Many times in reality-show competitions, the fun of finding out how someone designs clothes for the runway or starts a business enterprise or creates a signature dish or wins a bachelor’s heart (just kidding) gets bogged down in vicious back-stabbing or name-calling. Reality-show producers sometimes appeal to the lowest common denominator of their audience, reasoning that this kind of accelerated drama will draw viewers (this series of shows isn’t really a competition, but how else to explain the Real Housewives franchise?).
Which is what makes MasterChef Junior such a downright delight. The 16 8- to 13-year-old contestants in this program, aiming for the championship title, apparently lack guile. They are excited to compete, but never at the expense of their fellow contestants. In fact, they even bolster and encourage each other. It’s a heartwarming exercise that that could soften even the most jaded souls. It’s not that the kids don’t want to win: Nearly all of them cried when they got voted off. Abby, an 8-year-old who made it to the final four, almost made the judges cry as well when she didn’t make the finale. But these kids knew the best way to get there was to make amazing dishes, not work against each other.
And about those dishes: Next to the delightful contestants, an extremely close second in the wonder of MasterChef Junior is the food they create. So many times during the season-two finale all three celebrity judges—Gordon Ramsay, Joe Bastianich, and Graham Elliot—marveled over the fact that they were being served by a couple of sixth-graders. As someone who makes ground beef–based dinners almost as much as Carol Brady, I am far from an inventive cook, and this show has inspired me. If these kids can come up with something amazing in a matter of minutes (from an extremely well-stocked studio kitchen, but still), surely I don’t have to use Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup as my base quite so often?
Why not add a little anise and ginger dust, as Samuel does to his artistic dessert in this episode, or try my hand at a branzino like Logan, a feat I have only seen accomplished in the finest of restaurants? All 16 MasterChef Junior contestants were completely at the top of their game (and I am a bit puzzled by how such youngsters were able to pull off their own pie crusts, without recipes, for example: Did they all spend their formative summers at a culinary camp?), so certain weeks, it was anyone’s title to win. Samuel, at 12 one of the most senior of the contestants, never seemed to waver, but even Logan, the 11-year-old other finalist, had his moments: Most of the other kids cracked under the deadline pressure at some point, but who wouldn’t? The best of them rallied to succeed despite undercooked chicken or overcooked fish, using not just their culinary skills but a heap of imagination. I will never forget how Abby received only two ingredients in a challenge, then wound up making salmon with asparagus five different ways. (Okay, Abby was my favorite. Also Oona, Josh, Adaiah, Sean, Sam …)
When the kids did falter, the most amazing thing would happen: Gordon Ramsay, the man famous for shows like Hell’s Kitchen and Kitchen Nightmares, who would sooner thrown a spoon your way than look at you if you messed up in his kitchen, showed a completely different side to his legendary persona. (Just find any of his YouTube clips to see him swearing up a blue streak and reducing adult cooks in his kitchen to tears.) On MasterChef Junior, Ramsay became about the kindest, most helpful mentor imaginable:
The other two judges helped in this regard as well, coaching the kids on how to balance flavors, making sure one doesn’t overpower another; the exceedingly difficult ways to cook proteins all the way through, but not too much; and the intricacies of light, fluffy (never soggy) desserts. Not only did the kids learn something, but aspiring cooks like myself did as well.
For the dramatic finale, Samuel and Logan brought so much to the table, I barely understood their menus:
Appetizer: Southeast Asian Chicken Oysters with Pickled Radishes and Cucumber and Spicy Crisped Rice
Main: Pan-Seared Arctic Char with Fresh Noodles, Baby Bok Choy, and a Coconut-Saffron Curry Broth
Dessert: Kaffir Lime Panna Cotta Layered with Passion Fruit and a Liquid Nitrogen Raspberry
Appetizer: Grilled Spot Prawn with Olive Caper Tapenade, Grilled Romaine Hearts, and Smoked Saffron Aioli
Main: Salt-Crusted Branzino with Roasted Baby Veggies and a Chimichurri Sauce
Dessert: Lemon Madeleines with a Berry Compote and Goat Cheese Mousse
Obviously the boys had time to plan these menus, unlike the other challenges throughout the competition. But they only had 90 minutes to prepare them; I couldn’t have pulled it off in 90 days. In the end, Samuel offered a bit more flash than substance: Graham Elliot nailed it when he said he liked the idea of Samuel’s appetizer dish better than the actual flavor. Samuel’s ambitious mixing of flavors and techniques, while incredible, almost appeared to muddy his dishes, while Logan’s, while still adventurous, were more direct.
Still, the finalists totally brought it. Noted Ramsay: “I have never ever seen this many techniques, this amount of showmanship between two finalists in the history of this competition ever, and they’re 11 and 12 years of age. Come on.” While both menus were ambitious, to put it mildly, here again is where Logan pulled ahead. The word “crazy” was used more than once to refer to his decision to make the salt-crusted branzino (European sea bass) his main dish, because it’s extremely risky, with no way to correct it: What’s under the salt is what’s under the salt. Joe Bastianich described: “The courage of an 11-year-old to do a salt-crusted branzino; it speaks volumes.” It was a huge risk, but fortunately for Logan, he pulled it off, and again, the strong simplicity of the dish helped him in the competition (actually, in both the main dishes, the judges advised leaving off the sauces. Another MasterChef Junior life lesson: Less is more.)
The finale contained a little more trash-talk than usual, which is somewhat understandable considering the stakes involved. In Samuel’s clips, he was caught making cracks about “being confident I can make an upscale dish with pedestrian ingredients.” He dismissed Logan’s grilled prawns and romaine, while Logan was sure his dessert was the better one.
Still, one of my favorite finale moments sums up the best part of the competition overall. Minutes before time runs out, as the boys are running around plating, Samuel comments to Logan about his madeleines: “Those look delicious,” and Logan thanks him. The civility and sportsmanship of this season remained intact until the very end. MasterChef Junior could teach us all a few things not just about cooking, but about how to treat people in general.
Finale grade: A
Season grade: A
- “Logan’s menu is like my math class: It’s super-duper hard.” Never change, Abby.
- Logan said the prawns were “alive a few minutes ago,” so he basically grilled them alive, right? Just one of the many, many things that would keep me from being a chef.
- Loved when the liquid nitrogen and the smoke gun were both out, causing the two chefs to resemble little mad scientists. Ramsay about Samuel: “He looks like a sous chef from Breaking Bad.”
- Among the many awesome moments from the finale: the parents just beaming in awe at their amazing kids.
- One of Logan’s final quotes: “It’s not about the money. It’s not about the trophy. It’s about making friends forever.”
- And the next season of Master Chef Junior starts up January 6. If you are a person who eats food, I would advise you to check it out.