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MasterChef Junior-Restaurant Kids

Kids taking over the kitchen of a restaurant to serve lunch. A recipe for disaster or more proof the producers are equating these kids to their full grown counterparts?

I was surprised that they decided to put the restaurant challenge in the junior edition. After all, this is going way out of their comfort zone. And considering most industrial kitchens are not kid friendly, one that is fraught with peril. I cannot imagine many restaurant owners opening up their kitchens due to labor, safety and liability issues to allow kids to cook for a reality show. Those concerns aside, this was a great episode if nothing else to see how these kids worked under the pressure of a restaurant.

Last weeks winners, Dara and Gavin were team leaders. Team Dara (Red Team) includes Alexander and Jack. Team Gavin(Blue Team) includes Troy and Sarah. Troy wanted to work on Dara’s team and not happy to be on Gavin’s. Troy is not happy about having Sarah on the team (she was picked last). Sarah comments that she expected to be picked last due to her age. Then she points she has been cooking for six years. That would mean she started cooking when she was two. Since this is Halloween Week, I wonder if she is a gifted child from another planet.

Meanwhile in the kitchen they learn what they are serving for lunch, which are two appetizers and two entrees. They are at Drago Centro, one of the top Italian restaurants in Los Angeles. Executive Chef Ian Gresik demonstrates the dishes they would be cooking. Too be honest, I was very nervous watching this part. These are dishes well beyond anything they have cooked before (one kid says of the appetizers that it is not a plate of salami and cheese!). It is a lot to learn in a very short time. Aside from the diners, Chef Ian will be tasting their dishes as well. With Gordon expediting, nothing will pass by that is not done right.

As is often happens though, chaos enters the kitchen as the kids all have to work together as a team. And not everyone is used to that. Fortunately Drill Sergeant Gordon Ramsay has been replaced with Ramsay model 1.0. This Ramsay is more mellow than the sergeant model, but certainly conveys anger when displeased. No foul words had to be bleeped, no utterances of “you donkey” or calling anyone Shrek (like he did to David when he put plastic bottles on top of a hot oven). Gavin though likes taunting Team Dara when his raviolis were done first. Dara seems to be less proactive as a leader at first. Troy decides to take control of Team Gavin believing he is not delegating. This causes him to push Sarah off her station and even cooking. Sarah is not happy with this treatment and even cries. Team Dara has its own problems as both Alexander and Dara are butting heads.

Despite all this and some jittery performances in the kitchen, all the dishes go out and none came back. That is a first (as noted by Gordon as well). Chef Ian was impressed with what he tasted from both teams. Each had strengths and weaknesses. Some were better on one dish than the other but was very close. Back in the kitchen, the kids are congratulated and given apple juice (Gordon calls it apple cider but over here there is virtually no difference between the two unless it has more bits of the fruit in it). The diners were astonished and clapped in approval when they saw the chefs were in fact kids. They had to have known it was a MasterChef taping but not it the junior version.

Back at MasterChef Central (aka the kitchen), judgment is rendered. We learn Team Dara won meaning Alexander, Dara, and Jack are in the top four. That leaves two in Team Gavin to be sent home. Troy is saved sending both Gavin and Sarah home. Sarah cries but Gordon tries to comfort her. She really is quite an extraordinary kid considering what she produced. And I saw some promo recently with her and Gordon cooking something on a morning show. Gordon has an eye for talent and supporting those starting out. As does Graham and Joe. Down the line some of these kids will find doors open at their places to learn how to cook professionally.

By The Numbers
According to Tvbythenumbers Undercover Boss won the hour with a 1.6 rating, down from 1.8 last week. MasterChef Junior was second with 1.4, up slightly from last week. Last Man Standing was a rerun so it drops down to fourth place and Dateline was third at 1.3.

Interesting Search Terms
People are inputing search terms in Google and other search engines (which leads them to this blog and others) and here are some of them:

are MasterChef junior actors
can the kids on masterchef junior really cook
do the kids on masterchef junior really cook
is junior masterchef real

That last one is a zinger. Is the show real? Well reality television (especially the more notorious ones) often skews what we see. Kitchen Nightmares (U.S.) heightens conflict for the show (though sometimes it does not need to like Amy’s Baking Company). While I enjoy the show, one has to remember this is entertainment. And these kids are exceptional for their age.

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MasterChef Junior:Fish Eyes & Cakes

sardinesThe MasterChef Junior competition is moving quickly. Since they toss two at the end of each show, this season is quite short unlike the regular MasterChef which goes far longer. Now so far we have seen these kids take on some amazing challenges and come out well. As posed in my first writing about this show–Are These Kids Really Kids?–we are slowly learning about them. For instance when Gordon asks Sarah how she learned to cook, she mentions her grandmother owns a restaurant and she went there with her mother. Which means she got exposed to cooking skills at a much younger age than most girls.

