On September 27, 24 culinary whiz kids will whip out their knives and cook for their lives on TV on the first season of Junior MasterChef to hit U.S. television screens. Ranging from eight to 13-years-old, these kids will have to impress kitchen hard-ass Gordon Ramsay and his fellow judges, restaurateur and winemaker Joe Bastianich (Del Posto, Eataly) and acclaimed chef Graham Elliot (Graham Elliot, Graham Elliot Bistro).
The tweens will face some tough challenges during the first episode and only 12 will make it to the next level. These finalists will face a variety of challenges, including taking over a fine dining establishment in Los Angeles to prepare a three-course meal. The winner will go home with $100,000 to put in their savings accounts—possibly to put toward culinary school tuition.
Ramsay, known for his colorful language, is going to have to watch what he says around the kids. “We know the F-word means food,” he said jokingly to the Huffington Post.
These kinds of kitchen competitions can be nerve wracking for experienced professional chefs, let alone elementary school-age children. So, the Jew and the Carrot turned to a couple of successful teen chefs for some perspective. We asked Romilly Newman, 15, the youngest ever contestant on the Food Network’s “Chopped” and Aaron Kirschner, 16, who has interned at Eleven Madison Park and Le Bernardin, to offer some advice to the Junior MasterChef contestants.
Romilly, who blogs for Zooey Deschanel’s HelloGiggles website says her time on “Chopped” was “very surreal and terrifying.” Still, she believes that cooking competitions are a positive thing, even for kids.
“I think it’s always good to be challenged as a young chef. Being forced to use ingredients you wouldn’t normally use or being timed can be tough but is also really helpful,” she says. “As a young chef you’re most likely not working in restaurant kitchens or being asked to do crazy things with your food, so competitions like this are a really great time to see if you’ve got what it takes.”
Aaron has never been in a televised competition, but he has twice participated in and won Junior Iron Chef contests in his hometown of Boulder, Colorado. At one, he had to cook four courses for 35 people in just three hours. “Working in a restaurant kitchen is a lot of pressure all the time. The competition gives you a feel for that pressure,” he agrees with Romilly. “But the time restrictions unfortunately inhibit you from showing your entire art.”
Both teen chefs warn the Junior MasterChef kids not to over think it. “Go with your initial gut. Make it simple” Aaron encourages them. “And be sure to taste the entire time. It’s easy to forget to taste the food as you cooking it in these high pressure situations,” he adds.
Both teen chefs want to fly high in the culinary world as adults, but they acknowledge the importance of being grounded in cuisine cooked and eaten at home. “I don’t eat better at home than when my parents make latkes, matzo balls and gefilte fish,” Aaron shares. In fact, his first food memory is of eating at his family’s Passover seder. He’s so inspired by that experience, that he is working now to translate the items on the seder plate in to one coherent dish. “I’ve been working on it for a year,” he says.
“Jewish holidays are a big time for food in my family,” says Romilly. She took over making all the special dishes for the holidays a few years ago. She finds this provides a nice balance to the non-stop innovation and creativity required in competitions and fast-paced professional kitchen settings.
“I really love it because I use my grandmother’s recipes which have been in the family forever, and it’s really the only time where I make traditional dishes or follow a recipe,” she shares. “I make a mean kugel!”