Greg Gayne/FOX
Joe Bastianich
June 05, 2012 01:30 PM

Monday’s premiere episode kicked off another dynamic season of MasterChef! Fellow judges Gordon Ramsay, Graham Elliot and I are psyched to be back in the MasterChef kitchen. Seasons 1 and 2 set the bar high, and each year’s contestants seem to inspire more and more homecooks to come out for the castings.

Once again we searched through thousands of hopefuls from all over the country, bringing the top 100 to Los Angeles for a chance to really show us what they’ve got. This year brings a new and more intense energy than before – it was truly thrilling to be standing amongst the group that will be whittled down from thousands to only 100.

On our first day of auditions we see the emergence of two themes: there was plenty of pure talent, but plenty of gimmicks as well – and not a lot in between.

The talent indicates we might have players at the highest level this show has seen thus far, but for me the gimmicks and insincerity create a looming concern. What Graham said last night is 100 percent true – what we care about is what is on the plate, period.

A lot of drama showed up on day one, and quite frankly it made me a little nervous. We truly are looking for America’s next MasterChef, not America’s next reality TV star. This isn’t the O.C., there’s no prize for being fabulous here.

Sadly, the flip side of show that gains notoriety also gains in those in search of a vehicle for their own self-promotion, or those who might view the opportunity as a quick way out of their current unsatisfying situation.

Take Monti Carlo for example: There’s something I’m just not buying there. I don’t get the sense that the world of food and wine is really where her heart is, and fear this may be a hobby she’s using to get out of a tight spot. I’m not insensitive to her struggles, and kudos to any who takes steps to better their life, but the food and wine world is anything but a safe harbor, and I fear she may find herself in yet another tricky spot.

Ryan’s bravado has me a little worried as well. I bet against my fears and saved him elimination solely because of what he put on the plate, but I have my reservations as to whether or not he can hold up in a pressure filled situation, on someone else’s clock. In the restaurant business there are no lazy days filled with experimentation. Chances are you’ll be executing someone else’s menu – and it had better be right the first time.

Then again, he’s not our first cocky New Yorker with a little time and money on his hands whose made good on MasterChef. Max Kramer from season 2 threw us a few pleasant surprises, and disciplined himself enough to open up his own place, so who knows what Ryan can do. Perhaps his bravado is what will power him through to the end. Maybe those lazy days of experimentation will bare spectacular results.

After two successful seasons, Gordon, Graham and I have seen just about everything come toward us through that door – but nothing prepared me for Christine …

In all my years in this industry, I have never encountered a visually impaired chef – not once. I am not opposed to it; I’m simply at a loss as to what to make of it. I have no idea how challenging it must be to function in today’s world with a disability as significant as loss of sight. But far be it from me to make assumptions on what she can and can’t do. But to be honest, watching her come through that door left me completely baffled.

Hers was the dish I was most curious to taste – and she nailed it! I mean she really nailed it. Does this mean she’ll be able to manage her way around the MasterChef kitchen? That I’m not so sure of, but she’s certainly earned the right to try like everyone else, and is one to watch as we move ahead.

Another great one to watch is Michael Chen, a mere 19 years old from Texas. Right out of the gate, he wowed us with killer Chinese dumplings. This dish said it all – he came to play. Although he may be lacking in years, his decision to pursue cooking and this show against his parents’ wishes, and coming out to them as being gay shows that this kid has inner strength – and that he’s someone who might be able to stand up the rigorous mental and physical tasks ahead.

Any way you slice it, we are in for a wild ride this season. Don’t miss the second round of auditions Tuesday (9 p.m. ET) on Fox. And thanks for watching!

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