I didn’t truly learn how to cook until I was 30. In the midst of the pandemic with suddenly much more time on my hands than usual, I retreated to the kitchen to finally move my repertoire beyond macaroni and cheese. It was a skill that I had long wanted to hone, an itch brought on mostly by reality cooking competition shows.
Yes, it had been fun for years to simply act as a voyeur in awe of what these chefs were creating on my TV screen, but after more than a decade of standing idly by, I felt that some of the lessons were seeping into my brain. Maybe one day I’ll make mushroom risotto, I thought to myself, taking note of the most common mistakes made by professional and amateur contestants alike. Top Chef, Hell’s Kitchen, Chopped—I love them all, but none inspires me more than MasterChef Junior. Thank god it’s back on the air after a nearly three-year hiatus.
The original conceit of MasterChef was to bring in talented (adult) home chefs to compete in a series of elimination challenges, aiming to impress a panel of celebrity chefs and restaurateurs with Gordon Ramsay at the helm. The winner gets $250,000, a MasterChef trophy, and often other prizes like a cookbook deal thrown in. In 2013, producers at Fox seemed to wonder, “what if that, but with kids?”
The contestants are between 8 and 13 years old, and they’re competing for $100,000 (though Mashed reported that winners aren’t able to access the money until they’re 18). Perhaps more significantly, they’re going through a sort of professional culinary camp to improve their skills and work with ingredients, tools, and mentors that they wouldn’t otherwise have access to.
There are a combination of technical challenges, like last week’s episode where teams had to create as many perfect pizzas as possible in an allotted amount of time; creative challenges, like impressing with an innovative dish highlighting a mystery ingredient; and professional challenges, like the episode when the children take over a real restaurant kitchen only to surprise all the diners with their age at the end of the meal. At least one (sometimes more) contestant is kicked off every week, but they’re always encouraged to keep their MasterChef apron and continue learning to cook, sometimes with generous offers from the hosts to join them for training or even just a meal. In the end, one kid comes out on top and takes home the cash prize and a trophy.
For those who have never watched MasterChef Junior, this isn’t a Kids Say the Darndest Things rip-off where the joy comes from any sort of naivety or an “aw, look how cute that they’re trying to cook” lens (though don’t get me wrong, these are some adorable moments and kids really do say the darndest things). These kids can whip up a restaurant-quality meal better and faster than many of the adults who compete on the original version of this show. Because these kids are still learning, Gordon Ramsay and the other guest chefs often provide step-by-step instructions for classic dishes—a worthwhile lesson for viewers of any age—and the kids pick them up with ease and then add their own creative twists.
They show us what’s possible when you have unbridled confidence and are not yet weary from the world, but instead are told by family members and friends and mentors that you can do whatever you put your mind to.
That same sense of a pure worldview comes through in how the child chefs interact with each other. It’s a competition, yes, but that doesn’t mean the other home chefs are the enemy. The way in which these kid contestants help each other and provide emotional support throughout the series, even though they’ve just met each other on this set, it reminds us that we’re all naturally inclined to err on the side of humanity.
And lest you think I’m getting too saccharine, it also proves that as adults we should be able to cook! This eight-year-old from Montana can perfectly sear a salmon on a wood plank and you can’t? Get it together! You’re an adult! You should be cooking circles around these kids, and maybe seeing them succeed on MasterChef Junior is just the kick in the pants you need to get into the kitchen and make a beautiful, restaurant-quality dish if it’s the last thing you do.