Considering how the second season of MasterChef Junior lost its steam by the end—particularly with the egregious elimination of Adaiah and Abby in the semifinal—the swift start of season three is a welcome treat. Season two certainly had some special moments that hinted at the surprise success of the show’s first season, but the finale felt, well, kind of boring. Samuel and Logan were fine finalists, but not much more than fine. But here we are, so soon after that lackluster conclusion, with a chance for the show to bounce back.
And so, we begin again, with 19 of the country’s top tiny home cooks. The tiniest of them all is 8-year-old Riley, whose cuteness underscores the heart of the series. MasterChef Junior throws away the nastiness and trash that so often comes with reality competition programming and replaces it with adorable children. Ambitious, intense child chefs, but children nonetheless, with wide eyes and full hearts. “Did I do good?” little Riley asks after the premiere’s elimination round. “You did amazing,” says 11-year-old Ryan Kate. No other reality TV competitors are as supportive and kind as the MasterChef Junior contestants. Whispered words of encouragement and hugs replace backstabbing and snide confessionals. MasterChef Junior makes you feel good.
But that’s not to say there isn’t some drama to spice things up. This week, there are cut fingers, burnt sausages, overcooked pasta, and a generous dose of tears. The kids are hard on themselves. Kayla, 11, doesn’t let herself give up when her knife slips as she’s cutting a lime. She bounces back, because these kids have their eyes on the prize just like any aspiring champion. “I can’t watch,” Kayla says later on in the competition when Parker loses control. She’s right; this show can get stressful. But with every slip, there’s Ramsay, telling them to keep going, turning their mistakes into chances to learn and overcome. I wish I had a Gordon Ramsay following me around and helping me regain control when things go wrong.
In the first mystery box challenge, the home cooks have salmon, mango, broccolini, corn, ginger, soy sauce, coconut milk, puffed pastry, and tomatillos to work with. Jack, 12, makes a chard-wrapped salmon with coconut fish broth and seared broccolini. He toasts, blanches, broils, sears, and juliennes like a pro. I’m always a little hesitant about the overly technical chefs on this show (see: Samuel), but Jack’s dish impresses, and while he might have the skills of a certified culinary student, he doesn’t have the arrogance of one. Kayla overcomes a double-finger cut while making her mango turnover with a coconut creme anglaise and mango coulis (Yes, I did have to look up how to spell “anglaise” and “coulis”). Jenna, 12, aspiring New York Times food critic, also pushes the salmon aside in favor of a coconut rice pudding with mango-mint compote. And in what Gordon Ramsay highlights as the first-time ever, the judges select Jack, Kayla, and Jenna as the winners on the challenge in a three-way tie.
This show seems obsessed with having first-ever moments, something that became unintentionally comical last season, as the judges said some variation of “a MasterChef Junior first” over and over again. Show, you’ve only been around for a hot second. You’re going to have a lot of firsts. Chill.
A three-way tie seems to be setting an odd precedent. Sure, ties happen sometimes in reality competitions, but part of what makes MasterChef Junior so entertaining is that while it’s so much cuter and joyful than the standard competition series, the stakes are still high. There are winners and there are losers, and Gordon Ramsay will make you feel great just for trying your best, but at the end of the day, choices have to be made. Not everyone can win. This is real life, kiddos! So granting immunity to all of the top three for the mystery box challenge seems a little too rainbows and sunshines for this show. And while Jenna and Kayla’s deserts certainly looked great, I feel like ignoring salmon, one of the mystery box’s major ingredients, led to unimaginative dishes.
As the winners of the first challenge, it’s up to Jenna, Kayla, and Jack to choose what the other contestants have to make for the first elimination round. They end up going with pappardelle, a type of pasta noodle similar to a wide fettuccine, which is something 8-13-year-old Kayla certainly did not know. Homemade pasta is a tough technical task for so early on in the competition, but most of the competitors seem to have experience. “I’m Italian. I make pasta,” 10-year-old AJ says with confidence. Ryan Kate talks to Joe Bastianich about breaking up the gluten in her pasta. Jimmy, 12, makes a vodka sauce without any vodka. And cool-as-a-cucumber Andrew, 11, makes a bacon cream sauce that sounds like something from my dreams. Older contestants Ryan Kate, Jimmy, and Andrew all make the top three for the challenge.
Part of the problem with MasterChef Junior is that it goes by way too fast. Seasons last only seven episodes, which means multiple contestants go home at the end of every episode. While some reality competitions drag things out a little too much, I can’t help but wish we could get a little more time with these superkids. This week, we say goodbye to AJ, Philly, Quincy, Jianna, and Parker without even really getting to know any of them. Philly’s sad, stoic “see you around, maybe” as he departs captures just how hard it can be to say goodbye on this show.
- Welcome to weekly coverage of MasterChef Junior! It’s going to be a lot of fun, y’all.
- “I hope they get brain freeze.”
- Philly’s constant face-clutching throughout the episode is basically exactly how I watch this show.
- Kayla’s silver leggings are everything and I’m not just saying that because my name is Kayla and I also own silver leggings.
- Riley speaks German, English, and a little bit of French.
- I love how subtly condescending these kids are about their family members who ain’t got nothing on them when it comes to the kitchen. AJ says her mom told her how to make salmon curry and now she’s the best person in her family who makes it. Later, she says “I was around 6-years-old when I became a better chef than my mom…and my dad.” Ryan Kate also implies that her family probably doesn’t know what they’re talking about when they say her pasta is good. Move aside, mom and dad!