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‘MasterChef’ runner-up to cook at food, wine fest

Published: Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2012 6:37 p.m. CST • Updated: Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2012 6:44 p.m. CST

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If there’s anything Chicagoans take more seriously than sports, it’s food. Living proof of this consideration is Chicago-native Josh Marks, the Season 3 runner-up on Fox television’s “MasterChef.”

Marks, a former basketball player, traded in his life on the court for a shot at cooking in the kitchen when he chopped, sliced, diced and cooked himself past 100 other home cooks for a spot on the televised cooking competition.

Cooking at the mercy of celebrity chefs’ Gordon Ramsay and Graham Elliot, and restaurateur Joe Bastianich’s hard-headed opinions, Marks nearly walked away with the “MasterChef” title, prize money and book deal, but lost to fellow contestant Christina Ha in the final round.

Marks will be popping up on St. Charles’ radar Nov. 17 and 18 for the Chicago Food and Wine Festival at Pheasant Run Resort, where he will join the ranks of other celebrity chefs for live cooking demonstrations and an autograph signing.

For his cooking demo, “The 7’ Chef” will prepare Curried Venison Chops, a dish inspired by the entree he prepared for the “MasterChef” Season 3 finale.

Kane County Chronicle features editor Kara Silva had a chance to talk with Marks’ about the upcoming festival, food and life after “MasterChef.”

Kara Silva: How does it feel to be coming back to your hometown in a couple weeks?
Josh Marks:
It feels great. I’m just happy to be able to have an event close to home, where all my Chicago fans that have been dying to see me can come out and meet me.

KS: So, are you looking forward to the Chicago Food and Wine Festival coming up in a couple weeks?
JM:
Yeah. I’m fired up. I actually can’t wait. I was at the mall [the other day] to buy some clothes for the event – trying to get nice and fly for it.

KS: Are there any restaurants you’re going to have to eat at before leaving town?
JM:
Oh yeah, most definitely. I have to get a slice of pizza from Freddies on 31st Street. Most definitely have to get beef from Al’s, and Harold’s Chicken.

KS: How do you feel about seeing your old cast mate at the festival?
JM:
I’m definitely looking forward to seeing Monti [Carlo] and laughing, and having a good time with her. I’m also looking forward to meeting the “Hell’s Kitchen” chefs as well.

KS: Are you still in contact with [“MasterChef” judges] Gordon Ramsay, Graham Elliot or Joe Bastianich?
JM:
I’m in contact with Graham. I haven’t been in contact with Gordon since the show, but I went and cooked with chef Graham at his restaurant in Chicago a couple weeks ago when I was there, and hung out with him for a while.

KS: What is Gordon Ramsay like off camera?
JM:
Gordon is great. Behind the cameras, he’s a bit of a goofball. He loves to joke around, but he’s still very serious. He wants to bring out the best in everybody, whether he’s yelling at you or nice to you. He wants you to be the best, so being around Gordon is great.

KS: How has life changed for you since “MasterChef?”
JM:
Life has changed for me since “MasterChef” because it really brought out my full potential as a chef. And now I have the support of fans and friends and family. They’re just motivating me to be even more successful as a chef.

KS: Had you won the title of Master Chef, do you think things would have turned out better for you or do you think things kind of happen for a reason?
JM:
I definitely think things happen for a reason. I was a bit upset that I didn’t win, but it actually brought me to a point where I can be better – a better chef – and look at my faults and realize what I need to do to get better.

KS: So, what are you up to now?
JM:
I’m meeting with investors, grant writers and other culinary professionals to get my cooking school started in Chicago.

KS: You want to do more of a cooking school rather than a restaurant?
JM:
Yeah, I want to do a cooking school, but I’m also going to have a catering element to my business, because I know people want to taste my food.  I want to be able to teach and still be able to provide my food through catering.

KS: I read that you probably would have ended up with a career in basketball, what served as the catalyst that led to you stepping into the food world? Was it something that just clicked?
JM:
It was a series of clicks. When I stopped playing ball, I got my own apartment and I started cooking on my own, and for my friends and family and everything. I just kept getting better and better and I was like, ‘Wow, I really have a skill here – a God-given talent.’

Then I went on to pursue more knowledge by teaching myself different techniques and skills.

KS: Now that you’ve kind of stumbled into this world of food and you have all of these opportunities coming your way, is there anything you miss about your former life [before “MasterChef”]?
JM:
Absolutely not. I mean in my former life, I was mistaken for a basketball player everywhere I went, but I still get that every now and then but it just feels good to be recognized for who I am as a chef and not someone thinking, ‘Oh my God, who do you play for?’

KS: You’re a young, 25-year-old, self-taught chef. Where does your inspiration behind your food come from?
JM:
A lot of my inspiration comes from seasonal ingredients. I love cooking with food that’s in season, because – for one – it’s at the peak of ripeness and its generally the best tasting; and it’s cheaper too because there is such an abundance of it.

So, it’s good in your stomach and good on your pockets.

KS: And what about ambition? How does one go from a self-taught home cook to where you are now?
JM:
I just strive to be successful and I strive for perfection whether I’m a chef, a garbage man or a contact specialist for the army. I just want to do my best in everything I do and in everything I touch.

KS: Do you have any advice for aspiring chefs?
JM:
Yeah, my advice for aspiring chefs and home cooks is to just be yourself and be confident in everything that you cook, and just cook with a sense of confidence. Just think, ‘Hey, I’m the best chef in the world,’ and let it show through your food.

KS: This is kind of a random, fun question. If you had one day left to live, what would be your last meal and would you be cooking it?
JM:
I probably wouldn’t be cooking it. I’d have the three “MasterChef” judges cook it. I’d have an appetizer, entree and a dessert.

I’d have Graham [Elliot] prepare the appetizer. He makes this celery concoction at his restaurant and it has all of the elements of celery … .

And for my entree, I’d have Gordon Ramsay’s Beef Wellington with the roasted parsnip and everything that he serves with it – the blueberry chutney.

For dessert, I’d make Joe  [Bastianich] make me the [Torta della Nonna] with pine nuts that he does at his restaurant in L.A.

• For more information on the Chicago Food and Wine Festival or to purchase tickets, visit bestoffoodandwine.com.

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