It still begs a question though as to how these kids can perform at a skill level seemingly on par with MasterChef contestants. Last season we saw some phenomenal cooking from very talented individuals. Yet if we believe what is being shown, these kids are on par with Luca, Natasha, Jessie, Krissi, and Jordan of season four. Remember those chefs already have at least 18 years of amateur cooking behind them (most quite more). Becky of season three had remarkable presentation skills owing to her being a food photographer/stylist. She also was a very good cook and showed it often. MasterChef producers are trying to tell us that adults and kids can cook almost on par. In fact, it seems the mantra of this show to demonstrate that kids can have the same, if not better in some cases, cooking skills than adults. Does anyone else think there is something amiss here?

Consider the most current episode. They are given a mystery box no kid would ever want to have. You had kidneys, liver, sardines (whole with the eyes still in it), brussel sprouts, snails, blue cheese and other things. Not one kid showed any happiness with this box, especially Sarah who commented this was not like gummy bears. Oddly a whole canister of those things would appear on the balcony later. And Sarah, who normally stands on a box to let her stand above her station, was barely with her hear above it. Either she decided to do away with it or the director thought it might be cute to see how small she really is. Standing on tip-toes she barely makes her head above the station. I think the lift was brought back later so she could cook.

Perhaps the person who took the greatest risk and failed was Dara. She decided to make blue cheese souffles. No one on the show ever makes a souffle unless it is a pressure test. And some of the most hideous pressure tests have either been ones with souffles or lava cakes. It was daring, it was bold. Alas they did not set and thus did not work. Gordon did offer a tip or two on how to prevent that from happening again. Alexander decided to make toffee sticky pudding with candied fennel. Candied fennel? Not something you think about at all nor as an ingredient in sticky pudding, a very English dessert. Fortunately for Alexander, Graham loved it wishing there was more toffee pudding. Gordon said it was technically done right but did not like the fennel (no surprise there). It is good enough to put Alexander into the top three though.

Troy does a soup with snails and crisps eggplant skins. His soup is praised for keeping the snails moist. He also goes into the top three. The final person is Sarah, who made a Mediterranean style dish and deep fried the sardines in a batter. Joe loves it and even bites the head off a fish. We find out during the conversation between them she does not like clowns much (thinks they are creepy-I think the same thing about mimes). Joe thinks the others ought to be afraid of her. Gordon also loves her dish. Sarah wins the challenge and heads back to learn the elimination contest is about desserts. Joe puts up cupcakes, Graham a three layer cake, and Gordon fruit tarts. Sarah chooses the cake and hopes to eliminate Alexander and Troy. And when she heads upstairs to the balcony, there is a huge container of gummy bears awaiting her.

Sarah’s Arrows
Sarah may be eight years old but she clearly understands strategy. Alexander is not a great baker and so worries he might do poorly. He then decides to go all in overcomplicating his cake and making a critical mistake early on by confusing sugar with flour. Dara decides to make a cake to make up for her failed souffles. Gavin decides to go all chocolate. Sofia is nervous since she does not eat cake at all. Sofia does not eat cake and never made one before. Kaylen worries about how complex a cake is.Jack has smoke coming out of his mixer and Joe is concerned. Jack though is not worried. Sofia is crying because the batter came out all wrong. Gordon consoles her and then helps get her back on track. Actually this was a side of Gordon we do not see very often where he is acting like a mentor.

Gordon joins Sarah on the balcony and enjoys a gummy bear with her. He asks what her top two are which she replies are Gavin and Jack. And then she says something astonishing. She wants Jack to think they are friends and quotes the famous line ‘Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.’ Gordon is surprised to hear her say this considering what it means. It is comes from Machiavelli who advised rulers on how to keep friends and enemies in perspective. There are many variations of it but the most famous one is from Godfather II, and a clip of being said can be found here.

When you hear a little girl say this line and seems to grasp its essential meaning, it ought to make one a tad worried. It does me.

Time is up and now cakes are being judged. Alexander had problems with his first batter and had to restart it. Also his sponge came out of the oven looking pale. Sure enough they did not cook long enough, dense, but the frosting was good. Not a strikeout but a foul ball. Dara wows the judges with a magnificent cake that looked and tasted great. She used cayenne pepper in her chocolate ganache giving it a flavor Joe liked. A home run. Kaylen brings up a cake that looks like an abstract painter did a number on it. The sponge was dense and Gordon points out that layer cakes need a wow factor. And this one did not wow. A strikeout. Gavin’s all chocolate cake got rave reviews and Joe revealing an old kid’s trick for eating cake inside out. A home run as well. Jack’s vanilla and meringue buttercream was good and light but not the wow of Dara or Gavin. Valiant effort but more like an infield double. Troy’s lemon cake looks uneven due to the heavy frosting and was too sweet. A solid double as well. Sofia’s chocolate with raspberry/strawberry buttercream had the layers mashed and uneven frosting. A strikeout as well.

