MasterChef Junior, Gordon Ramsay’s new cooking competition which features children ages 8 to 13, may represent a significant change from Gordon’s fiery Hell’s Kitchen or drama-filled MasterChef, where the cooking’s not always great and side-show fights are just as entertaining as the food. Gordon said it all on tonight’s season premiere (after one contestant said she was not interested in the boy who was eying her), “Aww, c’mon! Love is in the air!”
Let’s get it out there: these kids are phenomenal. They are making pasta from scratch and then cooking it into a restaurant-quality dish in less than an hour. All of them. Only when they speak do we remember they are children: anything and everything is “awesome” and “amazing”, but that’s good, right?
Like Hell’s Kitchen and MasterChef, this series will be judged by Gordon Ramsay, Joe Bastianich, and Graham Elliot. The show debuts on a Friday night, typically “family night” as the adult crowd heads out for fun and children are allowed to stay up late to watch TV.
So as is fitting, the show starts when the Masterchef kitchen opens its doors and all the children walk in smiling and say… “Wow!”
Gordon tells us that they searched all of America and found the 24 best (young) home cooks. Parents walk onto the balcony to support their children, who line up at the front. Gordon tells them that they are “all winners” (I cannot imagine him saying “everyone’s a winner” on any other show), but if one ends up being the best of the best, he or she will get what is inside the small box…
Joe opens the box and very blandly says, “A trophy.” (Joe appears to not be ready for the all-smiles and frivolity of this new series.)
The contestants head to the balcony. They are divided into three groups of eight for a challenge. Each group must cook from a different category of food in a 60-minute period. If the dish is great, those chosen will be asked to stay for the next episode.
Group 1 – Seafood
The first group of eight stands at the front and learns they have seafood. Some clap, some groan before a table of octopus, king salmon, crab, lobster, and more. Justin looks at it sideways, but Sophia is all smiles.
Personally, I am sure that this challenge alone will do some of these children in. “I hope everyone gets a dish together and does not implode under the difficulty of making seafood,” says Joe.
This is how the children do:
Jack is shorter than some of the others. He has a big smile and resembles a gangster in his Hawaiian shirt; Joe tells him it’s a good shirt for wearing poker. Although Jack must jump to reach the taller shelves in the pantry – “the pantry is gigantic” he says – at his station Jack chops his ingredients and stares them down with the intensity of a hardened butcher. He cooks seared crab cakes in garlic and celery seed aioli.
Judge Joe stares down at Jack and asks him what his goal is. Jack wants to open a restaurant, and Joe asks if they can be partners at “Joe and Jack’s” restaurant. Jack says no, but still gets a compliment from Joe – the crab cakes are great and crispy.
Sofia is comparatively tall and confident. “Where the hell are the pomegranates?” she asks as she stalks the pantry.
Sofia also thinks the quality of her dish will get her points. She made a beautiful Chilean sea bass with wilted spinach and baby eggplant. Gordon said the fish was plated beautifully and liked the crunch pomegranate crust. He was blown away.
Joe stares Sophia down. “Wow. Could you do that again or was this luck?”
“I think I could do that again,” says Sofia without flinching.
Roen makes some amazing sushi: a seared ahi tuna salad, salmon, avocado and cucumber roll. Graham was amazed with the paper-thin cucumber and perfectly sliced avocado. “I don’t know if I could do this. You have super special ninja sushi skills,” said Graham.
Mina cooks a coconut shrimp and cactus salad, noting to Joe that it’s from the cactus fruit and the seeds are healthy. Joe likes it; it’s a little sweet but the shrimp are perfectly cooked.
Daniel cooks an octopus salad with basil and tomato that Gordon said was “delicious.” Not sure if we saw Justin; the kids are rushed through.
Franco made seared scallops with vegetable fried rice. Gordon liked the sear in the scallops but said they were slightly rubbery. While rubbery scallops are ordinarily the bane of Gordon’s existence and worthy of his wrath, this time he said kindly, “Franco, if you were my son I’d be incredibly proud of that dish.”
Molly, hit the floor ready to “cook and kill it,” she said. She made fish tacos with homemade tortillas and pomegranate salsa that the judges found “rich and impressive.”
The judges say that the children have done an amazing job and are blown away at the standard set, but “sadly, not all of you can progress.”
When eliminated, the children get to keep their aprons and seem genuinely grateful that they will be able to wear them at home. Roen, Molly, Jack, and Sofia move on to the next round.
Group 2: Pasta
Pasta! The kids cheer. Sara sighs in relief. “Anyone can do pasta,” she says.
But then Joe “laid down the gauntlet” (Gordon’s words): they must make homemade pasta and also cook it up in a dish, all in the same hour! (How many adults could do that?) An intense 60 minutes commences, after which:
Dara, who wears a fun and enormous red mini-mouse-style bow headband (which Gordon tries on himself), serves Graham an herb-glazed spaetzle with rack of lamb, mint sauce and Greek yogurt. (Wow!!)
But then she starts crying. When asked, Dara says they are happy tears. Graham says it’s good and she will inspire a lot of people. Gordon said he could lift the dish out of the show and serve in his restaurant.
Tommy made a pumpkin ravioli in a cream sauce. Joe says it is beautiful, the balance is good, and the flavor is good. Graham says they are gorgeous and cannot believe that at 11 years old he is putting up food at the same exact level in restaurants.
Sage makes a cherry tomato salad with pasta “cooked beautifully” and seasoned vegetables.
Jewels makes gnocchi with tomato sage cheese sauce that Joe says is light and delicious.
Graham loves Troy’s sea scallop fettuccine with tiger shrimp.
Sara’s seasoning is spot-on, but her fettuccine could use some of the same seasoning in the pasta as in the meatballs.
Gavin does his hometown of San Francisco proud with his tortellini with sage butter sauce.
Noah makes a chicken Marsala with fettuccine pasta; Graham likes the flavor and technique but would cook the pasta less.
Noah, Sara, and Sage do not move on, but the other five advance.
Group 3: Dessert
Everyone is excited for dessert, and this group has the youngest contestant (Nathan, 8, who runs around and has trouble lifting the mixer) and oldest (Alexander, 13, who appears to be a savant.
Graham considers Alexander’s vanilla bean pistachio macaroons to be the best on MasterChef and wants to take the whole plate to the corner.
Graham was nervous about Sarah’s molten lava cake, glazed raspberries, hoping the chocolate runs out like lava.
The moment of truth: “Sarah, I think you have nailed it. This is the best molten lava cake we’ve ever had on MasterChef and you’re nine years old,” says Graham.
Gordon to Sarah: “You’ve got some chocolate in your hair. I’d give it 10 out of 10.”
For Ethan’s dark chocolate truffles, orange and coffee, his chocolate might be a little grainy but are really smooth inside.
Amanda’s salted caramel dessert could have cooked a little longer, but it was decadent and she nailed the salted caramel.
Joe said Kaylen’s mint lime cupcakes had “sophisticated flavors and restaurant quality.”
Nathan’s pastry did not poof up, but it was delicious and the judges applauded him. (Eight years old!!)
Sarah, Alexander, and Kaylen are moving on. They are all crying…
Sarah says, “I will be America’s first junior MasterChef; watch out!”
Good luck to Sarah and all!
MasterChef Junior airs Friday nights at 8pm on FOX.
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(Image courtesy of FOX)