"MasterChef" off to a tasty start

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - Watching “MasterChef” is like tuning in to “American Idol” on mute.

The new Fox show, premiering Tuesday, is based on a popular international format now washing across American shores.

Tryouts in a handful of cities earned more than 100 amateur chefs a chance to advance to the next round in Los Angeles. During the first two episodes, the three judges -- Gordon Ramsay, Joe Bastianich and Graham Elliot Bowles -- pare the number of contestants to 30.

After that, a series of challenges -- from feeding an army to cooking a wedding dinner -- will produce a single MasterChef. In addition to the title, the winner gets a quarter of a million bucks and a recipe book deal.

It’s a proven format, but, unlike “American Idol,” viewers can’t judge the quality of the performances. The taste and the texture of their food is unknown to all but the judges, who frequently differ among themselves about these qualities. Who’s right? Who knows?

On other cooking shows, like Ramsay’s “Hell’s Kitchen,” contestants are professional chefs. There is an assumption that their food is palatable. In “MasterChef,” cooking talent varies dramatically, which makes taste a more important unknown.

Even so, the show manages to be hugely entertaining and involving thanks mainly to the judges’ personalities and the ability of the producers to spot emotionally charged stories when they see them.

Sometimes these elements work together. A fleeting note after the closing credits said “decisions were made by the judges with input from the producers. Some deliberations occurred off camera.” In other words, taste might count for a lot less than this series would have you believe.

Unlike many three-judge shows, this one doesn’t fall into the predictable pattern of good cop-bad cop-middle cop. Although Bowles is a little more flexible than the other two, any of them are capable of skewering an unpalatable dish.

“I can’t think of a worse way of cooking a piece of tuna,” Ramsay exclaims at one point. He describes a potato casserole as “cow dung topped with cheese.” Staring at a plate of catfish, he says, “I hope it tastes better than it looks.”

“I could taste desperation,” Bowles says of another dish. Bastianich, though less given to flamboyant insults, might be the hardest to please of the trio.

Still, the golden moments in this series are poignant and personal, not brash. There are enough of them -- including teary pleading heightened by pre-commercial teases -- to keep viewers from defecting. Once the field is narrowed to 30, the food fight really begins.