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MasterChef Junior: On the set

Behind the scenes of the pint-sized, feel-good Fox reality series hosted by Gordon Ramsay

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Greg Gayne/Fox

Inside a soundstage on The Walt Disney Studios lot in Burbank, two of television’s newest celebrity chefs are bickering over pickling. The one behind the pots and pans wears a backwards-turned blue cap. Her name is Addison, and she is 9 years old. Her cooking partner, Amaya, a 10-year-old with candy-colored glasses, stands to the side, trying not to cry. They are debating concepts and best practices that I, a culinary knucklehead with barbarian taste, barely understand. Something about … marinades? But being a father, I do know the point at which emotionally overheated kids might benefit from a time-out. And friends, we are well past that point.

Bounding to the rescue is Gordon Ramsay. On cooking competition shows like Hell’s Kitchen, the superstar restaurateur and $100 million dollar-plus cooking brand is a fire-and-brimstone boss, foul-mouthed and unforgiving. But here on Fox’s MasterChef Junior, a tweeny spin-off of the MasterChef franchise, the brusque Brit, 49, is a tough love paterfamilias who nurtures young dreams, offers one-to-grow-on life lessons with a pinch of saltiness, and even smiles. Frequently. But not now. With Amaya breathing hard and Addison pulling her hat down below her eyes, Ramsay — decked in a sky blue suit, his blonde hair heavenly coiffed — bends low and speaks into their troubled rapport. “Open up. Talk to each other,” he says with a soft voice. “You can do this.”

This emotional pickle, shot last April, reaches the screen Friday when MasterChef Junior airs the ninth episode of its fourth season (it’s the second hour of two back-to-back installments). The widely acclaimed show pitting prepubescent cooking whizzes against each other for our appetite-stirring amusement – call it The Hunger-Making Games (minus the murder and archery) — remains one of the most feel-good and even good-for-us pop enterprises. Where so many reality series wallow in the worst qualities of people and provoke us to schadenfreude, MasterChef Junior presents moving and suspenseful narratives about resilience and cooperation, learning from mistakes and gleefully chasing excellence. It’s a joy-watching thriller, not a hate-watching soap opera. You might want The Smug One to learn some humility and The Twerpy One to get an attitude check, but you want them all to succeed, and hurt for any of them when they get sent packing. The show is totally at home in our pitiless winners-and-losers culture, but it implicitly scolds it, too. Winning and losing, in fact, often feels totally beside the point. Yeah, it can be very cornball and fairy-tale, and it owes too much of its power to a sentimental construct of children and our weakness for precocious kids being precocious – but that doesn’t make its perspective and meanings any less true or valuable. If only the adult world ran on such grace, right?

MasterChef Junior shoots inside a warehouse kitchen lined with rows of cooking stations. There’s a massive pantry stocked with a cornucopia of foodstuffs — dairy, fruits, veggies, swordfish, pig head, Sriracha, the works. Behind the judges’ dais at the head of the set, there’s an occasionally-used dining room, and below a balcony, there’s a hardly-used parlor room. The handsome, chiaroscuro-lit entirety reminds me of freakie foodie Hannibal Lecter’s spacious two-tiered library office from the now-defunct show Hannibal with an even-more-massive cooking school add-on. But that’s just me. (Hannibal the Cannibal’s Culinary School for Peculiar Children is a show I would watch. Get on that, somebody.)

The fourth season of MasterChef Junior has been the biggest yet. Of the 24 contestants that started the season, eight remain as the show enters the last third of 12 episodes (last year, there were 19 contestants and 8 episodes). Their journey up until now has included, among many things, frosting cupcakes, brewing lemonade, grilling burgers, shucking scallops, making a croquembouche (look it up), replicating a dish they tasted while blindfolded (pan seared chicken with rosemary mashed potatoes), and turning a crate of ingredients into a fancy New England clam bake. Oh, and they bashed a giant piñata shaped to resemble Gordon Ramsay’s head, too. The season’s youngest contestant, Kya, 8, might be the frontrunner. She nailed the blindfold chicken challenge. Ramsay has declared her a “freak.” She makes me feel small and insignificant and worthless on a weekly basis, but in the most adorable way possible.

