MasterChef and Master Chef Junior

Cooking gourmet with the help of TV

Whenever our family stays at a hotel, I have to race my 10-year-old daughter to the remote. We don’t subscribe to cable or satellite TV at home, so staying in a hotel means I can watch ESPN—that is, if my kids haven’t already turned on the Food Network. Thanks to Netflix, we can catch up on older episodes of Chopped, Cutthroat Kitchen, and Cupcake Wars. We probably watch cooking shows as a family more than anything else and, with two daughters, the unspoken rule is that we cheer for the female contestants.

These are not kids making boxed mac and cheese with sliced hot dogs. They’re throwing out terms like chimmichurri, deconstructed, and branzino and cook restaurant-quality dishes with unique ingredients.

As has now become tradition (well, it’s happened twice) at Kauffman family Christmases, the wives go to Trader Joe’s for ingredients. They bring back exotic fare for the husbands and kids to take a cue from Chopped and likewise turn into a dinner that uses every ingredient, be it a stinky cheese, an unknown grain like farro, or a meaty mousse. It’s more of a collaborative effort than a competition (but, for the record, my team won in 2011) and everyone has a say in at least one dish.

All this is to say that my kids like to cook almost as much as they like watching other people cook on TV. There are, of course, cooking shows on antenna-driven TV, such as MasterChef on Fox or the fifth season of BBC’s Great British Bake Off that is repackaged as the Great British Baking Show airing on PBS stateside. For the kids, there’s MasterChef Junior. Currently airing its third season, the show falls into some reality TV pitfalls, but ultimately, it’s the kids on the show—and not the adult directors, producers and hosts—that give the lasting impression.

MasterChef Junior follows the same premise as its adult counterpart: find a home chef, make them compete in cooking challenges, and give the winner $100,000. And just like the original MasterChef, the junior version is hosted by Joe Bastianich, Graham Elliot, and Gordon Ramsay, who has yelled at thousands of would-be chefs in his culinary and television career.

Even though the contestants are ages 8–13, these are not kids making boxed mac and cheese with sliced hot dogs. They’re throwing out terms like chimmichurri, deconstructed, and branzino and cook restaurant-quality dishes with unique ingredients. In this week’s episode, for example, the remaining contestants had to use alligator as the main ingredient, and the judges reprimanded one contestant for playing it safe and “only” making fajitas out of the alligator.

One could argue that the show is exploiting kids and trying to turn them prematurely into bickering, over-competitive adults, which is territory that the original MasterChef often settles into. But even with some creative editing that plays up conflict or the kids’ testimonials that seem, on occasion, coached, it’s the kids’ true personalities that win out in the end.

Where the MasterChef adults are wont to degrade and threaten each other, the kids, while wanting to win, show way more humanity than their adult counterparts. On this week’s episode, 8-year-old Riley struggled to lift his pan out of the oven, but 12-year-old Jenna, in the middle of cooking her own dish, helped him out. The kids smile when their competitors succeed, and the eliminations are met with tears and group hugs. Even the judges, often ruthless on the adult version, show a bit more heart here. They are honest in their critiques but never reach the level of public shaming that the adult version sometimes reaches. Even Ramsay encourages the kids to follow their culinary dreams.

My kids delight in the successes of the kids, especially when a signature dish wins over Gordon. Every Tuesday night after music lessons and basketball practice I have to say, “no, it’s time for bed,” or “we can watch the first five minutes,” but it’s a weekly struggle—for all of us—to not turn on the TV. We settle for recording the show and watching on the weekends. Our kids are, of course, cheering on the girls (the winners of the first two seasons were both boys) and getting ideas for the next time they cook us dinner. And that is worth the wait.

MasterChef, Junior currently airs Tuesdays at 8 p.m. EST on Fox.