In an intense fight for the title of America's first MasterChef Junior
and a $100,000 grant prize, front-runner Alexander, 13, of New York, NY battles with the talented Dara, 12, from Los Angeles, in a duel that is just as professional and hand-wringing as the finales of the adult MasterChef
, if not more so.
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Many viewers believe that MasterChef Junior judges Gordon Ramsay, Joe Bastianich, and Graham Elliot have wanted Alexander to win since the first episode.
Tonight, Dara fights to steal his glory and pull an upset. Drumroll, please...
Heading into the Finale
Heading into the finale, there is lots of fan chatter! We do not know who will win, but many fans expect that the judges want to give Alexander the title, while others see Dara's talent under pressure. We have also heard grumbling over another competitor (namely, Hawaiian Jack) should head into the final. Many also suggested that the producers wanted to see a male/female finale.
Here's my take: I agree the judges probably wanted a boy/girl finale. While I also expected Jack's technical performance on his recent chicken dish to send him to the finale, perhaps his was not as visionary or restaurant quality as Dara's. From our couches, we also don't have the advantage of tasting the dish. Ultimately, these children are phenomenal and very well matched.
What lessons will we take from MasterChef Junior? I'd say the emphasis should be on love of cooking and encouraging talent. At first, I feared that Gordon Ramsay would be cruel, but he wasn't at all. Now I hope as an audience that we can follow his positive example and give only praise to these talented, gutsy young cooks so they all feel the love from their fans. Yes, that's very sappy but in this day and age, the more positive reinforcement and positive attitudes that young people read about themselves, the better.
Now back to the competition...
The Battle Begins
There is a lot of expectation on these final two chefs. Whoever wins will truly set a precedent across the United States. In years to come we will likely hear people describe young cooks as "just as good as Alexander" or "even better than Dara". And we can only hope that future contestants will be just as humble and gracious, and the judges will be just as patient and encouraging. So I'm nervous.
Dara enters first. In a montage, we are reminded of her intense flavors and youthful spirit: we see Gordon trying on her signature red bow, her great layer cake, and her tears of joy when her first dish was a hit. Dara says, "I'm not here to try to win the title, I'm here to take it." If she takes it tonight, it will be a feat.
Alexander, or "Big Al", is described as having a natural culinary gift. He does not shy away from sophisticated flavors. "This is what I was meant to do," says Alexander.
They look excited but nervous. Parents, families, and past competitors are in the balcony. Also there to cheer them on is Luca Manfe, the most recent MasterChef season 4 winner who hails from Italy and now lives in New York City. I suspect Luca is hard at work on his new cookbook, but he took time away to watch this battle from the balcony. Tonight, Luca says he couldn't cook at age 12 or 14. At eight years old, he couldn't even cook a fried egg. (Amen.)
Appetizer, Dinner, and Dessert in 90 Minutes
Before our contestants begin, they run to the pantry for a surprise: a Skype call with Dara's aunt and Alexander's uncle. A piece of home, and then into the pressure of the MasterChef kitchen.
Alexander is worried about the time frame; 90 minutes is not enough. His appetizer has 30 different components. He thinks he bit off a little more than he can chew with his crostini appetizer, pan-seared veal chops, and deconstructed napoleon cannoli with mixed berries. Phew! (That hot mess would take me several days, if I could do it at all. All I can pull off in 90 minutes is this recap. But I digress.)
Alexander's mom says that to Alexander it's not about the money, it's about having that trophy.
Dara feels confident about her tuna two-ways, sauteed prawns in a thai curry sauce, and poached pear in a lemon ginger glaze. At her station she is surrounded by healthy, colorful veggies and seasoning. My confidence in her performance is growing as well. Dara's mom says she knew Dara was a good cook, but not that good.
Sarah (the competition's youngest contestant at 8 years old, but with a great deal of talent) doesn't think Dara's menu sounds very appealing. Sarah's money is on Alexander. Kaylen, another fan favorite, says that this competition is going to be "epic."
Clock Ticks Down
Joe thinks Dara's menu is too ambitious; she could lose because of time management. Gordon thinks Alexander wants to do too many things in 90 minutes. Gordon tastes Dara's food and says it's delicious; Dara looks focused like a pro. Alexander says his appetizer is coming along great. They both speak very articulately about where they are in the process, despite the pressure. At this point in the competition, they could be the most talented of professional adult chefs, for all we can tell.
Alexander's veal chop is coming down to the wire, and he's running cannoli dough through a pasta cutter. These children appear to be cooking with eight arms like Vishnu in the kitchen.
Dara runs out of flour, and before she asks Alexander immediately gives his to her. The balcony cheers.
The pressure builds. Luca weighs in; he has no idea how these kids can handle this situation. Dara has a lot to do. Joe's worried about Dara keeping curry sauce light. These guys look like they are managing the time like pros.
The only experience I can compare this to at that age is the PSATs or a final exam. Remember the pressure when you had only 10 minutes to go, and only half of those little circles filled in with a Number 2 pencil? The buzzards begin to circle overhead. The life drains from the room. Yet we took tests in school every year. This is the first time in this country we have seen kids do this.
And as it happens, Dara starts to feel the pressure and feel lightheaded after 80 minutes (that's 80 minutes after I would have). Dara feels like she will faint. Alexander is holding her. The judges look over in surprise. They do not see this often in a finale, I am sure.
(One beautiful thing is how supportive these children have been of one another over the course of this season. There is no question that they will share their ingredients, and that they will be there for a hug. Alexander just wants Dara to relax. I love them both; I believe they both are so smart and talented and do deserve to win. Dara may have come from behind in the race, but she does appear to have the talent to win it all. Certainly the judges will not hold her emotion here against her.)
