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'MasterChef': Cook or be cooked

August 9, 2010 |  9:56 am

Joe _ and_Graham Watch closely during the first real challenge facing those who earned a coveted white apron on "MasterChef." They must cook an egg to perfection this Tuesday -- or they'll be sent home. And if you can guess who will make it, break it, or lose it -- then you've got one up on stone-cold judge Joe Bastianich.

Bastianich said that he and his fellow judges -- chefs Gordon Ramsay and Graham Elliot -- would chat between shooting, and swap notes and observations on the competitors vying for the honor of becoming the first American to be named "MasterChef." Naturally, the three voiced their concerns about who would rise and fall.

"And every time I thought someone was going home -- I mean every time -- I was wrong," said Bastianich. The restaurateur and winemaker said that cheftestants that looked like they were done for somehow managed to produce a wonderful dish that spared them from the chopping block, while those who seemed so confident and certain ended up going home. He joked that he stopped trying to predict who was going to do well because he didn't want to jinx them.

"It was a real roller coaster ride," added Elliot.

The pair were at a recent media meet-and-greet in the cozy private dining room at one of Bastianich's fleet of restaurants, Pizzeria Mozza. The night's menu included roasted and marinated baby peppers stuffed with tuna, meatballs, seasonal squash blossoms stuffed with cheese and deep fried in an airy, tempura-style batter, the restaurant's famous chopped salad, and an array of pizzas, including one topped with homemade fennel sausage, the restaurant's popular squash blossom pizza with plump burrata, and the bianca pizza with fried sage leaves. (If I end up on death row, I am ordering that bianca for my last supper.) Dessert was the restaurant's decadent butterscotch pudding finished with sea salt, and a plum sherbet. Of course, there was plenty of wine.

Despite his assassin death stare and palpable disdain for many of the dishes that came before him, Bastianich said he is not "trying" to be the harsh one. (Could have fooled me!) He said he's merely trying to give the contestants what they came for: A blunt assessment of their food and their cooking skills. Bastianich certainly knows food (his mother is Italian food goddess Lidia Bastianich) he said he comes to the competition with a point of view that is different from Ramsay's or Elliot's.

Although Ramsay and Elliot also own their own restaurants (President Obama just celebrated his birthday at Elliot's restaurant in Chicago) they provide the chef's perspective on the show, with an appreciation for technique and mastery of ingredients. Bastianich said he gets straight to the bottom line: Is the food so good that someone would pay for it?

"At the end of the day, it's nice to be nice, but garbage is garbage and great food is great food," he said.

The TV show has been such a side job for the bicoastal Bastianich that he hadn't even seen the first two shows after they aired. While Bastianich is clearly shaping up to be the heavy, Elliot had his turn at being the bad guy most recently when it came to Tamar -- and he had to eat his words. She flubbed a seafood dish but still managed to get some points from Ramsay. Bastianich gave her a no, as did Elliot. After Tamar left the judges area to have a breakdown, Ramsay berated Elliot, saying Tamar showed promise, but was simply unschooled. Elliot decided to change his mind and went out after her, bestowing an apron upon her.

But there is a big difference between Elliot and Ramsay and Bastianich.

"I don't want people to think of me as the bad guy," Elliot said.

He didn't have to add: Those other two guys don't care.

-- Rene Lynch
Twitter / renelynch

Photo: Two of the three judges on "MasterChef": Joe Bastianich, left, and Graham Elliot -- who dressed up for the event. Credit: Fox