This week on MasterChef Junior, it’s all about the technical skills. First, the three winners of last week’s elimination round—Cory, Jenna, and Nathan—compete to find as many items as possible from a list of 20 advanced ingredients in the super-stocked MasterChef pantry in just two minutes. Cory mixes up ostrich eggs and quail eggs, and Jenna just narrowly edges out Nathan by finding nine of the correct items off the list. Between the amount of screentime she has been getting and her consistently strong performance in front of the judges, it’s becoming increasingly clear that Jenna is a frontrunner in the competition. But her status starts to crumble this week when her supposed advantage in the elimination round ends up hurting her.

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Just as Jimmy did earlier this season, Jenna gets to pair off the remaining competitors for one of the most technically complex challenges yet: a tag team sushi challenge. Not only do the young cooks have to recreate a restaurant-ready sushi platter, they also have to take turns working on their rolls one at a time, tagging out with their partners every few minutes. Jenna struggles with her pairing decisions: On the one hand, she wants to win. But on the other hand, she wants to maintain her friendships. On any other reality competition, this wouldn’t be a dilemma: You make the choice you need to in order to guarantee you won’t be going home. But these kids refreshingly don’t have that cutthroat whatever-it-takes-to-win mentality alive in most reality show contestants. Lots of contestants on other series will say it’s about more than just winning. But these kids actually believe it.

So Jenna pairs Andrew and Riley, Ryan Kate and Nathan, Jack and Cory, and Ayla and Jimmy, and selects her good friend Kayla as her own partner. She chooses Kayla because she doesn’t want to hurt her friend’s feelings, and it comes from a very sweet place, but it quickly backfires on her. Gordon Ramsay points out that she went with her friend instead of thinking about who she would really work well with. Jenna and Kayla struggle to communicate, and their sushi platter quickly unravels. It’s tough to watch as they yell at each other throughout the already chaotic challenge. Jenna’s choice does not work out at all and, ironically, does the exact thing she was hoping to avoid and strains her friendship with Kayla. The duo end up in the bottom two, and during their judging session, both girls end up in frustrated and hurt tears. But they have at least another week to work it all out, as Cory and Jack end up getting eliminated instead of them in one of the first moments that has surprised me all season.

The kids all really impress this week with their sushi platters, even the ones who end up with a lot of cutting errors on the plates. The challenge requires such a specific set of technical skills, and coupled with the added hurdle of having to strike a rhythm that works with their partner, it’s a really tough elimination round. The whole episode feels like mayhem, and that’s largely the point, but it does start to feel a bit repetitive halfway through the challenge. Occasionally, Gordon takes one of the kids aside to check in with them about their partnership dynamics, and it reminds me a lot of all the sidebars during last season’s pop-up restaurant challenge, when Gordon talked to the kids about what was working and what wasn’t and tried to help them overcome their problems. I would have rather the chaos of the challenge been interspersed with more of these calmer educational moments.

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MasterChef Junior, after all, is a learning experience beyond just being a competition. And they’re learning some of the toughest lessons, ones that go beyond making perfectly cut sushi and how to identify the difference between a quail egg and an ostrich egg. That’s what I like about this challenge, even though it makes for a frenzied episode. It’s about the technical skills, but it’s also about learning to communicate well, work together, and multitask. Most of these young cooks want to eventually own and run their own restaurants, and those are the lessons they’re going to need to hold onto.

Stray observations:

  • I get that Cory might be hyper, but Jack seems to write him off as a bad partner a little too quickly. He also straight up says he doesn’t think Cory is capable of making sushi, which seems a little mean for the tone of this show.
  • I like Jenna. She’s confidant and unyielding, qualities valued in a head chef but not necessarily encouraged in young girls.
  • Riley’s little face pat when Gordon compliments him is too adorable.
  • Jimmy and Ayla make the best sushi ever tasted in the MasterChef kitchen this week! So…why is Ayla still not getting any testimonials?!

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