I am not what one would call a foodie. I enjoy my clam sauce from a can and have on more than one occasion argued the merits of consuming all sustenance in the form of a pill. I have a general disdain for food culture and a healthy contempt for the whole ‘Chef as God, Food as Religion” ethos of the past decade. My culinary skills, as one might suspect, are quite limited ⏤ let’s just say I wash more dishes than I make meals.
Somehow, despite all of this, one of my favorite shows on television right now is MasterChef Junior, Gordon Ramsay’s cooking competition on Fox that pits 8- to 13-year-olds against one another in a less-than-cut-throat battle for the title of top child chef in America. It’s gotten so bad that every Friday evening since the beginning of March I’ve made sure our takeout order was picked up in time so as to not miss a minute.
Not being a food person, however, I’ve often wondered what it is about MasteChef Junior that I find so damn compelling ⏤ other than the fact that Gordon Ramsay just makes entertaining television. He’s an engaging character and, in this case, watching him and the other judges, Christina Tosi and Joe Bastianich, interact with the kids is fun and endearing. Even when tiny tears are shed or Joe’s teeing off on a child for flubbing a dish most professional chefs struggle with, their rapport with the contestants is genuine and natural and enjoyable to watch.
But what it boils down to, I’ve decided, is that the show is equal parts awe-inspiring and infuriating ⏤ and it’s this love-hate relationship I have with it that sucks me in. On the one hand, it is impossible not to have your mind absolutely blown when you watch an 8-year-old whip up a ridiculous “restaurant-quality” dish in half hour, when I struggle to cook a piece of chicken. The kids are amazingly talented, and regardless of whatever prep goes on behind the scenes (who knows how much coaching they actually get), the level of culinary skill and creativity they demonstrate ⏤ from the recipes to the cooking technique to the artistic plating ⏤ is mind-boggling. I never thought it was possible to be inspired by a 10-year-old, but good lord, I can’t help turn the show off every week and think I’ve got to learn how to make a real meal.
I love the fact that there’s no real backstabbing or competitive drama ⏤ the kids truly seem to like each other and want to be friends. Watching them try to get ruthless and eliminate the strongest competition is almost comical. And, unlike with the adults, the kids aren’t edited into archenemies or characters the audience is supposed to hate. Sure, some kids are less likable than others but as a viewer, I find myself disliking not the kid they currently are on the show but the little adult you can already see them becoming. You can tell which kids are going to be unbearably high strung, or a fraternity brother at a Southern state school, or as in the case of Olivia and Remy, Manhattan socialites (Come on, they’re parents have a huge place in the Hamptons!) Nonetheless, kids are cute, their emotions pure, and they cook the darndest things.
At the same time, I find everything MasteChef Junior is predicated on infuriating, starting with the fact that it wreaks of overbearing hipster parents forcing their love of food culture on their kids ⏤ and then living out pseudo-chef dreams vicariously through them. Granted, it’s probably no different than a hyper-competitive sports dad pushing his kid to excel on the football field, but with cooking, it feels considerably more offensive ⏤ this could also be because I’m not a foodie. Either way, it’s impossible not to groan at least once an episode at a contestant who expresses an adult-level adoration for a chef most people don’t know, or drop hilariously trite cooking phrases like “this dish is me on a plate,” or mimic the adult contestants’ constant obsession for the food of their heritage. If Adrianna ⏤ who got completely hosed in the judging, by the way ⏤ mentioned that her family was from Belarus one more time this season, I was going to lose it.
Then there’s the seemingly unhealthy amount of pressure thrown at the kids during the show, as the judges demand they perform to adult standards. Wait, you’re 8-year-old and are struggling to work the line in a kitchen of a Michelin-starred restaurant? God dammit, pull yourself together kid! Remember, these are children. They’re not professional chefs. Pushing them to tears to get Beef Wellington out to a bunch of rich dinner guests doesn’t test their meddle or build character. It’s just mildly abusive. Although from the way some of them react, it’s safe to assume they are probably being pushed equally as hard at home by misguided tiger parents. Also, why should home cooks even know how to work in a restaurant, anyway? I’ve never understood these ridiculous challenges.
And finally, let’s be honest, the show is a bit elitist. Sure, producers have remedied the casting problem from previous seasons where they primarily selected kids from the coasts ⏤ they used to be almost exclusively from Brooklyn or California (and, maybe, Austin) ⏤ but it still showcases the unfortunate realities of our economic system. And the inherent advantages more affluent parents can bestow on their kids at an early age to give them a leg up. It doesn’t take long to figure out which contestants dine at five-star restaurants, have access to exotic ingredients at home, or have received advanced training. “I have a very sophisticated palate,” said one contestant this season, I think it was Remy, shortly after exclaiming, “Filet mignon is one of my favorite things to make, we eat it in our house ALL the time.” Really? Wow. All the time? Meanwhile, another one of the older contestants is as an intern at a restaurant. Come on, how is it fair that they’re competing against 8-year-olds? That wouldn’t happen in the Little League World Series.
Yet, amazingly, those younger kids have competed big time this season ⏤ and that may, in the end, be the true reason the show has me so emotionally invested. In the run-up to one of the most stunning semi-final episodes I can remember, the older more experienced cooks ⏤ Mikey, Remy, Evan ⏤ all got bounced to make way for a three-way final this week that pits 8-year-old Avery against 9-year-old Beni against an, admittedly, much younger-seeming 11-year-old Quani. I can’t imagine an adult viewer anywhere who predicted those three in the final ⏤ it was a wild reveal for a show that’s elimination sequences are usually anything but suspenseful. The youngest kids aren’t there to win, they’re on the show to be adorable, for the cuteness factor, and to say random funny things before Gordon inevitably notes their young age and future potential before dispatching them to the back doors.
Not this season. This season, the young kids are winning ⏤ and it’s making it even more fun to watch. Even for a guy who questions their parents’ motivations and thinks canned clam sauce is pretty damn tasty.