Tucked away at the end of an industrial cul-de-sac in Culver City, Calif., is an undistinguished-looking building whose drab exterior belies the elegant set/kitchen built inside for FOX's cooking competition series "MasterChef."
Airing Monday and Tuesday, June 4 and 5, the two one-hour episodes making up the third-season premiere feature the top amateur cooks drawn from nearly 30,000 hopefuls who auditioned from Atlanta to Chicago to Los Angeles.
Representing 23 states and a range of professions -- including stockbroker, opera singer, emergency-room physician and food photographer -- they prepare their signature dishes in hopes of earning a spot in the Top 18 and vying for the title of "MasterChef" and a $250,000 grand prize.
On hand to pass judgment are chefs Gordon Ramsay and Graham Elliot and restaurateur Joe Bastianich, comparing flavor, originality, creativity and presentation.
On this day late in the filming cycle, the final four contestants split into two teams to prepare an appetizer, an entree and a dessert for not only their regular judges but guest judges representing some of the top culinary talent in the world.
Listening to the blistering criticism when the dishes are sampled -- comments that caused one contestant to cry, which even elicited a few tears from one of the guest judges -- the actual final choice was a bit of a surprise.
"That was incredible," Ramsay tells Zap2it, calling in from the set a few days later. "Also, you've got to keep reminding yourself, these guys are amateurs. Ask them to plate seven portions of any appetizer or entree or any dessert, it's a tall order.
"So, that was a huge amount of pressure on their shoulders. We're looking for one of the best amateurs in the country, and it's looking very good."
In the meantime, the finalists had to then face an elimination test.
"They had to produce the most amazing souffle," says Ramsay. "Not just any souffle -- we required an amazing cheese souffle, followed by a stunning raspberry souffle, followed by chocolate souffle ... all in 60 minutes.
"Any professional chef would absolutely crap themselves. Because the standards across the board in this year's 'MasterChef' have been so extraordinary, we really had to raise the bar."
Executive producer Robin Ashbrook concurs, saying, "If you watch Season 1 of this show against Season 3, it's a much more competitive show than our first season. Season 1, which I'm very proud of, they didn't really know what kind of competition they were entering."
And Ashbrook doesn't want just any sort of competitor.
"The thing I always say to the casting team about this show is, and I understand the contradiction in the ask," he says, "is to find those people who wouldn't necessarily apply to be on a reality show. I want it to be a cooking competition more than a reality show.
"So when we find people that can really cook and that really do have a food dream - that, in itself, has heightened the sense of competition, because they really can do it. So rather than people who just want to be on TV, these are people who have real food dreams."
On June 11, the stakes are raised when the 36 remaining hopefuls are tested in a ground-beef challenge, with the Top 18 finalized by the end of the episode.
With so many cooking shows, food-oriented websites and cookbooks out there, it's not surprising that people have really taken the home-cooking game to the next level.
"Have you any idea how competitive dinner parties have now become?" Ramsay says, "Everybody used to boast about buying jewelry and shares and all that stuff; now it's, 'How much are you spending on your kitchen? What kind of oven have you got? Oh, my God, where'd you get that nonstick pan from?'
"The amount of competitive edge now at dinner parties is quite extraordinary. They absolutely outsmart each other. They do the whole fricking thing on their own, from start to finish. Then they fall out, then they argue, then they have a little too much red wine.
"Then, 24 hours later, it's 'OK, we'll repeat this in two weeks' time, but now you have to come around to mine, and I'll show you how to do a proper prime rib.' Hilarious."
Therefore, the heat is turned up high in the "MasterChef" kitchen.
"The souffle challenge today," says Ramsay, "I wouldn't even have used that three or four years ago as a final pressure test if you reached the final of 'MasterChef,' let alone down to the final four, and you're faced with that elimination test.
"This search is all about the natural connection people have with food. They're not doing it for a job; they're doing it for a passion.
"It's personal, isn't it? Food, I don't know, it's a journey. It's inside you."
Photo/Video credit: FOX