Leslie Gilliams: Malibu’s MasterChef

Those with a gastronomic palate in Malibu will be waiting with baited breath for the outcome of this season’s Fox network hit, “MasterChef.” Local resident Leslie Gilliams is one of the contestants, and if his broiled salmon with citrus glaze doesn’t convince you he should win, his osso bucco on pureed parsnips will.

“It was real competitive pressure,” Gilliams said in a recent interview with The Malibu Times. “In a restaurant environment, I would think you really need to know your stuff. But I’ve had a blast.”

Gilliams proudly proclaims himself a “stay-at-home dad,” where he cares for seven children, a wife, Paula Hart, who produces film and television, and, as he is quick to point out, a home with pool, gardens, cars, septic tank and “dozens of trees that need trimming.”

“I don’t have a lot of time to cook,” he said. “But my kids have traveled a lot and have a sophisticated palate. So I do stuff that kids like, but aren’t just hot dogs.”

In fact, he is creative enough in the kitchen that his wife said one evening, “You could do that,” while they were watching “MasterChef.”

Gilliams took the plunge and auditioned. He met Chef Gordon Ramsay — the “Master” in “MasterChef” who has a reputation for terrorizing his contestants — and auditioned some more. In the end, he was selected, along with 21 other finalists, for the opportunity to create signature dishes in the show kitchen, under strict time constraint, that are so pleasing they make the next round of competition. After the final high-pressure face-off with another chef, the winner receives $250,000, a MasterChef trophy and a contract for his own cookbook.

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“No, Chef Ramsay never made me cry,” Gilliams said. “He reminds me of me. There is a right way and a wrong way to do something. I don’t mind constructive criticism.”

Gilliams’ own no-nonsense approach to life was formed from a tough childhood in the Bronx. He was one of 11 children whose mother was a nun before she got married. Hard times landed five of her children in a Catholic Charities orphanage for nearly 10 years. Gilliams said institutional cooking spurred him to learn to cook for himself in hopes that, as he said, “If I could cook a good meal, I might get a girl up to my apartment.”

He had a successful career as a hairdresser in Manhattan before finding love and fatherhood in Malibu. He said the fact that he lives in Malibu caused some friction with other cast members, who resented a perceived sense of noblesse oblige.

“I tried to be friendly, but I don’t think I was well-liked on set,” Gilliams said. “There was a big age difference between me and the rest of the chefs and I think they thought I was a silver-spooner.”

Gilliams’ producers, however, were fully enthusiastic about him. Adeline Ramage Rooney is executive producer for “MasterChef” (and a Topanga resident) and says that the moment the production staff met him, they knew Gilliams embodied the spirit of the show.

“He has an infectious passion for cooking and a brilliant ability to communicate his passion on a plate,” Rooney said. “He also is incredibly competitive, and has a wealth of culinary experience to draw upon.”

One part of the competition is known as the “Mystery Box Challenge,” wherein each chef is given a box with the same ingredients in it. They must create a dish within a fixed amount of time using only those ingredients. Gilliams’ box was loaded with fruit and it almost did him in.

“I wanted to make a berry tart and I screwed up the beginning,” he said. “With seven women in my house, I don’t usually do the baking and the crust fell apart. I ended up making two smaller tarts.”

When asked what he learned in his season on “MasterChef,” Gilliams quipped, “Well, I learned to be a better baker.

“But I also learned more patience, both with food and the staff,” he continued. “The only disasters I experienced were leadership disasters [during team challenges on the show], but I surprised myself.”

Gilliams knows the outcome of the season, but says readers must watch episodes that air throughout the summer to find out the winner. When asked if Malibu could expect to see a Gilliams restaurant soon, he laughed.

“Not with two kids in college,” he said. “But I never close the door on anything. Most of my dreams have come true.”

“MasterChef” airs Mondays on Fox at 8 p.m.

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