shows, how special is MasterChef star Graham Elliot? For one thing, he has the gift of making contestants feel respected, even when they get the boot. He hits that judging sweet spot between pushover and harasser-in-chief (you know who I’m talking about, cough, Gordon Ramsay, cough).

With MasterChef season 6 just underway, Elliot recently took time out of his busy schedule to discuss baking, burgers, and unique eating establishments. I, too, came away feeling respected — and a little inspired.

A Season of Change

For the first time since its debut on FOX, MasterChef has a female judge, world-famous pastry chef Christina Tosi (replacing original judge, restaurateur Joe Bastianich). Elliot seems enthusiastic about the revised lineup.

“The show has a different dynamic,” he said. “It’s no longer the boy’s club. Christina’s a master baker and pastry chef, and she brings something that’s been missing for a while. She’s also judging on season 4 of MasterChef Junior.”

So far, MasterChef‘s season 6 has capitalized on Tosi’s presence, with the initial two elimination challenges focusing on baking — first apple pie, then cinnamon rolls. When are we going to see the next ‘Graham challenge’?

“Don’t worry,” he assured me. “There will be a Graham challenge soon, but I don’t want to spoil things! You’ll also see us cook more this season, which is fun for us and the viewers.” 

Speaking of apple pie, I asked him to give me an insider’s perspective on the art of judging TV cooking competitions. For example, to this viewer’s eyes, Olivia’s pie looked inedible (goat cheese?), but Brianna went home. Why?

“The thing was,” he said, “even though the goat cheese was funky, Olivia’s technique was there. But with Brianna, the crust was wrong, the apples were liquid. Olivia showed us that she had a better mastery of the technique, even though the flavors were a little off. 

“It’s different from a show like American Idol, where you can hear every note and judge for yourself. But with MasterChef, we know the audience can’t taste the food, so we have to be very specific in our descriptions of what we like and don’t like. That’s why we’re always giving a lot of details to back up our opinions.”  

Okay, so what about someone whose food did look like it tasted fantastic — season 3 winner (and my husband’s not-so-secret crush), Christine Ha? (Who, if you recall, is blind.)

“Oh, Christine — her food was incredible,” he said. “Because she can’t see, she has to focus on what things taste and smell like.” He admitted that he and the other judges quickly forgot she was cooking with a major disadvantage. 

Bringing the ‘Cue to Chicago

Elliot comes by his friendly personality naturally. As a self-described “Navy brat,” he lived all over the country in his youth, attending more than a dozen schools, including three high schools. (Fun fact: One of them was my old HS rival back in Virginia Beach, and he still has family there, just like me. Hi, Graham Elliot’s family!) 

Moving around allowed him to develop a talent for making friends quickly. This makes him a natural for judging cooking shows. He’s also using those skills on behalf of Mike’s Hard Lemonade, which is rolling out a new multi-pack “Flavors of America” line this summer. Elliot’s taking the lead for the brand, grilling up a storm at a series of pop-up backyard barbecues in urban Chicago, his home base for the last 15 years. 

“Mike’s was looking to reinvent summer barbecues, and I like to do the same kind of thing – reinvent classics,” he said. “Working together has been fun.

“People love it! You know, in Chicago, not a lot of people have backyards. But we do the whole thing, right down to the grass, the fence, and the swing set.” So far, more than 500 people have eaten Elliot’s food (including his newly created “GrahamBurger”) at the events. Me, I want to try his recipe for grits. 

A New Show and a Life Change

Despite a busy schedule judging both of the MasterChef series’, serving as a beverage spokesperson, and running several successful restaurants, Elliot has taken on another job: hosting a new Food Network show. Craziest Restaurants in America focuses less on haute cuisine, and more on — let’s call them “unique dining experiences.”

“It’s really fun – you have lots of restaurants out there that aren’t shown,” he said. “They aren’t fine dining or have a famous chef, but they have special recipes or dishes we want to showcase. It’s been a lot of fun to film. I have three young sons, and I get to bring them along with me sometimes.”

Those three boys are a major reason why you might have noticed another big change on MasterChef over the last 18 months or so. Elliott underwent weight-loss surgery in mid-2013. More than 150 lbs lighter, he’s slimmer, trimmer — and healthier. Many celebrities hide such surgeries, but not Elliot. I commended him for being upfront about it. 

“Being the ‘big round fun guy’ on MasterChef, you open yourself up to two things: people who relate to you and people who criticize you, especially about weight,” he explained. “But getting to your mid-30s with children, none of the criticism matters. I wanted to be healthy and change my life. You can try to hide and pretend it never happened, or you can embrace it. 

“I’ve had more than 100 people tell me I’m an inspiration to them. Some of them have told me they had weight-loss surgery because of me, which is amazing.” 

A No-Gimmicks Approach

Of his main gig, Elliot says he’s constantly impressed by the level of skill the home cooks bring to MasterChef (and MasterChef Junior even more so). 

“These people are so talented. And they know the show now – they know how to play the game. Everyone’s a foodie, a critic. We can’t fool them.”

When I mention that one reason I love MasterChef is its focus on skills, such as the apple pie challenge. It’s not about stunts; it’s about cooking. “The show has evolved,” he said. “We learned over the seasons not to use gimmicks. We want the audience to relate to us. Home cooks can really learn from our show.” 

He’s clearly sincere about that last point. 

“When people watch MasterChef, I hope they’ll take away an understanding that cooking is a life skill you have to learn,” he said. “No matter who you are, what you do, or how good you are at school, food is something we all share.”

MasterChef airs Wednesdays at 8pm on FOX.

(Image courtesy of Ross Dettman/AP Images for mike’s hard lemonade) 

Alison Stern-Dunyak

Contributing Writer, BuddyTV