If simply reading the words “compost cookie,” “crack pie,” or “birthday cake truffle” elicits drools of desire and delight, then you know the sweet treat MasterChef fans are in for on tonight’s season 6 premiere (Fox, 8 p.m.). If not, stay tuned, because the cooking competition series adds a dash of sugar—and spice—with new judge Christina Tosi, a James Beard Award-winning pastry chef and owner of New York City dessert destination Milk Bar (where those aforementioned goodies are a big hit with the city’s sweet teeth).
Tosi, who fills the vacancy left by Joe Bastianich, spoke with EW recently about the new perspective she’ll bring to the show, working with Gordon Ramsay, and the contestant who impressed the minute he tied on an apron.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Congratulations on the new gig, Christina! How did this all come about for you? Were you a fan of MasterChef?
CHRISTINA TOSI: I don’t watch a lot of TV. I don’t even have cable. The TV I watch is incredibly intentional because I watch it through the Internet or some kind of online-television-watching forum. For some reason, I found [MasterChef] at the very beginning, and I just loved it. When you’re passionate about something you never get tired of it. So even after a long day at work in the kitchen, going home and watching these home cooks love food so much—for some reason I just always found it perfect parts thrilling and invigorating and challenging and emotional.
I was driving. I have two big dogs, and when I go out of town I drive them to Virginia, where my family is from. And I remember being in the car, driving down I-95 and getting a call from one of our friends who’s an agent at CAA. And she was like, “Hey, do you know the show MasterChef?” And I started laughing. I was like, “Of course I do! It’s my favorite show in the whole world.” She was like, “You don’t even watch TV.” And I was like, “I know, but it’s my one outlet that I love.” And she was like, ‘Well, Joe is leaving and they want to consider you as a judge. Would you be interested?” I, of course, freaked out. I was like, “No way!” When you’re used to being on the other side of it, it seems so untouchable and amazing, and so in a very short period of time I had to conceive going from loving watching it to loving being a part of it.
Did you have to audition?
I had already known Graham [Elliot] from food festivals and stuff in the industry, so I flew out to L.A. to meet Gordon and to do, yeah, a little bit of a screen test. It wasn’t like an intense interview or anything like that… [It was just to] make sure I know how to wear a dress and be a lady. Part of it is obviously being able to be yourself and find a way to really mentor these young cooks, and also to judge them and to use criticism to their success. And being able to be honest about that criticism, and being able to hear their story and understand their inspiration—but also give them feedback. So there was that. Which I suppose you could say was an interview or an audition, but not really. I think it was just making sure that the relationship and friendship all made sense. If you don’t mesh well, it would be weird.
And how has it been working with Gordon?
He’s a lovely man. We get along really well, I think because we’re both pretty—to run a kitchen, you have to be able to have a dominating personality, and you have to care so much that you have to lay down the law. And I think that often times, though we do that differently, that’s certainly where we see eye to eye and are on the same page. I don’t believe that I lay down the law as much as Gordon, but when I lay down the law it’s certainly in the same manner.
How would you characterize your judging style?
I would say that my judging style is a lot like my personality. I think that I err on the side of my natural state of being, which is a little more friendly and nurturing. I was raised by really strong women that were direct but also really nurturing. But when something goes wrong, when something isn’t right, being very straightforward, and when someone is being disrespectful, being really straightforward. So there’s casual and nurturing and supportiv,e because I think that’s an important thing people feed off of, but also not being afraid to drop the hammer. Because inevitably, they’re coming here for the experience and feedback, and they’re only going to grow if you can give it to them. I’m hard but soft. I’m scary but friendly.
Have the challenges changed since you joined as judge?
Yeah. I think that part of the reason that I am a judge is that I represent the sweet side of the meal and the sweet side of the kitchen, and we have a lot of baking and dessert challenges. And it’s really, really interesting and exciting to see who comes with the natural skill, and who develops it and picks it up really quickly. You have to be well-rounded, because cooks are coming in with more skill and expertise. They’ve watched all five seasons, and the accessibility of food and knowledge and skill and technique on the internet, on TV, through cookbooks, is becoming more and more vast. I think giving them pastry chef challenges continues to challenge them. And some of the savory challenges are incredible as well. What they’re able to achieve sometimes we’re like, “This is so cool. This feels like a mission impossible.”
Could you see any sweet dishes made during the season end up on Milk Bar’s menu?
We have one actual Milk Bar item that we make them make. I don’t know if I’m allowed to tell you what it is.
What a tease! Can you at least tell us which contestants we should keep an eye on? Who stood out from the very beginning?
There are a few surprises. I think that one of the front runners is Derrick. And you’ll see even with the first episode he’s like a triple threat. He comes in with skill. He comes in with speed. And he comes in with a point of view. There’s some amazing shockers in terms of who grows really quickly and who develops quickly, and then there’s some shockers in terms of who looks like they’re going to do an amazing job… The name of the game is you have to be able to succeed every day. Certain styles that I love or that appeal to me or impressed me are different than Gordon or Graham. Our palates are different. That’s the thrilling part of being judges and having to come to a conclusion that we all agree upon.