Hey “MasterChef” fans, have you ever wondered what it’s like to be a contestant on the show? And is judge Joe Bastianich as intimidating in real life as he is when he’s staring down an amateur chef who’s just spent 45 minutes preparing a culinary masterpiece from a handful of ingredients?

Well, imagine our surprise when we watched the premiere of the show last week and saw the judges – Gordon Ramsay, Bastianich and Aarón Sánchez – quiz contestant Mark Ingraham from Rockport, Maine. We caught up with 19-year-old Ingraham, who spent his childhood in Rockport but now lives in East Peoria, Illinois (although you’d never know it from watching the show) to ask him about his experience.

Ingraham’s mother owned three restaurants on the midcoast when the family lived in Maine – Ingraham’s on Richard’s Hill in Rockport and McMahon’s in Rockport and Camden. Ingraham told the judges his family lived above the restaurant at Ingraham’s on Richards Hill, and he washed dishes there. In 2009, the family moved to Illinois, where Ingraham’s mother owns a restaurant and Mark works as a sauté chef at Hearth, a restaurant at the mall in East Peoria.

“It’s all about a story they can tell about you,” Ingraham said about being labeled a Mainer. “I guess Rockport, Maine was a little more interesting than Peoria, Illinois.”

Ingraham spent last summer working at a restaurant in New York City, and that’s when a teller from his bank told him about “MasterChef” auditions. Ingraham was back in Illinois, running his own gourmet pizza restaurant, when he got the call to be on the show. He closed the pizza place permanently to join “MasterChef.”

Since the first episode of his season ran last Wednesday, he’s been hearing from old friends in Maine. “I’ve gotten all kinds of messages from people I haven’t heard from in years,” he said. “It really is heartwarming to hear those voices again, talk to those people and relive memories.”

This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: You made (undercooked) lamb chops for the judges on the first episode. Is that something you make a lot, or did you just decide it would be your signature dish and practice it a lot before doing it on the set?

A: Before you go to L.A., you submit a number of dishes to them with pictures and then they pick what your signature dish is.

Q: Who were you hoping to get as a mentor?

A: You really do want Gordon Ramsay. I think everybody does. He’s the star of the show. But I really do appreciate that I was Joe’s mentee because we do come from similar backgrounds.

Q: Is Joe as intimidating in real life as he seems on the show?

A: I take myself for a pretty substantial guy, and there’s not too much that can intimidate me. But there is something about his steely gaze. It’s amazing. He just stares at you and chews.

Q: What did you think when Joe told you that you need to go to cooking school? Was that upsetting?

A: It’s funny how they edited the show. When they asked me if I would go to culinary school and I said no, that was a very abrupt answer on my part. If, in a real-life situation, they had asked me that question, it would have been a much more (complete) response. When you grow up in the restaurant industry and you’re really surrounded by food, you’re learning the ins and outs of how this works, how that works, not only on the culinary side but very much on the business side of things. So it’s not that I’m too good for culinary school or that I already know enough, but that the environment I’m already in is so conducive to a food-based education that it would almost seem redundant.

Q: Were you surprised when Joe offered you an apron?

A: I was floored. I wasn’t too surprised that I didn’t get an apron (at first) just because of how my cook was. My jaw was on the floor when Joe called me back, that’s for sure.

Q: As a viewer, I wasn’t sure you would actually accept an apron from Joe. Was there ever any hesitation?

A: Not even close. On TV, Joe Bastianich is the character, but in real life I’m sure he’s just Joe Bastianich. And that sentiment – of each one of these (judges) being different from who they are right now in front of you – is something you have to hold on to to stay sane during the taping of the show. Because the things they say to you, what they do to you, what they point out, who they point at – it’s all about drama in television, so there isn’t so much that affects me in my heart. I don’t think there was ever a thought in my mind that I shouldn’t take the apron. It was just too good of an opportunity to pass up.

Q: How much time did you get to spend with him as a mentor?

A: There’s not so much one-on-one time where he shows you how to run a business or gives you a crash course in restaurants. I would say I probably talked to Joe Bastianich the entire time I was on the show for a maximum of maybe a minute and 30 seconds. My audition, where he gave me the apron, that might have been the longest time that I talked to him. They obviously do check to see what you’re cooking and they say ‘Are you sure you want to do this? Why not this? I see you’re doing this, and you could do it this way.’ They kind of steer you in the right direction.

Q: What’s Gordon Ramsay like in real life? Did you get to talk to him?

A: He is very real. He’ll cut straight to the point. He will never, ever shoot sideways. He tells you exactly what he’s thinking, and 99 percent of the time, what he’s thinking is the right thing and you’d be foolish not to follow his advice. He’s a very interesting character. And he’s very large. The first time I saw him, I was really taken aback just by his physical size. He’s a really nice guy for the most part.

Q: There’s so much pressure to develop an idea for a dish and execute it quickly. Is that really the way it is, or do you have a little more preparation time?

A: It’s not so cut and dried that the bell rings and you’ve got to come up with a dish. There is a grace period. There is an understanding that for those individuals that, say, they’ve never made a soufflé before, you can guarantee there is no way that “MasterChef” would let that person cook if they’ve never made a soufflé before. There is a little bit of a tutorial to some of these challenges. There’s a little bit of a review of what we’ll be doing and how to do it best.

Q: But they don’t give you recipes, right? You’re still coming up with your own take on a dish?

A: Oh of course, absolutely. Unless it’s a pressure test, and in that case you have to make exactly the dish. But you can have a lot of fun with it. You get to be creative and do your own thing, based on a single ingredient, and that really is quite a challenge. Whether it’s 10 minutes or two hours, it’s pretty tough.

Q: I know you can’t give away the ending, but can you tell me if you’re happy overall with your experience?

A: It was a really life-changing experience because as soon as you get on the show, it feels like you’re strapped to the outside of a rocket. You’ve never seen these kind of things before, never been to L.A. before, you’re meeting all these people and whatnot. And then you get on the actual show and that is just a trip. You almost have to pinch yourself a little bit. Outside of that, I can say I am absolutely happy with what happened on the show. I couldn’t have had a better experience. Win or lose, it was one of the greatest times I’ve had in my life.

Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: MeredithGoad

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