Chicago restaurateur and TV cooking star Graham Elliot — already a judge on “MasterChef” is tackling a similar task on the new “MasterChef Junior,” debuting at 7 p.m. Friday on WFLD-Channel 32. While in Los Angeles recently, Elliot chatted about the new show — but also delved into why Chicago has become such a culinary capital, why it’s now “cool” to pick cooking as a profession, and even his possible future role in politics!
Q: First of all, it looks like you have added a few tattoos to your arms. Why is it that many chefs are also similarly “inked”?
A: I know. I guess it is another way for us to show off artistic expression. But I also think kitchens are the last bastion of rebellion. It used to be rock ‘n roll. Now it’s the kitchen. Screw those old chef hats! Bring on the tats!
Q: What has surprised you about working with these kids on “MasterChef Junior”?
A: These kids are between 8 and 13-years-old. It is mind-blowing that the food they make is so good! You could put them against the regular ‘MasterChefs’ and you can’t tell the difference. They are that good.
Q: Do you think that the huge increase in cooking shows, the Food Network and so forth has sparked this interest in serious cooking at such a young age?
A: Totally. Look, I dropped out of high school and got the only job I could without a high school diploma — as a dishwasher. Then, eventually, I came across Charlie Trotter’s cookbooks, and I just had to move to Chicago and work for him and cook for him.
Now you have kids born into this food TV generation, and they see this as the way to express themselves and be creative. They go to the market with their parents. It’s so awesome. Cooking is there for them to do.
Q: Why do you think Chicago has turned into such a major culinary capital?
A: I think what’s interesting with Chicago is that it’s the birthplace of blues and great music and incredible architecture and other art forms. Chicagoans embrace their own. I always say if you’re in New York — and there’s a new baseball player — everyone hates him until he hits a bunch of homeruns or wins the World Series.
In Chicago we get a new chef — and everyone is there to cheer him or her on. And we see these people coming up as cooks or sous chefs or whatever — then they open their own places and Chicagoans completely support it.
Q: What are your favorite moments from “MasterChef Junior”?
A: The kids are so cute. One contestant only wears Hawaiian shirts. One young girl has no filter, and keeps talking until you go, ‘Okay! Time’s up!’ … Instead of piano lessons, one girl has a chef come to her house once a week to give her a lesson!
It really is going to be this new future of culinary creativity. Kids will be taking over kitchens in restaurants at 18 or 19 — instead of a world filled with 50-year-old French chefs.
Q: You’re still very young, what do you see in your future?
A: I started in this business at 17 Half of my life has been in cooking. So I’m thinking maybe I’ll do this until I’m 40 or 45 — and then go into politics.
Here’s my idea: If you can inspire your cooks, and then the guests in your restaurant — and bring them along with your vision about food — why not do something for the greater good of society? Why not convince people to share your idea about serious issues facing our community and our world?
I’ve thought about running for alderman. I’d like to someday do something to help this city.
Full disclosure: Bill Zwecker also reports on WFLD-Channel 32, which will broadcast “MasterChef Junior.”