The final four young chefs on the MasterChef Junior semifinal are fairly evenly matched, from branzino to Beef Wellington. By evenly matched, I mean that they orbit in roughly the same stratospheric layer, while most of us labor miles below in earthly kitchens by the beanstalks, unaware until now that these cherubs of cooking walked among us. That is not an exaggeration.
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What a long journey for these unimaginably talented young contestants, and the fans of MasterChef Junior as well. It is really hard to predict who will make it to the finale at the start of this episode.
Recovering from the Emotional Restaurant Takeover
After last week's nerve-racking restaurant kitchen, the dinner guests cheered and cried.
Fans also had an emotional response: many voted here and commented disappointment that Sarah left last week rather than Troy. Sarah was on top as many times as her rival, Alexander, and she is only eight years old.
More important, Troy appeared to be a bit of a bully in the restaurant takeover, throwing out Sarah's entire dish because he thought she added too much seasoning and not explaining to Judge Gordon Ramsay why she was crying. However, in interviews afterwards, Sarah said she and Troy are still friends. There is lots of pressure on this show to be competitive. Sarah does not hold a grudge, so we will cheer on Troy along with the others.
The Chicken or the Egg?
With Sarah and Gavin gone, that leaves just four contestants in the semifinals, and two will go on to the finals next Friday. Tonight, Alexander, Dara, Jack and Troy enter the MasterChef Junior kitchen.
A barnyard sits at the front, with live chickens and fencing. Gordon introduces the theme: "Which came first, the chicken or the egg?" Troy is afraid they may have to kill the chickens. (This is not an impossibility; on a similar TV show in England, Gordon had children raise chickens on a farm and then kill and cook them. Anything is possible.)
Challenge to Win an Advantage: Soft-Boil Your Egg
Gordon requests from the four competitors a perfectly cooked soft-boiled egg in an egg cup. This is a typical part of a light English breakfast: a yummy, mundane and difficult task. It seems like a simple challenge, certainly not that exciting, until the judges raise the stakes. There are no egg timers, and they purposefully broke the MasterChef clock so it's spinning out of control. Without a timer, this seems impossible.
All four contestants think to count. Alexander's counting three-and-a-half-minutes, and Dara's doing three. Troy says he's counting four minutes, but he somehow finishes first. He must count fast.
Praying to the Egg Gods
Jack has his hands folded and eyes closed above his egg cup. The judges suggest he is praying to the egg gods. Jack tells us later that he was seriously focused.
Judge Graham Elliott asks of Jack and his egg, "Do you feel lucky? Do ya?" The white feels a little firm, but unfortunately the yolk is also firm and Graham dumps it on the table. Dara's is even more solid than Jack's.
Alexander is next. His gut is telling him he nailed it. Alexander says he counted for three-and-a-half minutes.
Gordon counts slowly -- we hear Jaws music and see that the top of the egg white is perfect. But inside, Alexander also has a hard-boiled egg. Alexander says he cooks these at home all the time.
Troy, who admits he has never cooked a soft-boiled egg before, cooked the closest thing to soft-boiled tonight.
Choosing the Cuts
After winning the challenge, Troy gets to choose from four cuts of chicken: one for himself and one for each competitor. The options are chicken breast, dark meat chicken thigh, chicken wings and chicken liver. These young gourmet cooks are making faces at the red gooey chicken liver on the cutting board. So am I.
Troy chooses the thigh; he wants to cook a good sauce to get him to the finale. There's no doubt he is going to give the chicken liver to Alexander, his biggest competitor, who says he's never eaten liver.
Troy gives the wing to Dara. And he gives Jack the easiest cut -- chicken breast -- thinking that he can beat Jack in the finale.
If a droopy egg propels Troy to the finale past Alexander or Jack, that would be a very lucky egg indeed.
Making the Cut
The contestants work furiously to prepare restaurant quality chicken dishes. This week, these young amateur chefs pull off the kind of magic that sets them apart from others of our species, not to mention the other adult MasterChef and Hell's Kitchen amateur cooks.
Alexander: Troy wants Alexander out of the way, and the liver might just do it. Gordon says he would fry the chicken liver and make a salad. Graham would make a chicken liver moose with cream. Alexander admits to Gordon that he never cooked with liver. I worry about him -- Alexander is usually so confident, but during the restaurant takeover, he fell apart when the teams were cooking for the head chef. Who wouldn't want to see this amazing cook in the finale?
Plus, in an earlier episode, Alexander was the only one who said he would use the $100,000 for something useful -- restaurant school. His dish: chicken liver pate over garlic crostini with a balsamic glaze and bacon on a rustic cutting board. Gordon says it's delicious and asks Alexander to fly to London and become one of Gordon's Junior Chefs. Nice.
Dara: Dara cooks soy and ginger wings with pickled vegetables. Graham says they are gorgeous and tries some pickle action. It's Dara's family recipe. Graham loves the color. He says it could be the best thing he has had this entire show. Joe tastes it and loves the crunchiness and amazing flavors. He said it's more than restaurant quality; that is a restaurant signature dish.
Jack: Jack is making such a complicated dish that he's confused: he forgets ingredients and runs back to the pantry twice with Gordon, and runs to the bathroom. But Jack's dish looks phenomenal: chicken roulade stuffed with goat cheese, wrapped in prosciutto, with olives, grilled asparagus and roasted potatoes. With Sarah gone, Jack is the smallest and youngest at 10 years old, which Gordon reminds us. Jack says he wants to be ambitious and unique and blow people away with food. Gordon is at a loss for words. Graham says most kids his age would not order this on the menu, let alone cook it. Jack nails it.
Troy cooks a chicken thigh with romesco sauce, herb oil, olive oil, parsley and cilantro. Gordon says the sauce is fresh, but the chicken is way undercooked. "Oh, dear," Gordon whispers, "Damn, damn, damn, damn, damn."
The judges wonder if it's too close to call. But only two cooks can move into the MasterChef Junior finale.
The first person to go through to the finale is Alexander. No surprise. Gordon says of Alexander, "You look like a chef, you sound like a chef, you look like Julia Child's lost grandson, you have the most amazing relationship with food and you're only 13 years old."
Gordon tells the last three that they all did a great job and should keep their heads high. I think Jack's dish just went that extra step. But it's Dara. Her dish oozed finesse and complexity, but showed restraint beyond belief. Jack is sobbing. Gordon tells Troy and Jack that they both cooked phenomenally. They recap Troy's best dishes and I remember how good he was.
Jack is very proud of himself. He has been so entertaining, with an amazing smile. He says he'll be back up with that wrestler spirit.
Alexander vs. Dara. One will be America's first ever MasterChef Junior.
We can't wait!
The MasterChef Junior finale airs next Friday at 8pm on FOX.(Image courtesy of FOX)