If you’ve ever caught an episode of such reality cooking competition series as Hotel Hell or Hell’s Kitchen, you are met with an unrelenting and often unforgiving Gordon Ramsay, celebrity chef and television personality extraordinaire. Undoubtedly, Ramsay makes a strong impression—surface observation reveals a man of fiery intensity who demands the chefs under his supervision rise to the standards of the five-star restaurant.
Stopping at this understanding of Ramsay, though, is a mistake. While the chef is demanding, his intensity is backed by artistic passion, lofty and respectable goals, and a personal history that drives him to seek out the best in those around him. Earning his first ever Emmy nomination as the host and executive producer of MasterChef Junior—which wrapped up its fifth season in May—Ramsay reveals a much softer side of his personality with the series, applying the same high standards to children while meeting them at their level.
Speaking with Deadline, the chef gives insights into the process of scouting the series’ culinary prodigies and the grander, paradigm-shifting aspirations he has in mind.
Looking back on five seasons of MasterChef Junior, what initially sparked you to it, and what is it that keeps you excited about the program?
First of all, I’m fed up with the level of blame that kids get due to their bad eating habits. It’s not the kids—let’s get that frank. It’s the frickin’ parents. Kids only eat what the parents do, so what MasterChef Junior has become is a sort of benchmark, where kids are re-educating parents and becoming way more fierce than their parents were.
My goal, down the line, is to have a curriculum at every high school in the country where nutrition and cooking are as important as geography and history because it’s the one thing they need to do three times a day, seven days a week, is eat. That is the center point, in terms of the message that this program is delivering, which is great news.
Having four kids of my own, I’m fed up with the pressure they’re under today for A-levels, and degrees, and BA honors. It’s not fair to say you’re going to peak at 16, 18, or 21, so where you can’t manage the academic side of being successful in life, having life skills is as important as academic [skills].
For me, cooking brings out so much more confidence, and more importantly, gives them more ambition to attempt things that they were less good at, and that’s what’s happened across this program in five seasons.
The kids on your show are so ambitious, so intelligent, and so clear on their self-identity at such a young age. What’s your process in finding extraordinary young talent?
This wasn’t about finding rich kids and putting them into a circus, and fake out who can become the best. This, for me, was East meets West, Central, Baton Rouge, New Orleans, finding young kids that were as passionate about food as other kids were at playing football or baseball—kids that have grown up watching the show since the age of four or five and see cooking as their relief, and that little bit of canvas. It’s artistic, and it’s very important that we give them that kind of freedom.
Now, we know that kids cook with no fear, so when you’ve got that raw talent that has an educated palate at such a young age, it’s like the best art class in the world. You start off with these raw ingredients and it transpires into something magical across the 60 minutes. I think the difference that I made across the show was that I asked at the top of the program, “Give me your attitude. Give me what you’ve got. Show me how bloody good you are, then. No mom and dad. No headmaster. No schoolteacher. Give it to me. Give me your best shot, and show me how cocky you are.”
That’s unlike any other program out there, when you’re asking them to step up and give you attitude, and then me lowering myself down to their level, whether it’s a pie in my face, or sticking them inside a bloody giant milkshake. It doesn’t matter; they need to see me vulnerable, and the minute they saw me vulnerable, it empowered them to become even more uber-confident about what they were doing.
The big issue that I wanted to face, and said it to them—and I really meant it—is that when we screw up, don’t give me the problem. Give me the solution. I’m going to teach you how to come back with a solution, and that’s what life is going to be about, facing adversity, getting over those steps, and more importantly, figuring out a solution, as opposed to sitting on the problem.
You’re well known for the high standards you set out for others and for yourself, in life and in the kitchen. What are the roots of these interpersonal aspirations?
I dreamt of becoming a soccer player, and that got taken away from me at a very early age due to a horrific injury. I didn’t sit there and start crying about what could have happened. I turned that negativity into something positive.
In terms of my background and where I came from, I’m not saying that it was underprivileged, but we had to fight for everything we got, and more importantly, we didn’t have that comfort zone. So I appreciate where we are, what we’ve done and what we’ve got, but I treat everything as if it’s still at the very beginning, without being full.
I teach myself to stay grounded, and more importantly, I recognize vulnerability, when you see these kids that walk in and their eyes are glazing over, and they’re feeling awkward, and lacking confidence. They’re sure that they can’t match the guys in front of them.
I spot vulnerability beyond belief, and I think giving them a little bit of what I have experienced, and what upsets me, I talk to them in ways that I don’t even talk to the adults—anyone in Hotel Hell, or anything like that. It’s quite a fascinating dynamic, but I put myself alongside them, standing there at eight, nine, 10 years of age, feeling inadequate, because I’ve been in that situation, and I know what it felt like yesterday, to feel like that.
