MasterChef Judge Michael Cimarusti Tells Us All About The Finale - Exclusive Interview

"MasterChef" has been around for quite some time given that Season 11 is drawing to a close. The second part of the finale, which is set to air on Fox at 8 p.m. on September 15, will be all about cooking up the perfect seafood. To judge the very last episode of the season, Michael Cimarusti joined the judges' panel. That's why the two-time Michelin-starred chef sat down with Mashed to discuss all things "MasterChef" and seafood. 

Few chefs would be more appropriate to judge a seafood-themed finale given that Cimarusti's restaurant, Providence, in Los Angeles, California has focused on cooking up sustainably sourced seafood from U.S. waters for more than a decade. Cimarusti's talent for showcasing the natural flavor of seafood and fish has even earned him the James Beard Award of Best Chef in the West in 2019. With his expertise, Cimarusti shared his thoughts on the finale of "MasterChef" as well as some tips for home cooks too. 

Michael Cimarusti on the MasterChef finale

Can you tell us a little bit about your experience on "MasterChef" as a judge?

Yeah. I mean, it was great. I got to be the judge on the finale, which was unexpectedly great. I mean, the food, the cooking, the competitors, all three of them, very, very talented. They presented food that was not only good through a filter of a home cook, but it was good cooking, just period. I was very impressed. All three of them exceeded my expectations with the food that they were able to prepare in a relatively short period of time.

Did anything unexpected happen behind the scenes that viewers won't get to see?

No, not that I remember. I mean, there was definitely one unexpected thing that happened that is not behind the scenes. It's going to be part of the episode. A little bit of an equipment malfunction, that was a little bit of a problem for one of the chefs, but she recovered well, and ultimately, I think she prepared a dish that she was proud of and that I, myself, as a judge, was very, very happy with.

Michael Cimarusti dishes on the competition of MasterChef

Can you tell us what you think sets successful contestants apart?

I think the three women that made it to the finale, to me, what got them there, and I can only project because I wasn't there for all the episodes, but what I saw were three women that knew exactly what they wanted to prepare, knew exactly how it should be prepared, and they were able to execute. They're three contestants, each one of them with her own point of view, and they were able to bring their ideas across, execute at a very high level, and prepare food that was well-presented and beautifully executed. Not easy to do. All three of them worked in a very neat and organized way. They didn't seem to be too terribly flustered, even though there was a whole lot on the line, and I would think that that cool-headedness and that ability to execute under pressure was what got all three of them to the finale.

What do you think the most challenging component of "MasterChef" is?

Well, I think from what I've seen of the show, it's like every week, there's a curveball. Like on the one hand, they're trying to give people enough to be successful, like the proper equipment, the proper tools, all that kind of stuff, great ingredients to work with, but on the other hand, there's always a little curveball or a little twist in each episode that makes things just a bit harder for them and forces the contestants to dig a little bit deeper and really show who they are. And like I said, in the finale, all three of those women were able to show out just beautifully.

Michael Cimarusti on judging MasterChef

What are the best and worst parts of being a judge for this caliber of competition?

Well, I mean, the best part of it, I think, is you get to be there. At the end of the day, these people have all put a tremendous amount of effort, and a lot of love, and a lot of intent into the food that they prepare, and you get to be a part of that, you get to see it. I enjoyed, especially with the finale, hearing each one of the chefs there, their point of view, their story, and why they prepared what they prepared. Being a part of that experience, whether it's in a restaurant or sitting on the judge's table on a show like "MasterChef," when there is a story behind the cuisine and you get to meet the faces behind the cuisine, I think it's always interesting and it's always exciting, and "MasterChef" definitely has that in spades. They really dig deeply into the lives of each one of the contestants, and you learn a little bit about something, and we all develop our favorites and become fans of one chef over another, maybe.

But at the end of the day, it's all about the food, and so being there at the end of the day to judge the efforts that these people put forth, it was inspiring, and they all created really, really delicious food, so it was a treat.

Would you be interested in judging again or maybe for a different competition as well?

Yeah, sure. Luckily, I'm asked to do these things all the time, and sometimes with professional chefs, sometimes with amateur chefs, and sometimes with, even, kids. It's always a pleasure, and I look at it more as an opportunity not to find fault with the work that they've done, but to find what they did right and to build on that and to ... Of course, you're a judge, so you're there to nitpick a little bit and that kind of thing, so there's always going to be a little bit of that, but at the same time, I feel it's an opportunity to really sing the praises of people that are putting themselves out there and doing really good work, and that was certainly the case with "MasterChef." All three of those chefs, they really brought their A-game and created food that was delicious, and memorable, and well-executed.

Michael Cimarusti discusses Gordon Ramsay's impact

Is there anything else that you'd like to add about "MasterChef"?

Yeah. Well, I don't know. It's just always an honor to be a part of it. Spending time with Gordon is always inspirational. Obviously, I've followed him for years, and years, and years as a chef, but what he does outside of the kitchen, with shows like "MasterChef," I think it's as big as the contribution that he made in the kitchen.

He's an incredible mentor to those people, every one of them, and he pushes them to try and bring out the very best that they have within them, and I think that's something that, I think, maybe sometimes gets lost in the final product that's edited for TV, is just how good of a mentor and coach he actually is and how much he truly cares and invest in the contestant's success. It's truly important to him, and that's evident every time I've done the show, whether it's "MasterChef," or "Hell's Kitchen," or what have you. Every time I've done one of his shows, it's just very clear to me how much he values what these young people are doing and how invested he is, as I said, in their success. 

