When it first began, MasterChef Junior was a huge surprise. No one expected a show about child cooks to have the kind of crossover appeal that it has had. Back during the first season, my friends and I tuned in expecting a trainwreck. Next thing we knew, we were hosting weekly watch parties—complete with a MasterChef Junior drinking game—and rooting loudly for our favorites (Sarah—always Sarah). In all its sweetness, MasterChef Junior wasn’t like any other competition series on television. It maintains that singularity within the genre, like last week when Jimmy broke all the rules of reality series by saying he did come here to make friends. But based on how the current season has unfolded, I’m started to wonder if MasterChef Junior has lost its ability to surprise.
Most competition series have their tells. During the audition rounds of American Idol, if a contestant gets a lengthy montage all about their sad backstory, you better believe they’re getting a golden ticket to Hollywood. But MasterChef Junior is only in its third season, and it’s just too soon for things to start feeling this formulaic and predictable.
For example, I can very confidently say that 11-year-old Ayla is not going to be crowned the next junior Master Chef. First of all, there has been a pattern through all three seasons of competitors of color getting eliminated pretty early. But beyond just that, the cameras haven’t spent very much time with Ayla. This week, we don’t learn what she made in the initial mystery box challenge or the elimination round. That kind of apathy seems deliberate on the part of the MasterChef producers and editors. Eliminating multiple contestants per week means MasterChef Junior is running on an accelerated timeline, so the cameras spend more time on the kids who are probably going to be around the longest. If it seems like the producers are playing favorites, it’s probably because they are.
This week, the mystery box theme is things that get better with age. Ingredients include dry aged New York strip steak, two-year-aged Ibérico ham, smoked salmon, black garlic, preserved lemon, five-month-aged bleu cheese, and a balsamic vinegar that—at 12-years-aged—is older than some of the remaining contestants. Jack’s pan-cooked steak with baby cauliflower couscous and black garlic sauce, Riley’s seared steak with smoky beef ramen, and Andrew’s marinated grilled steak with cheese and prosciutto mashed potatoes and a fennel salad end up in the top three. As the winner of the challenge, Andrew gets to choose what deadly animal the other contestants have to cook in the elimination round: alligator, rattlesnake, or snapping turtle. He goes with alligator, and the young home chefs have to work with a meat most of them have never handled before.
Jenna, Cory, and Nathan make the top three, with an alligator curry, an alligator stir fry, and an alligator chili, respectively. And for all the episode’s emphasis on the wild nature of the challenge, the episode just doesn’t quite reach the level of excitement it’s going for. Nothing really surprises.
I want to believe Ayla could be the next junior Master Chef; I wish the show would let me believe it. Just like Adaiah said last season, I’d love to see a girl win. But as BuzzFeed staff writer Ashley Ford tweeted earlier today, Black children interested in the arts are repeatedly told they don’t belong in the room. A win for Ayla—or 9-year-old Cory—could send a positive message to young Black kids interested in the culinary arts, which remains a very white field at its highest levels.
Cory, and his perfect pink glasses, might be in the competition for a while longer based on the screen-time he has been getting. But there’s still no denying that the simple structure of these episodes—the editing, the production choices—all seem to indicate that Jimmy, Jack, and Andrew are the frontrunners. In the same way seasons one and two placed emphasis on Alexander and Logan’s dishes and voices, episodes have focused very intently on Andrew, making it hard for me to believe we won’t be seeing him in the finale. The fact that the show’s pattern forces me to believe that Ayla doesn’t have a shot isn’t fair. It only perpetuates the harmful message that she somehow doesn’t belong in the room. We don’t even learn if her dishes are good or bad this week! We have no idea what she made for either round! It wouldn’t even make sense for me to choose Ayla as a favorite, because we haven’t learned enough about her. I wouldn’t be able to backup my choice with anything provided by the show, and that in and of itself is the problem. Maybe if the show spent more time with the contestants—in equal measure—instead of on the admittedly fun but pointless gags like the judges showing up as 80-year-old versions of themselves, the outcomes would be a little less predictable.
Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe in a couple of weeks, things will have unfolded quite differently, and you can all call me a MasterChef Junior conspiracy theorist. But everything is shot ahead of time, so the makers of MasterChef Junior hold all the cards in their hands. And it’s starting to feel like they’re tipping those hands a little too much. Did anyone doubt for a second that Jimmy—despite being in the bottom three—would be safe from elimination? No. It was always going to be Mia and Kyler packing their tiny bags.
- Riley wanting to save the alligator was too precious. (Also: Riley was born in 2006, and if that made you gasp in horror, you’re not alone.)
- I know they were overcooked and tough, but I would actually kill for some of Mia’s fried alligator tacos.
- Graham describes Jenna’s alligator curry as “classy,” and I’m still trying to figure out how a dish can be classy. But at least he didn’t make an idiot out of himself like Joe did when he attempts to do “yoga.” That’s not even a downward dog, Joe.
- I would like to reiterate just how much Cory is killing it on the personal style front.
- Andrew wants to open a crepe restaurant called What The Crepe.
- Calling it now: The MasterChef Junior final will be a face-off between Jimmy and Andrew.