MasterChef: United Tastes Of America Finalists Give Us A Sneak-Peek At The Finale - Exclusive Interview

After weeks of fierce competition on this season of "MasterChef: United Tastes of America," there are only three contestants left standing in the finale that airs tonight on FOX. Hailing from all different regions of the U.S., Jennifer Maune will be representing the South, Grant Gillon will be showcasing his Midwestern fare, and Kennedy will be revealing her take on the West's cuisine. In an exclusive interview, we spoke with the trio to find out what viewers can expect to see during their last showdown and being judged by culinary legends Gordon Ramsay, Aarón Sánchez, and Joe Bastianich.

While they all said it was stressful, Kennedy admitted that even though she was deemed an "ice queen" this season by Ramsay, you will see tears from her multiple times in this last episode. The triad also told us what it was actually like behind-the-scenes working together (which involved some UNO! and liquid courage-fueled karaoke), the hardest challenges this season, their unanimous choice for the toughest judge, and their future plans now that the show is coming to an end.

What it was like to beat out the competition and make it to the finale

Congratulations on making it to the finale of "MasterChef!" What did it feel like to be there?

Jennifer Maune: It was personally such an honor. I entered the competition so I could get the seed money to open a restaurant, and I wanted to improve my skills as a chef by learning from Gordon, Aarón, and Joe. I was in awe that I made it to the finale. Once I got there, I made it my goal to make it that far, but with every challenge, I felt so humbled and so honored that I was doing well and getting to continue forward in the competition.

Grant Gillon: "Surreal" is what it felt like to be in the finale. I'd worked so hard for it. I knew I put my best foot forward each and every time I stepped into that kitchen and it was time to focus. It was so many emotions coming all at once. I've had stress. I've had anxiety. I've missed my family. I've grown so much as a cook throughout this competition. Now, to be here in the circle, seeing the crowd around the jumbotron ahead, it was an out-of-body experience. Basically, it was very similar to when I first stepped in for the audition. It was like, "Oh, this is a real place. I'm here. This isn't just on TV." Really cool.

Kennedy: Honestly, every single day, from the beginning absolutely to the end, it was a dream. Especially getting towards the end, it felt so much more real. It felt like I deserved to be there and it was amazing. It was magical. I loved the finale. They gave us the chance to be original and show our true selves. It gives me goosebumps to even think about it.

How their regions influenced their cooking style and what sets them apart

How did growing up in your hometowns influence your own cooking style, and what do you think makes it different from the other contestants on the show?

Maune: My grandmother was a very good cook and the hostess with the mostest. Spending so much time with her, I learned a lot and knew that I wanted a big family and knew that I wanted to be able to cook like her for my family. I got my flavors from growing up in the South. We have such a wonderful farming community here, so we always have fresh ingredients. We love our spice. We love flavors, and that's what set me apart, but also that I came to the competition with more of a French technique style, especially with my plating.

Gillon: I love to accentuate what ingredients are around me, and being in the Midwest and in Iowa, our agriculture is incredible here, and our livestock. I'm really fortunate to have so many great producers, farmers, meat lockers, and butchers in the area. What is a little bit different is the food seasoning. Believe me, it's very well-seasoned, but I don't necessarily love doing over-the-top rubs or crazy, in-your-face sauces because I want to accentuate what the actual plant or the actual vegetable or the meat tastes like. I take a little more of a simple but elegant, modern approach to cooking.

Kennedy: A lot of other people on the show are definitely from cities, and I'm more from mountains and ranges. The way that you cook in Denver is definitely more farm-to-table. Get it yourself, and it's very unique. I was born and raised here, and I've always stuck to my roots. I grew up on a ranch, so it's amazing that I got the opportunity to show who I am as a person, my culture, and my family as well.

What led Jennifer to purse a culinary degree at 40 and Grant's take on misconceptions about Midwestern food

Jennifer, you said that you were a stay-at-home mom for several years and felt the urge to pursue your culinary dreams at 40. What was the impetus for that?

Maune: I started a blog in 2017, and it became my business. I share recipes, home design, and how to entertain. My recipes kept growing in popularity, and people were asking questions about how to modify them. I realized I didn't know the science behind cooking and baking. I entered culinary school at the age of 40 and was pregnant at the time with my sixth baby. I graduated with a pastry arts degree, and then I finished my culinary arts degree.

Wow, that's impressive! Grant, what do you think are some misconceptions people have about Midwestern cuisine?

Gillon: They definitely think it's all meat and potatoes on the plate, slathered with gravy and vegetables, and there's dinner. That certainly is a part of Midwest cooking, but there's a lot more refinement in Midwest cooking than you think. There's a lot of love that goes into each and every plate. The misconception that it's going to be bland and thrown on the plate and is what it is — that isn't quite the case.

You've said your culinary style is a blend of Midwestern and Italian. Did you grow up watching your Sicilian grandparents cook in the kitchen?

