Tuesday, February 17, 2015

MasterChef Junior

By Jack Webster

MasterChef Junior (Fox Network, 2013-Present) Cast: Joe Bastianich, Graham Elliot, & Gordon Ramsay.

I admit it. I’m a sucker for reality shows. Yeah, I know they’re not real, but there’s still something fascinating about them that makes it near impossible for me to turn away.

Right now one of my current favorites is MasterChef Junior. The last season wrapped up December 16, and this eight-episode season's finale is February 24. The show, as you already know, is a spinoff of MasterChef; only the contestants are kids from ages 8 to 13. And, of course, they’re all cute and such, as they interact with Gordon, Graham and Joe (who is leaving the show). Actually, I’m not used to Gordon speaking without dropping f-bombs all over the place, so for me this is something out of Fantasy Land.

The show also appears to be some thing that can play on Nickelodeon, with the hosts resembling kiddie show hosts. Last season, in a pancake-cooking contest, the winners were allowed to pour huge vats of syrup on the hosts, and this season all got to hit the hosts with lemon meringue pies. To me, the real contest seem to be who can be cuter, the kids or the hosts.

But one important distinction between this show and the adult MasterChef is that while the contestants on MasterChef are a mean and bitchy lot, rooting on camera for the others to fall on their faces, the kids on the junior edition are nice and supportive of each other. They’re still competitive, of course, but this is a gentler, kinder version.

I’m also amazed at how well some of them can cook, and skeptical, also. When I was their age, I was lucky if I could make a peanut-and-jelly sandwich. These kids can cook steak several different ways, break down a salmon, and use technologically advanced equipment. Who has liquid nitrogen just hanging around in the kitchen? I find it hard to believe that 11- and 12-year olds can cook the salmon he just broke down using advanced methods and add two or three side dishes within an hour time limit. There was this one kid last season who was using sriracha foam. At his age, he should be playing with his Mr. Destructo junior chemistry set and blowing the neighborhood to smithereens. I noticed on one episode with a cupcake-making challenge that they were clearly pouring pre-measured amounts of flour and other ingredients into the bowls.

Another thing that raises flags is how well spoken these kids are at their age. Here are some of the quotes I wrote down during last season:

I think my palate’s pretty awesome.”
I’m a little jealous I’m not in the top three (of one challenge). I felt like my dish was really going to be the thing to propel me to great heights.”
This sense of euphoria and relief passes over me because I have redeemed myself and I’m going to be taken a lot more seriously now.”

And here’s the capper: When Gordon questions one of the contestants as to what he’s making, he replies, “It’s a five-spice marinated chicken wings with some lemongrass and cilantro rice, pickled vegetables, and sriracha foam.” Gordon is perplexed, “Why foam?” “Because I think it adds some textural interest to the plate.” (Textural? I had to ask my uncle what that meant. I still don’t know how it applies to his dish.) Gordon then asks, “Have you thought about reining it in a little bit and focusing on one or two things as opposed to five things?” To which our young contestant answers, “I think there’s enough brain capacity now to get everything done.”

These comments are not just precocious, but too precocious for kids their age. I think adults wrote these, especially when the show cuts away to a contestant, and the kids read them off cue cards. Some have written that the kids are actually actors chosen to pretend to cook, but I don’t believe that; it’s too easy to check out. I do think they take the more outgoing kids and focus on them.

Supposedly, the father of one of the contestants on the Australian version blew the whistle on how the show is done. Of course, he cannot be identified because of the confidentiality agreement he signed (suspicious), but he said that while the kiddies were talented, their skills were sharpened prior to the dishes being prepared. He also added that some of the contestants took professional cooking and acting lessons before the show started. He admitted he hired a private chef for three days a week over six weeks to teach his kid. The kids were informed in advance what they would be cooking, so that while the kids look surprised, they’ve all had the recipes for weeks beforehand. While everything looks spontaneous, the reality is that the kids have cooked their dishes over 50 times.

Food for thought no pun intended. But do we reality show junkies really care? Do those who tune in care? No, we’re just interested in the contest. It’s like professional wrestling: we know it’s fixed, but the fun is in watching it take place.

Besides, the kids are cute.

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