MasterChef Junior contestants are used to dealing with any manner of challenge-related surprises, but Thursday sees the young chefs deal with the biggest revelation yet. Not only is former first lady Michelle Obama the one curating the episode’s mystery box (and announcing the challenge by video), but the winner of the challenge will also get to travel to the White House to meet her in person, as the episode was shot while former President Barack Obama was still in office.
The episode’s excitement doesn’t stop there. The second challenge — which sees the kids cooking dishes in tribute to their mothers — finds Modern Family star Julie Bowen join Gordon Ramsay and Christina Tosi as a guest judge.
With both women gracing the MasterChef Junior kitchen, EW spoke to showrunner Robin Ashbrook about their presence on set.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did Michelle Obama’s involvement in the episode come about?
ROBIN ASHBROOK: There was an event some time ago which the former first lady attended in New York to extoll the virtues of all of the things that MasterChef and Michelle Obama believe in, which is kids eating healthy. [So] it really grew from that event, the realization that everything that Michelle Obama wanted and still continues to want, and her ambitions for how children approach food, how they eat, and how they prepare it, are pretty identical to those of MasterChef and MasterChef Junior, in particular. It was a natural progression of our relationship, that we would be the platform that would make absolute sense for the former first lady to deliver that message to as many families as possible. So we worked together with the White House during that time to put that challenge together. It really grew organically, excuse the pun, from that meeting and it blossomed into what you see in this episode.
Was it always the plan that Mrs. Obama shoot a video introducing the challenge, or had you talked to her about possibly visiting the kitchen in person?
I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t say, “First of all, can you come to the kitchen?” Obviously, her schedule is probably the busiest on the planet. So, I would have taken a handwritten note, or a drawing, or anything. So actually to be able to receive the video message option was still pretty fantastic for us. She was integrated more than that into the show. The fact that she then welcomes the winner to go and spend time with her at the annual state dinner, and actually spend some time together, indicates that for Michelle Obama it was more than just sitting down for a simple video message. She was far more invested in our show.
The mystery box featured a lot of healthy meats and vegetables, which is obviously something she believes in. Was that her suggestion, or was that something you knew would be a perfect fit?
We’ve had people curate mystery boxes before. Eva Longoria came and said, “These are the types of food I like to eat.” So it felt very natural that we have ingredients inspired by the White House garden and the message of MyPlate [the United States Department of Agriculture nutrition guide]. So all of those ingredients came together in a collaboration between us, our food producers, Gordon Ramsay, and Michelle. So it was quite easy to reach that final list of what should be in there: Healthy foods you can take in all kinds of different directions. There are nine states represented, so we always try and put in the mystery box enough proteins and produce that kids from different backgrounds can take in many different directions, both sweet and savory, geographically inspired, inspired by their diversity and family heritage. It was quite a simple process.
What was the atmosphere in the kitchen like after the kids saw the video?
We’ve had some amazing guests in the MasterChef kitchen over our successful years. She probably got the biggest and greatest reception that we’ve ever had. The kids were incredibly excited. I think if you’re between 8 and 13 in this country, whichever state you’re from, whether you’re a boy or a girl, Michelle Obama represents a lot of important values that we all share. So there was a gasp of excitement which then reached another level when Gordon informed them that the winner would actually go and meet her. It’s funny. It wasn’t just kids that were excited. There were camera operators, and sound men and sound women and tech teams that were excited to be there. You feel like you’re in the middle of a real moment, not just in the kids’ lives, but in all our lives when you’re doing something that has Michelle Obama at the heart of it. You get a sense of pride and excitement and we all shared it on that day. I did as the showrunner, and Gordon and all of the kids certainly felt it. It was a very memorable day in the history of MasterChef.
Julie Bowen is the other big guest in the episode. How did her involvement come about?
We were looking for two of America’s most noted and celebrated mums, and we had one with the former first lady because we shot while Michelle Obama was still in the White House. If you were [asking], “Who’s the other currently most celebrated mum in America?” Well, [Bowen’s Modern Family character] Claire Dunphy is probably at the top of that list. So we approached Julie to see if she was interested. She said yes immediately. Julie herself would say she’s not the world’s greatest cook, which she says within the show, so she came at it really as a point of just celebrating the relationship betweens mums, families, kids, and food, and she was blown away by what some of the kids delivered. Some of these kids, in honor of their mums, took that particular challenge to a whole other level.
How did you decide to make the second challenge about honoring the kids’ moms?
When we have special guests we try and tailor it toward them in some way. It just felt natural coming off the back of Michelle Obama to just celebrate what Claire Dunphy is, which is one of the most recognizable American mums. So it only felt right for us to celebrate that with that challenge. Again, it’s a shared value of MasterChef Junior that a fundamental basis of family relationships often comes from food and spending time in the kitchen with your mum and dad, sitting around the dining room table. And we hadn’t done it before, and it just felt like the right challenge to do, and Julie was very happy to go along.
What was it like having her in the kitchen? Because a lot of the kids were excited to see her.
Not as excited as me. They were very excited. The beauty of kids is that they’ll always react honestly. If someone walked in the kitchen and they don’t know who that is, they’ll happily say, “I have no idea who you are.” That’s the beauty of their relationships. Sometimes with Gordon they say things as directly to him as you or I might not. This episode, between the former first lady and Julie Bowen, every kid absolutely knew who they were, and was overwhelmed with excitement and joy. Julie fed off the kids and they fed off her. So the scenes between our 14 remaining home cooks and Julie in the second half of the episode are great as well because she’s pretty special. Both as a performer and as a guest in that kitchen, she’s absolutely one of my favorites.
MasterChef Junior airs Thursdays at 8 p.m. ET on Fox.