Gillon: Yeah, my grandmother was an incredible cook. Any time we went over there for Sunday dinner, the things that she would make were very Italian and things that I hadn't quite heard of or had the opportunity to try before. Without knowing it, that implanted something in me like, "Cooking's really cool." It's not just what you're used to seeing. I drew that inspiration for that grilling challenge earlier in the season. That pork chop with red sauce is something that we would definitely have at grandma's house. I'm fortunate to be able to have drawn from that many years later in this competition.

Kennedy's take on the way she presents her food and the infamous mayonnaise debacle

Kennedy, the presentation of your meals are always stunning to look at. Is it important for your food to be just as beautiful as it is delicious?

Kennedy: Oh, absolutely. My whole life, I've been a painter. I paint murals. I've always been an artsy person. You first eat with your eyes and then your nose and everything. When I see something that's extremely beautiful, I almost don't want to eat it, because it's so pretty. That's definitely the style of chef that I am. I want you to see something that's beautiful and tell a story.

I have to ask, did you feel bad using all the mayonnaise when Nina needed some for her dish as well?

Kennedy: Oh my God, I knew this question was going to come up! I was at a bar the other night and I was telling my friend, "I'm honestly going to start a whole thing where I'm going to go to all my friends' houses and I'm going to steal their mayonnaise and I'm going to become the mayo thief." I do tend to go through Reddit and see what people say, and there was this one Reddit thread or whatever it was like, "She knew there was mayonnaise in the coleslaw, and she did that as just trying to hurt Nina."

Honestly, no. I was just being a dingdong, and I was like, "Oh, s**, I used all the mayonnaise," especially since Nina and I are so close. We're very similar in the way that we love hunting and we love using outdoor game and stuff. All it took was me being like, "Okay, well, you want some of my mayonnaise sauce?" and she goes, "Yeah."

The toughest challenges this season

What would you say was one of the most difficult challenges of this season on "MasterChef?"

Maune: The tag team was probably the worst and hardest, because I have some hearing challenges. I'm deaf in my left ear, and Charles was standing on my left. I couldn't hear a lot of his instructions. I wear hearing aids, but with the fans and the cameras and all the noise, it's hard to overcome the background noise. That was certainly a challenge, but really, the last three were so intense and so high-pressure, and then the technique and skill required was so high.

Gillon: First and foremost, the Hell's Kitchen restaurant takeover was absolutely the most difficult thing we did all year. I learned so much. I gained so much knowledge on different techniques and different pairings and those kinds of things for the season, but nothing prepared me to be on the line in Hell's Kitchen. It was a smack of reality, that's for dang sure. That one was rough and any of those communication challenges — the tag team and the wall.

Kennedy: One of the most difficult parts was staying true to myself and being able to show my personality. You're on set for so many hours and you're exhausted, and I wanted it to come through on the show who I was as a person, but after 14 hours, I'm like, "Girl, I'm just tired." That's the only thing that I really hoped for and wished more of the season, was seeing everyone's personality, because behind-the-scenes everyone was so cool.

What the contestants are doing when the cameras aren't rolling

It seemed like you became really close to the other contestants on the series. What is it actually like behind the scenes?

Maune: We all really got along very well, and because of that, it made the behind-the-scenes that much more fun. I loved that it was such a diverse group and there were so many different personalities, but we would play UNO. I would tend to get nervous after the competition. When you're in between the competing and then the judging, there's a little lull there, and I would always be so nervous.

Reagan would say, "Get over here and play UNO with me. We're getting your mind off this." At times, we all took care of each other when needed, because when you're in this intense situation for weeks at a time, it can get pretty stressful. We all leaned on each other to help lift each other up.

Gillon: Yeah, it's a bunch of like-minded people hanging out. We're all there for a reason because we love food and we have that competitive edge and we have one goal and it's to win this thing. It was wonderful. I made what I feel are some lifelong friends. I still talk to them all the time now. It's fun to be able to talk to them not only about food but like, "Hey, how's your family? What are you doing this weekend?" Those kinds of things.

I've made really good friendships. It was awesome. It made it a lot easier. I didn't want to be in a hotel with people that hated me or I hate, that kind of thing, so it was nice that we all matched well.

Kennedy: We weren't allowed to leave the hotel because [of COVID protocol]. We had a floor that was just us and we created a karaoke room and we'd have a couple of cocktails. The most beautiful part about the whole situation is we're so different and we're from so many different parts of the U.S. The way that we bonded was absolutely amazing. I fell in love with every single person on the show.

What it's like to have your food judged

All of the judges are powerhouses in the food world. What is it like working together and getting your dishes critiqued by them?

Maune: Sometimes, it was hard to hear feedback when I might've disagreed, but at the same time, I went there to learn and I wanted to be a sponge. That was one of my goals, to improve my skills, and learn from them while I had that opportunity. There were a couple of times when the feedback from Joe, I was like, "Okay, I might disagree," but Gordon, especially making it to the end, became a mentor to all three of us. 

