'Masterchef' judge Graham Elliot on the softer side of Gordon Ramsay, finding time for the kitchen

One of the bigger debuts of summer 2010, FOX's "Masterchef," returns June 6 for a second round of culinary competition, pitting an unlikely group of amateur cooks against each other for quarter of a million dollars -- and Gordon Ramsay's approval.

And seated on the judges table, between the famous Scot and restaurateur Joe Bastianich, is Graham Elliot.

A James Beard award nominee barely into his 30s, proprietor of a self-titled Chicago restaurant and sandwich spin-off (Grahamwich) and "Top Chef Masters" competitor, Elliot is hardly green. But he does lend a unique perspective to the show about giving up-and-comers a chance to cook in the spotlight.

Zap2it spoke with the chef before the premiere and got his take on how the series is different this go-around, showcasing a less profane Gordon Ramsay and how his own career is changing with his obligations to TV.

Competition series seem to evolve the most between the first and second seasons. What kind of differences did you see filming Season 2?
The biggest one is the casting. The level of cookery knowledge and skill-set... all of those things that we're looking for in a contestant,  they're at a much higher level across the board. I think Season 1 was awesome and set the foundation, but people watch it at home and get the idea that, "I can do this better. I'm going to out and show it." You're going to see a lot more people in the direction of the restaurant world and less of someone whose grandmother makes a great cake and wants to be on the show. It's much more competitive.

As someone who attended culinary school, what do you think amateurs bring to this competition that more trained chefs wouldn't?
My style has always been that you want to unlearn everything you've been told, so you see it with a new set of eyes. Culinary school, a lot of times, teaches you the basics but they can put you in a box -- which i think a lot of schools do. People who don't have professional training can come to it with more openness and you're able to instill in them some different values about cooking. That's what's so fun. The show is being exposed to people with different backgrounds and aren't in the same day-to-day life that I live.

There are so many competitors on this series. Is it difficult to connect with them like that?
It's really hard. When yous tart whittling it down, you find the people that you take a liking to and you find the personalities are more open to learning new things.There are always people who see things in just black and white and right and wrong, but there are other people who see the gray area and are open to new interpretations of things and being guided. You can only try to teach so much, but generally at the beginning of the show, so many are terrified to be there that they're a little more open to it. As you go further into the competition that cockiness can sometimes start to show itself.

You're probably the kindest member of the judges panel, do you find a lot of contestants making a plea with you?
It's funny. I'm more of a given. They think I'm the nice one who's hoping they'll do great and give them a chance. Joe's a little more on the other side of the spectrum. And Gordon is like the tie-breaker, the more emotional one, connecting with them and wanting to give them a chance.

Were there any contestants who make it past the first round that you wanted to see more of?
Not that I can think of. Season 1 there was a little more of that. I think because we've had that whole year of working with one another, the judges have all kind of gelled and can say yes or no. We'll each give input, but for the most part, we're kind of on the same page as far as who we want to go forward. You'll see as you get closer to the middle and end of the season, I wouldn't say there's a lot of debate, but there's hair-splitting competitions.

There's a lot of other food competitions that have failed to find audiences -- "Next Top Restaurant, "Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution" -- what do you think "Masterchef" has that brings in viewers, other than Gordon, obviously?
That's a huge part. There are different personalities on the show, but at the end of the day, the fact that you're seeing another side of Gordon, that draws a lot of people who are into him and what he does. They're able to see him in a different light. But even bigger than that is the fact this show is anybody's ballgame. Anybody can come from a different region, background, cooking style and show there wears to the world and possibly win a $250,000 for it.

master-chef-graham-elliot-season-2-premiere.jpg All three of the judges mothers appear in an episode this season. What did your mom think of her brush with TV?
My mom is crazy to a fault. She's just out there and always talking a mile-a-minute, and I always have to be like, mom, don't embarrass me, just be cool. But she was the opposite on the episode. She was nervous. It all comes out well, but it's just kind of funny to see her in that light, on the chopping block, with all the cameras on her. I think all of the mothers were great, especially Joe's mom ( Lidia Bastianich), who everybody is in love with. It's just funny to see how we became who we are based on the mothering we were given.

There are so many chef TV personalities now. Are you finding it difficult to balance your TV work with time in the kitchen?
I think it's easy because I'm still young enough in my career. I only have one restaurant and I just opened a sandwich shop. I don't have a cookbook, five other shows and 20 restaurants around the world. I'm in the restaurant right now. I'm able to be here and have this be my home base. I feel like the trajectory is just starting for me. Maybe it will be a different story in two years. Food is like music. And as creative outlet, you also want to have side projects and other bands you want to be in. I'd love to have a burger place, I'd love to have a super fine dining 15-seat place on the coast of Oregon, somewhere that no one can find... All of these different things from one and of the spectrum to the other. You know, I hope that some day all that can all happen. And if TV can help it, then great. But at this point, I'm a chef at a restaurant who sometimes goes and does a TV show, as opposed to the other way around.

Last season's winner, Whitney Miller, has a cookbook coming out -- have you seen it yet?
I have not seen it, but we did talk about that with her since last year, doing a restaurant, writing a cookbook, traveling and doing events. Now she's going to travel to India and do a dinner. It's just wild to see somebody at that age be exposed to so many great things.

Is there any chance we'll be seeing her this season?
I can neither confirm nor deny, sir.

Photo/Video credit: FOX