The new Fox reality competition show "MasterChef" is equal parts "Hell's Kitchen" and "Top Chef," but this time giving true amateur cooks a chance to compete for the top prize: a quarter million dollars and their own published cookbook.
Already a big hit in Australia and the U.K., "MasterChef" starts out with 100 hopefuls and narrows the pool to 30 for the show. Unlike other cooking shows, we get to see the auditions and feel some investment in those who advance, so I guess we can toss a little "American Idol" into the the pedigree.
Watching the audition process and knowing none of the hopefuls are actual working chefs sets "MasterChef" apart and makes it pretty compelling.
It has the flashy production value and ambience of "Hell's Kitchen," but in this show, host Gordon Ramsay shares judging duties with chef Graham Elliot Bowles and restaurateur Joe Bastianich.
Bowles is a four star chef known to reality tv fans as a former contestant on "Top Chef Masters" (he did not win), and Bastianich is a restaurateur and vineyard owner, and son of famous Italian chef Lidia Bastianich. Bastianich is dour, humorless and smug. He's the expressionless heavy brought in to make the famously volatile Gordon Ramsay look light and playful as a kitten.
While Bastianich has a death stare that can make contestants dissolve into tears, Ramsay prefers verbal intimidation and of course, spitting out food he doesn't like. Bowles has great lines: "That is like sex in your mouth, in the best possible way," he says of one dish. Less positive: "I could taste the desperation in that dish."
"MasterChef" may look a lot like "Hell's Kitchen," but it has a lot more heart -- at least in the audition episodes. I don't care how hardened you are, when Tracy, a doctor from Georgia, talks about how her deceased mother's cookbook is her inspiration, you can't help but get a little teary-eyed (or choke back sobs, the way I did).
Also not to miss in the premiere episode is Dave from Boston, the most irritating spaz in the contestant pool. There's something off with that cat. As people where I'm from used to say, "That boy ain't right." Whether or not the chefs can stand his personality/psychosis enough to give his cooking a chance is the first big moment of suspense in the show.
The scariest moment in the first episode is when Ramsay has a struggling contestant bring his wife and small child into the room during the judging, which isn't going well. I was instantly nervous. Will Ramsay totally emasculate a grown man in front of his son? Will he drop f-bombs? Put nothing past Ramsay, but you'll have to tune in to see.
"MasterChef" debuts Tuesday, July 27 at 9pm on Fox.