You submitted “The Muppets Take MASTERCHEF” for Emmy consideration. What were you proud of with that episode?
The Muppets are iconic, and we grew up with them. When I was their age—at 10, 11 years of age—we grew up watching the Muppets. It was that kind of phenomenon. Also, I joked before we started—I asked them all, “How well do you know pigs, and how much do you enjoy eating pigs?” They were screaming at the top of their mind that they loved short rib; they loved the most amazing back ribs; they loved the streaky bacon; they loved the pork shoulder; they loved pork sausage.
I got all this out of them when I started talking to them about blood sausage, and the curly tail, and the pig’s ears, and the cartilage, and then they were horrified. I stated I had four pigs in my backyard, and once, for my children’s Christmas, I bought them all a pig each, and they had to clean out the pens, and fed it beer, and just the excitement we had.
Then, when I introduced the Muppets, they freaked out, because they actually thought they were going to be eating Miss Piggy, so it scared the crap out of them. It’s just a really nice story, and an amazing program where they saw the Muppets up close and got really excited about cooking with them.
Has it been easy enough, given your profile, to get guests like Martha Stewart and Wolfgang Puck on the show?
Yeah, they absolutely love the show, whether it’s Wolfgang or Alain Ducasse, or Daniel Boulud or Martha Stewart. They’re excited about what is happening with these young kids, and how this can transform their eating habits for the future generation. Everybody’s behind this, and more importantly, everybody wants to be part of it.
I’m not saying it’s an easy run, because of diaries—it’s never an easy match because everybody successful has issues fitting things in. But t’s very rare we have to ask twice for a guest to come on.
What kind of balance do you strike on the show, with your responsibilities as both host and executive producer?
I’m no different to those kids—I find that balance in a way that I spot their vulnerabilities, and I push them to absolute oblivion. I’ve pushed them to make them better, and part of that journey feels like they’re getting worse, to them, because they’ve never gone into those areas before.
As an exec producer, I still need directing and I still need producing, but the level of creativity and what I bring to the table, myself, in terms of that level of hands-on [attention], we find that balance, whether it’s the brief and the script in the morning, whether it’s a problem that we’ve discovered across one of the challenges.
I’m all about the solution, and I love to challenge myself in the way of keeping of fresh, so I don’t mind going in there half the time with an apron on to cook. I don’t mind being put on the spot like that. It’s a hard juxtaposition between being an exec producer and being produced, and where do you toe that line? I have a good team around me, I trust them implicitly, and they trust me to make the best judgments.
That goes back to the beginning of the series, when I insisted, “Look, they can’t walk out with their insecurities streaming, and their eyes crying.” That’s why we started sending home two out at a time. I said, “You’ve got a 50-meter walk, and I want those eyes dried; I don’t want to see a tear. You guys go out as buddies, and you come back as our friends, and this door is always open.”
Are there other logistical difficulties in producing this show?
Yeah, the danger. It’s a live kitchen, and that’s the beauty of why this works. I run a culinary Thunderdome, and they’re not plastic knives; they’re the best Japanese knives in the world. The equipment is second-to-none, whether it’s a sous vide machine, or the best stove or hand blender. It’s the real deal, and so no disrespect: One slip of the knife and their fingers could be off.
We don’t mess around there. That’s the one area where I’m always anxious—cuts, accidents, temperature controls—so I’m over it like a shark.
With kids like these, does the student become the teacher? What have you learned from the kids on your show?
Apart from empathy, it’s patience. I’ve learned to listen and slow down, and not snap at the question immediately; process it and slow down. That’s been a welcome addition.
What are your future plans for this series?
There’s been suggested insights of lowering the age to maybe six or seven years of age, because they’re becoming talented even earlier, setting up a culinary program. We have three or four of the first finalists from Season 1 now into their late teenage years—these guys are becoming heavyweight chefs, so is there a MasterChef culinary program that we can set up?
Those talks go forward on how to expand the brand and move into proper educational benchmarks, so, that’s exciting. Then, as always, getting super creative with potentially putting these guys into scholarships.
The other issue that we’re working on hugely, especially ahead of next season, is [food] waste, in terms of creating something super delicious out of waste. I partnered up with Dan Barber from Blue Hill recently in London, and what he did to generate fine dining from pure waste was pretty extraordinary.
It left a lot of top chefs in the world with egg on their face, knowing how much they waste, so, part of our new series is I’ll bring in an arm of that refreshing insight into what they can create from waste, how good food can be, and the economics of not wasting anything, moving forward.