Everyone gets quiet. Some begin to cheer on Dara. Gordon comes over with encouragement, and each contestant drinks from a water bottle. Everyone starts to cheer them on. Now 20 minutes, now 15!
They are cutting, they are seasoning, they are plating, Alexander is still making stuff and the judges worry about Alexander's cooking through of his steak. Dara's plating lovely prawns and lovely desserts. Alexander's afraid he won't get all of his food on the plates. The deadline approaches, the deadline... (don't I know about this, I'm a writer). But these contestants can't call the editor that they're running 10 minutes behind. Time's up! Arms up in the air; they are done. So many cheers, and Alexander and Dara hug!
This may actually be the best moment for me - watching this accomplishment. "What an extraordinary finish!" says Gordon.
Alexander looks down at his dishes, he is proud and impressed that almost all of ingredients made it onto the plates. (Almost all? Uh oh.) Dara feels really confident.
Time to head to MasterChef restaurant, where they will serve judges their appetizers, entrees and desserts. The balcony claps. These two are no different than the MasterChefs.
Judging the Appetizer
Dara's Ahi Tuna Duo is tuna two ways: Poke to show off the flavor, and seared tuna to show off skill. Joe likes the rice cake, and the tuna is beautiful. It's rare in the middle and marinated in soy sauce. Joe says it's amazing and he would pay $25 for that appetizer in Manhattan. Graham says Dara went above and beyond to pull off something this technical. Gordon said he loved canned tuna with mayonnaise when he was her age.
Alexander's basil lemon shrimp with baby heirloom tomatoes, and crostini with roasted red pepper puree does not impress the judges as much. Joe loves the flavor of roasted red pepper and can taste every individual component. Graham said the says shrimp are cooked like magic, it looks natural like Alexander stumbled upon it in the woods, but it's missing salt. Gordon loves the visual aspect and fragrance, but it's not as technical as Dara's. Gordon was very honest, I think because he respects Alexander so much.
Luca says he doesn't know who would win if he had to go against one of these two chefs.
Entrees that Wow
Dara says her shrimp is a bit overcooked. She made sauteed prawns with wontons in a Thai coconut curry sauce. Gordon says it's delicious; he loves the spicy prawns but it needed a minute less cooking. Phenomenal. Graham loved fact that she steamed them. Joe thinks the curry is rich and extracted, dumplings are delicious. Joe would pay $45 for this dish.
Alexander's pan seared veal chop is medium rare in the middle. Gordon cuts into it, and it's perfect. Gordon says it's one of the best visually cooked veal chops, and there are chefs shuddering after seeing this. The gnocchi is delicious. Graham loves any food that comes with a handle. Alexander says he knows what he's doing; he cooks this dish at home. Alexander thinks the veal chop is the more heroic but the gnocchi is a really important element. It's amazing.
Gordon says it is so close. The judges are beaming. I have seen them angry and frustrated in other cooking finales. They are only smiling now.
It comes down to this. Dara is great at cakes, and Alexander, at pastries. They both steal an obvious look at the other's dessert, they know it's down to this.
Dara poaches a pear in a lemon ginger sauce using water, lemon juice, sugar and lemon peel. Graham says it's fragrant, light and beautiful, like nothing he's ever had before. Gordon asks why she poached it. Dara says more dessert quality. Gordon wants to hug her, it's delicious. Joe says it's amazing with sweet and acidity. A perfect ending note to a symphony of dishes.
Alexander makes a deconstructed cannoli napoleon with mascarpone cream (really??). It's fitting: Napoleon being a small and great French military emperor. Graham loves the dough. The fruit in between adds blast of citrus. They think it's amazing.
Gordon says it was the perfect end of a stunning meal. The judges think Alexander's dish is very clever; he has such skill. Both meals are intellectual and intuitive. Alexander plays homage to classics and then deconstructs the dessert. They loved Dara's menu and her composure.
I think they are going to overturn Alexander right now, although they said he had this cohesiveness about it.
Who would I choose? The thing we have to remember is that we can't taste it. Something can look or sound amazing, but it's the taste. I think I'd love to get my hands on that deconstructed cannoli napoleon. But I'm more impressed by Dara's overall menu.
As for technical difficulty, I note this: Dara made a few mistakes, but Alexander admitted that some of his ingredients didn't even make it on the plate. I'm pretty sure that happened in his appetizer, which the judges did not think had that much skill.
Dara is praying that she will win, Alexander said in his mind that he did enough to win.
They arrived as talented home cooks, but both proven to them and the world that they are so much more than amateur home cooks. They want them both to be known as master chefs. Joe said they have changed how every 8 to 13 year old looks at how they can cook. Gordon said it was so close, but it came down to the slightest of details, and one of them will make history. You know, I wish it could be both...
The first MasterChef Junior is ... (I'm waiting to hear Dara's name called. In my head I'm hearing "Dara, Dara, Dara...")
I expected to see this pastoral scene since the very first episode: the confetti falling lightly on Alexander's curly hair, the judges with their arms around Alexander, Alexander holding the trophy high. This guy knows how to cook.
This season inspires not only young cooks, it inspires adults as well. If they can focus, we can focus. If they can learn it, we can learn it. If they can do it, we can do it!
So feel free to sound off if you were happy to see Alexander win, or if you would have given it to someone else.
Remember to be a good sport though, like Alexander, Dara and the rest of the MasterChef Junior competitors.
This season, these children and young teens made us laugh, made us cry, and made us fall in love with them and their cooking.
Bravo Alexander! Bravo Dara!
(Image courtesy of FOX)