[Warning: The following contains spoilers for the finale of MasterChef Season 13. Read at your own risk!]
There was a moment in the MasterChef Season 13 finale when, immediately after the final countdown, Grant Gillon threw his arm in the air. It was a triumphant gesture for the 32-year-old beer salesman from Altoona, Iowa. He had just completed the last course — a torn stout cake with coffee ice cream, a chocolate pizzelle, and a mousse. And without the judges having tasted it yet, Grant felt confident about his chances at winning MasterChef: United Tastes of America. "At the end of the dessert plating, I thought I had it," he told TV Guide. "I knew I hit every single point that I wanted to. I said, 'I think this is mine to lose right now.'"
Sure enough, Grant beat contenders Jennifer Maune and Kennedy U. to win the MasterChef Season 13 title. Like he expected, his dessert was a hit among judges Gordon Ramsay, Aarón Sanchez, and Joe Bastianich. Earlier in the finale, they also praised the contestant's entrée (pork loin medallions with salmoriglio sauce, agrodulce, celery root purée, and beer-braised fennel and onions. "This agrodulce with the raisins, you can put that on a dirty boot and eat it," Aarón said. "It's that good." And though Grant's appetizer — a raviolo al uovo with morel cream sauce, truffle butter, and shaved truffles — received criticism for being undercooked, it still impressed with its golden, runny egg yolk. Grant described his menu concept as "Italian heritage meets Midwest roots," and he also aimed to incorporate beer across the dishes to show that the ingredient has place in fine dining.
MasterChef: United Tastes of America was all about the different regions of the U.S. When the 20 contestants were selected, each represented either the Northeast, the Midwest, the South, or the West. With his win, Grant claimed the title not only for himself but for the Midwest.
Ahead of the finale, the beer salesman spoke to TV Guide about his thoughts during that finale, the significance of representing the Midwest, and what's next for the farm-to-table restaurant of his dreams.
There were a lot of ups and downs in the finale. What made you feel confident after the dessert course ended?
Grant Gillon: It's what I had in my mind, each of the plates looked exactly the same. My biggest worry was getting that beautiful quenelle of ice cream, to make it look nice on the plate so it's not just a big blob down there. And once I was able to successfully do that, I'm like, this is it, I did it. If I don't win for this, I did absolutely everything that I could. I left it all out here. Sweets aren't really my thing to make, and I knew I needed every single minute of that 60 minutes to to get it done. It wasn't until then though, believe me. That was a heck of a finale.
Tell me more about that. How were you feeling after the first two courses?
Gillon: Pasta is something I'm super comfortable with. So to get a little bit of mixed feedback during that appetizer round, it could have set me back. But I knew that I had some really good flavors coming up and that I was going to be able to show the judges things that I hadn't done throughout the season. I said, all right, I did OK, I know I'm not out of it after the appetizer.
But I knew my entrée had to be the strongest it could possibly be. I'm taking a protein like pork, something that's very readily available, and I'm elevating it in the finale going up against venison and rabbit, two very different proteins. And I think I executed that really well. I was super proud of my entrée dish and bringing in some different flavors that you just don't normally see, but doing it with everyday ingredients.
After the first course, Kennedy got amazing feedback. From your perspective, did it feel like she was ahead?
Gillon: I was trying to keep something in my head of where I thought I was. And so I thought Jen and I were pretty close after the appetizer round, with Kennedy definitely being in the lead. That was where I was in my mind. After entrée, I thought I pulled up right next to Kennedy. And then Jennifer's right on our tails. She had a great execution of her entrée as well. But it was during that dessert, I knew Kennedy was having some issues — she pulled it out with the [snow] that she was struggling with, which is awesome. But that's really what it came down to. I was near the lead is what I thought, when I was going into dessert.
What does it mean to you to not just win the MasterChef title but to win it while representing the Midwest?
Gillon: Being able to win United Tastes of America and represent not only myself but represent the Midwest, represent Iowa, represent my hometown of Altoona is just incredible. When I watch reality TV, if somebody's from my state, I'm gonna root for them inherently. And this year, even if there wasn't somebody from your state, you could still root for your region. To be one of the five that were picked from the Midwest to be on the show and then to the finale to win it, [I'm] just super proud.
You also talked about wanting to show that beer belongs on fine dining menus. Why do you think beer has been underused?
Gillon: You see a number of different spirits used in cooking all the time. You'll see a bourbon or a sake or a vodka sauce. And of course, wine reductions. But beer has a really cool flavor profile to that is often overlooked because it's seen as maybe a lowbrow ingredient. So figuring out how to correctly incorporate that, it doesn't have to be beer battered — there's other ways to do it. But to bring those flavors into play, I think is really fun. It worked really, really well in that chocolate dessert that I had, and those beer-braised vegetables in my entrée were just immaculate as well.
Moving forward, are you planning to continue to incorporate highlighting beer with the Italian-meets-Midwest cooking approach?
Gillon: For me, my goal is still to open a farm-to-table restaurant right here in my hometown of Altoona. And so just figuring out how to do that correctly, I'm taking my time. I want to make sure I make the right connections with farmers in the area and then go from there. But it's definitely going to be a lot of that Midwest, definitely some Italian; there'll be pasta on the menu for sure. And then try to bring in and highlight — Iowa, we have a lot of really great local breweries. That's not something you probably think of when you think of Iowa, but we're very spoiled when it comes to that. So being able to highlight some of those and use them not only in cooking but have them available to guests. Everything here is from Iowa, everything here is from down the road, and I just think that's super special.
MasterChef Season 13 is streaming on Hulu.