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 nights at 9, 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. (Among the initial group are Holtsville stockbroker Frank Mirando, Levittown teaching assistant Al Matousek and Long Beach sales manager Alessio Vella.)
On hand to pass judgment are chefs Gordon Ramsay and Graham Elliot and restaurateur Joe Bastianich, comparing flavor, originality, creativity and presentation.
"Because the standards across the board in this year's 'MasterChef' have been so extraordinary, we really had to raise the bar," Ramsay says.
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 . . . to find those people who wouldn't necessarily apply to be on a reality show," he says. "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."