The latest chef to be eliminated from FOX-TV’s MasterChef series was Scott Little, a resident of Annandale, Virginia. Little found himself on the short end of a dessert challenge, failing to impress judges Gorden Ramsay, Graham Elliot, and Joe Bastianich with his strawberry shortcake. His tenure on the show was marked not with drama or emotion, but with a dedication and passion to learning more about his chosen craft from his fellow contestants and the three acclaimed culinary experts.
My wife and I had the enjoyable pleasure of talking with Scott and his wife Johanna about the experience and sampling some of his cooking. Over the course of the afternoon, Little shared about the show, his passion for cooking, and his future culinary vision.
Our gathering occurred over the weekend after the massive storm that swept through the region on Friday evening. Power in several northern Virginia neighborhoods was still out; the Littles only got theirs back on that morning. Scott had to scramble through three area grocery stores to find enough ingredients for our meal. “It felt like one of those Mystery Box challenges,” he says after greeting us at his home. “I ended up pulling together an hors d’oeuvres from ingredients in my garden.”
Improvising on the fly is something Little is good at when it comes to cooking. Born and raised in eastern North Carolina, he grew up around pork barbeque and southern comfort foods. “Definitely, my food roots are from watching my family cook back in Carolina,” says Little. “It’s all about tasting and adding ingredients until it’s just right. There’s never a recipe to follow; just know the basics of the dish and go from there.” Often he has had guests over who have asked about how a dish was made, yet he couldn’t put into words exactly how he did it. “I could try replicating it and the result would be completely different.” He paused a moment. “It’s just about what you have and what you use; that’s how I learned to cook.”
Little wasn’t born with a spatula in one hand and a sauce pan in the other. He moved to Richmond nearly twenty years ago to go to college and ended up joining a punk rock band, Amberetta. “I was a skateboarding punk rock kid,” he says. “Cooking was the last thing on my mind, until Johanna and I found out we were going to be parents.”
The news of their daughter caused Scott to re-examine things, especially the dietary needs of children. “Too many kids grow up on fast food and pre-processed stuff these days. I knew what I ate growing up, and I didn’t really want her going that same route.” The result? Little started cooking at home.
Through various life events and the passage of time, Scott ended up in the DC area, working for a major creative ad agency in Georgetown. He continued to cook for his family, finding it a comfortable outlet after the stresses of his job. “I just kept experimenting, trying things on the fly. I never actually looked at a cookbook until about a year and a half ago,” he says. The small stack of cookbooks next to the stove attests to that fact. “I loved watching MasterChef when it came out; I’m a fan of Gordon Ramsay’s drive and passion, so when I heard they were doing auditions at Trinity, I thought I’d go. I honestly went not to get on the show, but to meet Gordon.”
Little’s audition was a success after spending the better part of the day cooking and interviewing. He met Ramsay after the first “challenge,” preparing a dish that included a cheese he made in under an hour. Ramsay was impressed and Scott found himself propelled further through the audition process. The invitation to join the show was a shock to the humble home cook.
The show was an experience Little would not forget. “I met a lot of great people there,” he says. “They taught me a lot about cooking, about flavor, about things in culinary arts I had no idea about.” Little held up a sprig of pineapple sage, a component on the cracker bruschetta he set down on the table. “For example, I had never even heard of this spice until the show. And now, I want to put it in everything.” The sage gave the cracker bruschetta some zing, perking up the homegrown tomatoes, pine nuts, thyme basil, and shredded Parmesan that made up the appetizer placed before us.
MasterChef also helped Scott zero in on his culinary future. Once content to make good, tasty comfort food for family and friends—every Sunday, the Littles have neighbors over for smoked meat, barbeque, pasta, or whatever else Scott feels like making—Little is looking beyond the home kitchen. “One of the things about the show that impressed me was how they handled the amount of food waste we would generate,” he says. “Once we had discarded any ingredients or useable foodstuffs, the crew would then get them into the hands of area shelters and charities. They used the leftovers to help feed the homeless, making sure that none of that food went to waste.”
As his culinary journey blossomed, Little became aware of how important fresh ingredients were to a good, flavorful dish. After seeing how Ramsay’s production staff handled the after-effects of taping, he hit upon some inspiration. “I definitely don’t see myself running a kitchen or a restaurant,” says Little. “That’s just not my thing. I’d love to cater small events, cook for groups of people.” (Scott just did his first private party last Thursday, a rousing success despite a very late night.)
But catering is only a part of his vision. “I want to partner with some local growers, farmers. Get ingredients from the source,” he says. “After the event, I then want to take what’s left over and pass it on to an area shelter or charity, someone who needs it right then because of the food’s perishability.” He calls this idea a 360 approach to cooking: beginning, sharing, and ending the meal through the local community.
Part of his inspiration comes from his own perspectives on the culinary art. “Cooking is only part of a meal,” he says. “I think the enjoyment of a good meal comes in part from the food and its preparation. The rest comes from the company you’re sharing it with.” Little loves to cook where he can be face-to-face with his guests and share in their appreciation. “And criticism,” he added. “Without criticism, you can’t progress. But appreciation is good, too.”
Little counts among his culinary idols the legendary Anthony Bourdain. “I think it’s probably forty percent his cooking perspective,” he says. “But mostly because of the way he talks about the food and how it affects the environment. He shows how economy dictates food, something that strikes a chord with me.” To Scott, there’s a common denomination in food that brings people of differing viewpoints, cultures, and attitudes together around a meal.
Undoubtedly, Ramsay is also an inspiration—but not in his culinary art. “What I love about Gordon is his drive and passion,” says Little. “There’s no BS with him. Look at his history, his rise to the level he’s at. He wants people to enjoy food and be passionate in what they do. And getting a compliment from him is just awesome, especially since I don’t do fancy cooking. Just comfortable food.”
Looking over his food blog, The Comfortable Dish, it’s quickly obvious Little’s focus is on comfortable food. While the majority of the recipes are those from the MasterChef episodes he was in—minus the failed apple pie and tough strawberry shortcake—Little’s food inspirations are apparent. His southern heritage pops up everywhere, from braised beef heart to homemade Brunswick stew. Recently, Scott’s been fascinated with Italian methods, creating a chicken ragu over homemade orechhiette, which happened to be our afternoon entree. “Once I started making homemade pasta—it’s so easy to do, really—I’ve not gone back to boxed,” he says. His orechhiette, which he made in one episode , impressed even Bastianich, known on the show as a real stickler for proper pasta and Italian cuisine.
The ragu was exactly as advertised. Made with a blend of tomatoes, vegetables, and pulled chicken, the bowl of pasta placed before us looked and felt comfortable. The taste and flavors blended well, with nothing overpowering the other. The pasta was cooked to perfection, giving a nice weight to the light brightness of the tomatoes and other vegetables. It reminded me of pasta dishes made by my grandmother—not exactly known for her culinary expertise, but more for the comfortable and safe atmosphere of family surroundings.
Little’s blue-collar ethic, a hand-me-down from his father, translates into his approach to cooking. “Really, I just want to cook, listen, and learn,” he says. “When I got onto the show, that’s what I wanted. Sure, winning would be great, but to be honest, that wasn’t my goal. What I wanted was to learn, absorb, take in all that my fellow competitors and our esteemed judges had to share.
“I’ve become so much better from that brief time on MasterChef. I’m like, twenty times better than before. That’s really what it was all about for me. To be better as a chef and to bring that back into our community somehow.”
MasterChef airs on FOX 5 WTTG on Mondays and Tuesdays (for the time being) at 9 p.m.