Why buying American seafood is important, according to Michael Cimarusti

What are some of the biggest mistakes people make when cooking seafood

I think the biggest mistake that people make is thinking that there's one way to approach every fish, or that the one approach that you made that, maybe, works with one fish will work with all, and it's just not that way. I think cooking fish and being good at it is something that takes a long time. You have to be present when you're cooking fish. It's not like a roast, or a braise, or a stew, or something like that, where you put the lid on and walk away for an hour.

Fish doesn't work that way for the most part. It's much more immediate. You have to be there, you have to be present, you have to be thinking about what's going on, you have to be receptive in more than just not just looking at what's going on, but smelling what's going on and hearing what's going on in the pan. You just really have to be involved. I think that's the biggest key. But there are a few simple techniques that you can learn, and once you're proficient at them or with them, then you can apply them to different types of fish, but more than anything else, I think it takes a lot of time and trial and error to be really, really good at cooking fish.

Is there an underrated seafood you think people should eat more often or eat more of?

Yeah, there's tons of underrated seafood. What I always tell people is, first of all, buy American seafood, if you can. Buy fish that was caught in the United States, by fishermen that are licensed by the United States or whatever respective state that they're working. If you're buying American seafood, you're buying fish that is very, very heavily regulated, that most likely is going to be caught sustainably, and most of the time, not all the time, we've learned in recent years, but it's going to be what it's supposed to be and not something else. When you buy imported seafood, it's really tough to know what you're getting, and it's also tough to know if that fish was caught in illegal fishery, using legal methods, within the season, and within the quota, and that's why it's more than just a good idea to buy American fish. It's also a patriotic idea and a patriotic act to buy American fish because you're supporting your fellow Americans, and American fishermen certainly need our help. So that's my tip.

Michael Cimarusti explains why a common baking tool is so handy for cooking fish

Do you have any cooking tips you can share with our readers?

Gosh, I mean, there's a ton of them. My philosophy, generally, especially when you're cooking fin fish is cook it until you think it's done, and then pull the fish out, whether it's out of the oven, off the grill, out of the saute pan, let it rest for a couple of minutes, and then check it. And the way I always check for doneness of fish is by using a cake tester, those little Ateco cake testers you can buy for 99 cents in the bakery aisle of your supermarket ...

What you do is you push it into the flesh of the fish, at the fattest part of the filet or the thickest part of the fish, and leave it there for 15 or 20 seconds, and then either touch it to your bottom lip or touch it to your wrist, the way you would test milk from a baby bottle, and if it feels a little bit warm, like warmer than body temperature, but not crazy hot, then the fish is probably done. The other piece of advice is, you can always cook it more, but you can't cook it less. So always pull the fish a little bit earlier than you think it should be pulled ...

And when you get really good at using a cake tester, you don't even need to use your lip or your wrist anymore because you can feel by the way the needle passes through the fish whether or not it's actually cooked, because cake testers are dull. So if the fish is cooked and the fish is starting to relax, then the fish tester will pass through pretty easily. If the fish is still raw or rare in the center, when you push the cake tester in, it'll stop at a certain point, once it gets to the portion of the fish towards the center that's still not cooked, and so you'll know you have to cook it just a little bit more.

When you're going out and you spending really good money on American-caught wild, sustainable seafood, you want to take really good care of it all through the process, from the time you bring it home, to the time you put it in the pan, to the time it winds up on your table. That 99 cent investment in the cake tester is your best bet to protect it. Especially once you get comfortable with it, it's the very best way to test the doneness.

Chef Michael Cimarusti on his Michelin stars

Can you tell us a little bit about that experience and how it felt when you got your first Michelin Star?

Yeah, I mean, it's definitely something that ... Well, first of all, I never thought it would happen. Because when I was a kid, Michelin Stars were only for France, and Italy, and Spain, and England. There weren't guides outside of Europe, really. And then slowly, they started to expand, first in New York, then San Francisco, and then I heard, I think was back in 2007, that they announced that there would be a guide for 2008. So it was it was crazy. Right away, I was like, "Oh my God, what are we going to do? We have to improve everything." I mean, we were always trying to be better. From that day until this day, I always feel like our best work is still ahead of us here at the restaurant, and we're constantly pushing to evolve and improve, and Michelin is just another reason to do that.

But earning them, it was a huge honor. I mean, I left a great job in New York City back when I was 22 or 23 years old, whatever it was, to go and work for free in France because I wanted to work in a Michelin Star kitchen, and now, I'm running a Michelin Star kitchen, with a lot of help, of course. But yeah, it's an honor, and it's a great motivator to get up out of bed every day and push a little harder, for sure.

Do you have any plans on the horizon to shoot for the third star?

Yeah, we're shooting for the third. Yeah, of course. I mean, I think that's the beauty of it. I feel like once you have two and if you have a facility that might earn you a third star ... They say that it's all on the plate, but it's not all on the plate. It's the ambiance, it's the china, it's the silver and the glassware, and the bathrooms. It's everything. So, I mean, if you have a facility that could potentially help you earn a third star, I think all chefs just want to keep pushing to try and get it. So, yeah, we're definitely pushing for it, and everything that we do is with the intent of, hopefully one day, earning that third star.

The season finale of "MasterChef" airs September 15 on Fox. You can follow Michael Cimarusti on Instagram, and if you're in the Los Angeles area and want a fantastic seafood meal, be sure to stop by his restaurant Providence