They did a little celebration for us when we made it to the top three and we all sat on the sofa together. They asked us what our dreams were, what was coming next, where we see ourselves in the future, and had a glass of champagne together. It made us feel like they really cared here.

Gillon: It's stress-inducing for sure, but it's awesome because you note feedback from some of the absolute best minds in the food world. To hear Gordon Ramsay say so many nice things about my food throughout the season was super cool. Even when he said something was bizarre or didn't work, that's still him. That's not him trying to demean us. That's him knowing that we're all good cooks and he wants us to know what we did wrong and chances are, if he tells us in a very direct way, we're not going to do it that way again.

Kennedy: Oh, baby, yeah. It's called "the snake." When they first go through and try everyone's thing, it's so f***ing nerve-wracking, because they'll eat one pea off your dish and be like, "Hmm," and then walk away and you're like, "Oh my God, did you like that pea? I have no idea." It was so fun too because I'm like, "Tell me what you think. Let me know what's good." That's what we're here for.

The most difficult judge to please

Who do you think was the toughest judge to impress this season and why?

Maune: It was Joe. It's always great, but not great enough. For my pork on the grill challenge, I had temped it. It looked juicy to me. It looked like it was perfectly cooked, but it's just shy of what he thinks is perfect. He was the hardest, but it's okay because when those positive moments came where he was like, "No comment. This is perfection." Then, it means that much more.

Gillon: They're all really tough. Getting that compliment from Joe is always a feather in your cap, for sure. There's something that makes you feel really good in that. He doesn't hand out compliments. He has a very high set of standards, just like Gordon and Aarón do, but he's from a different lens.

He has a restaurateur lens, not a chef lens. He knows what's going to look good on the table on a Saturday night, what's going to sell out as a special, those kinds of things. I really appreciated getting any kind of information from him. Any time you get a compliment from Joe, that's a win.

Kennedy: Joe. Gordon was an absolute angel. My opinions of all three of them are a little different. I learned to fall so in love with Gordon because not only does he have a critique, but he'll let you know what you did wrong for next time. Instead of being like, "Oh, this sucks" he'll be like, "This sucks, but if you did this, it wouldn't suck."

Joe is like ... Joe is Joe. He told me one time that one of my sauces wouldn't even be good on buttered popcorn. I'm like, "Okay, well, I don't know what popcorn you're eating, Joe." But, no, I love him.

What fans will see in the season finale

What can viewers expect to see in the final episode?

Maune: I'm excited to show my menu between the lobster succotash, the herb-encrusted venison, and the chocolate dome cake. It's all delicious. It all flows well together. It represents not only my skill level, but my southern heritage, and it's going to be beautifully plated. I'm excited for the viewers to meet my family that I've been talking about this season and to be in the ring of fire, where I'm cooking with Grant and Kennedy. I'm really proud of both of them as well, because we all got really close and I saw each of us improve. We really fought to the end, and it was really cool to experience that with them.

Gillon: The finale is going to show who I am as a cook on the plate. It's going to blend together my Midwest mentality with my Italian heritage, and I'm super pumped for everybody to see the menu that I put together.

Kennedy: Me crying my eyes out. This season, Gordon called me the "ice queen." They're like, "We don't really see a lot of emotion from you. You're just a hard worker." Definitely, in the finale, you'll see the real me. My finale menu is something that's very personal to me. It's my heart, my soul, and it's very connected to me, and it's a story. It made me very emotional that I had the opportunity to do that and show that side of me to 30 million people and have them get to know who I am as a person.

What's next for you after making it this far on "MasterChef?"

Maune: I started with wanting to open a restaurant, and I have already begun the planning process. I have met with investors and have some on board. I've already started my menu. I'm looking at real estate. My goal is by the end of 2024 to have at least one location open in central Arkansas. It's a dream come true for me. I've also, in the last few weeks, been formulating my own seasoning brand, and we're almost to the finishing stage of that and that will be coming out in the next few weeks. Then, I have a cookbook coming, and hopefully, a whole list of books coming.

Gillon: My goal from the beginning of this has been to open my own farm-to-table restaurant in my hometown of Altoona, and that is still my current plan. I don't have a timetable for it yet. There's lots of planning to go into that, but that is my goal right now, to be able to put my mark on my hometown and have something that the whole town can enjoy.

Kennedy: I'm currently in the works of opening up my own restaurant. I have a couple of investors I've been talking to. I'm considering it either being in San Diego or Denver. The name is Nosh; it means eating food enthusiastically. It's going to be a 26-course Omakase-style restaurant. You're going to wear a raincoat when you walk into my restaurant. I want it to be very hands-on.

The finale of "MasterChef: United Tastes of America" will air on FOX tonight at 8:00 p.m. ET.

This interview has been edited for clarity.