When I visited the set last spring, I was allowed to observe a portion of the show’s now annual tag team challenge. The kids were divided into four teams (Zac, 12, chose Kya as his partner; smart lad) and asked to prepare a platter of international street foods and dipping sauces. Potato pea samosa with coriander yogurt from India. Mozzarella arancini with marinara from Italy. Shrimp spring rolls with soy dipping sauce from Vietnam. Beef bao buns with cucumber pickles from China. Lamb kofta with tzatziki from Greece. I was brought onto set with the junior chefs already at their cooking stations, ingredients and equipment in front of them. Ramsay and his fellow judges – Graham Elliot, serving his final tour of duty after six seasons with the MasterChef franchise; and newcomer Christina Tosi, replacing original judge Joe Bastianich — were offering big-picture guidance. The secret to mastering the challenge would be organization, explained Ramsay. Determine priorities. Make a plan. “Is that clear?” 

“YES, CHEF!” they replied in unison.

Elliott looked to the clock hanging over the set. “Your time starts … now!

If you watch MasterChef Junior and wonder, “Do those kids really do all their own cooking?” the answer, on this day, was yes. The challenge, scheduled for an hour, was shot without breaks. The side of the set you never see — the one opposite the balcony — was crowded with black clad crew members, seven cameras on rollers, a few guys with hand-held cameras, and one camera on a crane. There was someone to observe each pair of kids and take notes on the unfolding story for the producers and editors who will later craft the footage into narrative. There were production assistants ready to sneak in boiling water if requested, or necessary tools that might be missing from each station. This happened maybe twice. (“I’m going in,” said one such PA to a camera operator, crouching low so as not to be seen and awkwardly hustling a steaming pot to Kya.) The judges roamed the floor, peppering the teams with a quick critique, encouragement, or kick in the ass, but no more or less than what you usually see. “Set the alarm clock and wake up a little bit! Come on, you two! Not good enough!” Ramsay said to the team of J.J., 12, and Avery, 9, after catching them making the strategic mistake of starting the cucumber pickle sauce before grilling the beef. The kids received no instruction from the wings, save for an occasional whispered exhortation to be careful with the knives.

(I’ve always assumed that the kids were told in advance what they’d be cooking — with the exception of mystery challenges, of course — and maybe even allowed to practice those dishes before the filmed competition. I wouldn’t find such allowances unreasonable or unacceptable and I don’t believe they would subvert the integrity or magic of a show about talented young cooks rocking complex dishes on the spot. Regardless, my assumptions are incorrect, according to a Fox spokesperson. The kids are taught how to use the equipment in the kitchen so they can safely use those tools, but this training takes place before the start of the season. Moreover, the kids never know what they’re cooking until the judges reveal the challenges on set.)

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It was difficult to track the progress of every team, not without getting in the way of the crew and shots. But it was clear that the number of items and variety of techniques required were vexing them all. It struck me as a multi-tasking nightmare that would flummox any chef, young or old. Ramsay would tell me later that the show made an effort to raise the difficulty of the challenges for this year’s group of contestants. “We have extraordinary young chef talent, but I also think they’ve seen the three seasons prior, and they’ve swapped softball lessons for cooking lessons,” he said with a wry laugh. “We had to up the ante because they have gotten that good.”

But one team was having a more intense – and loud — experience than the others: Addison and Amaya, two strong talents and strong personalities (Addison, a six sport athlete and feisty competitor, several degrees more so than Amaya), and judging from this exercise, temperamentally mismatched as tag-team partners. They started well, launching their collaboration with a high five. But both girls struggled to stay positive as the stress mounted. When Amaya was slicing, dicing, searing, whisking, steaming, and frying, Addison was off to the side fuming, overwhelming her partner with increasingly panicky exhortations (“Use the knife, Amaya! USE THE KNIFE!”) — and when they switched places every 10 minutes, Amaya would be “supporting” in the same way when Addison was cooking. “AddyAddyAddy! Let me see that soy sauce – THAT’S ENOUGH! THAT’S ENOUGH!” Ramsay actually made two trips to their station to help calm them down and focus. “You can do it,” he said on his second visit. “You’re still a team.”

And yet, as the clock ticked down, it became harder for both girls to stay composed, especially when they realized they had gotten a late start on the spring rolls. At one point, Addison was cooking and emotion-coaching Amaya through her despair (“Stop crying, Amaya!” “I can’t!”), but she herself was struggling to keep from breaking down or surrendering to negativity, often pulling the brim of her hat down to over her eyes in exasperation. At one point late in the hour, Amaya, stressed and scattered, picked up that knife and began chopping a lemon, sparking worry among the crew that she might cut herself. A medic got ready to jump into the fray, but fortunately, Amaya kept a still hand and his services weren’t needed. Both girls sighed with relief when Ramsay asked everyone if they’d like a few more minutes of time. (“YES, CHEF!”) But when time was finally called, neither girl was happy with the performance, and both were feeling raw. For me, their time came when Amaya moved in for a hug – and Addison refused it. “Stop,” said Addison. My interpretation of the vibe: More I’m not ready for that yet, my friend than We are never, ever getting back together.

The show makes it seem like the judges immediately ask the kids to step forward and submit their dishes for evaluation. In truth, everyone takes a break. On this day, the kids were escorted to lunch, and there, I’m told, Addison and Amaya – who became good friends during the course of the season — processed their experience with producers, their guardians, and each other. In a short conversation with the judges in the dining room after the kids had left the set, Tosi told me: “It’s important that the kids learn how to deal with stress and disappointment, and our job is to push them in that regard. But it’s also important they learn to recover from it, and we have a responsibility to that, too.”

“That was one of the most pivotal moments we’ve ever had in the competition,” said Ramsay, adding that by his estimation, three of the four teams were on the verge of “a meltdown,” although Amaya and Addison were clearly struggling more than the others. “But they didn’t give up. … It’s life, right? It’s a great skill to learn. I think we need to learn what its like to fall on our asses earlier, not later, and develop an instinct for how to come back from negativity.” (During the judging, which I didn’t get to see, Ramsay will impart this message to Addison and Amaya, and in the episode, the storyline crafted by the producers hits hard the values of resilience and reconciliation. There’s even a shot of the two girls hugging. I must have missed that beat when my nose was in my notebook, writing about them not hugging.)

Given their emotional and apparent organizational chaos, I thought for sure Addison and Amaya had whiffed the assignment. Yet when I toured the aisles (littered with dropped veggies and messy with spills; kids!) and checked out everyone’s work (no, I didn’t get to taste; damn!), I was shocked to see that somehow, someway, the girls had finished almost everything asked of them. “They got everything on the plate except one sauce!” said Elliott. “We were just hoping [the teams] would get three out of the five!”

The judges told me the hardest part of the show is the elimination. To soften the blow on individuals, the show sends kids home in pairs. Still, says Ramsay, “We hate saying goodbye. It’s a real s— thing to do. Especially after 10, 12 kids in a row, as a judge, you feel like an absolute, utter a–hole saying goodbye to them.” Maybe soon we’ll know the feeling: “I would like to see a live finale,” said Ramsay when asked how he’d like to see the show grow from here. He envisions something like the finales of American Idol or The Voice, where the remaining two contestants would compete in a challenge and the audience would help determine the winner. “I think the public is crying out for it,” said Ramsay. “It’s getting that big.”

MasterChef Junior airs Fridays at 8 p.m. ET on Fox.