The bottom four are Alexander, Kaylen, Sofia and Troy. Kaylen and Sofia end up going home. Sarah had targeted Alexander and Troy and both were in the bottom. Sort of like James and Jordan in the last season of MasterChef who tended to overcomplicate their dishes. Once again confirming my belief they are trying to make these chefs on MasterChef and MasterChef Junior indistinguishable except for age and size. In doing so, MasterChef Junior may loose its charm. They are not kids, just masterful cooks trapped in small bodies being held back by age. Something is being lost here but that is a discussion perhaps for another day.

By the numbers:Friday’s ratings are in and according to TVByTheNumbers Undercover Boss won the 8:00 hour with a rating of 1.8, MasterChef scored 1.2, down 14 percent from 1.4 last week. Last Man Standing came in third at 1.3 (up 8 percent from last week).

MasterChef Junior: Whipping It Good

Photo: Wikipedia

There is an old Devo song called Whip It that comes to mind when you see this episode. The best way to understand this episode is that part 1 is vaudeville and part 2 is the actual competition. In part 1, the winners last week face off to make whipped cream the old fashioned way-by hand. Then we have the top 10 broken up into teams of two to cook Gordon Ramsay’s famous beef wellington. Yes, this is the same dish that bedevils many on Hell’s Kitchen (risotto being the other).

Vaudeville Act
Step up to see three Masterchef Junior winners attempt to make whipped cream. You just pour the cream into the bowl and whip it, whip it good. Nothing else to do but that. All right, ready, set go! Watch those arms go around and around those bowls. Look at all that cream going all over the place! What a mess. Little Sarah is yelling on the sidelines “C’mon Gavin! Whip it, whip it like a man!” The crowd is really getting into this as Alexander, Gavin, and Kaylen frantically stir.

Oh there is Alexander raising his whip and saying “Whipped!” The other two sadly must stop. But hold on folks, there is more to come. Yes, we are not just going to have the judges spoon up the whipped cream. The bowls will be turned upside down on the heads of the judges themselves. Here is the opportunity for you, America, to see these MasterChef judges possibly get drenched in underdone whipped cream. Alexander bravely steps up behind Graham, who has suddenly become a praying man. The bowl turns! Alexander did it right, no splatter on Graham Elliot’s head.

Gavin now raises his bowl above Joe “The Stare” Bastianich. Oh no folks, it looks like a Gavin did not get it right. My goodness,look at all that cream on Joe’s face and clothes. Joe looks very unhappy. Meanwhile Gordon awaits his fate. Will Kaylen’s whipped cream stay put or go all over the foul mouthed Brit. The bowl turns over and….

Oh dear. It seems Kaylen did not do very well at all. It is nearly all cream coming out covering Gordon causing him to utter a very rude word! Fortunately he recovers with saying sugar repeatedly. Alexander, possibly on cue from the director, taps his bowl on Graham’s head. Food fight! When it is all over, the judges retire to clean themselves up and a clean up crew must come in to remove the mess and set up for the next challenge.

Beef Wellington
Photo: Wikipedia

The Great Beef Wellington Challenge
Having won the challenge, Alexander gets to pick the 5 teams that will cook in the next challenge. And that challenge is to recreate Gordon Ramsay’s signature dish: Beef Wellington. Dispense with the easy stuff and go right to the toughest thing to do. So many things to be done right, so many ingredients. Done well, a work of culinary art. Done badly it is a disaster. The ghost of Lord Wellington (hero of the Peninsular War against Napoleon) is probably watching to see if his namesake food can be done right.

Ah but there is of course a catch. They are cooking in teams but it is a tag-team cooking challenge. One person cooking, the other standing outside yelling tips or getting upset. So many ways it can can go wrong. They get to taste a proper Beef Wellington so they know the flavor profile. The question is can these kids accomplish what so many find hard to do and get right (especially on Hell’s Kitchen)? All the ingredients needed are provided for so they do not need to spend any time in the pantry. With that, the clock starts ticking down and the kids all start working feverishly.

Alexander & Troy produced a Wellington worthy of Gordon Ramsay.  A home run.
Sarah & Dara produce one just as good, possibly better than Alexander and Troy. Sarah had a frightening moment when taking the pan out of the oven when she dropped the pan on the floor. Fortunately it did not effect the Beef Wellington. A home run as well. Joe did make a comment about back of the house that people do not see. The health inspectors probably are on their way to his restaurant after what he said (in jest, we assume).
Kaylen & Jack had some problems with the puffed pastry. The broccolini overcooked and the beef did as well since the mushrooms were not there to provide moisture. A foul ball but just short of a complete out.
Sofia & Gavin did a good job, though not quite as good as the top two. The puff pastry could have been thinner but the flavors are all correct. A double.
Jewels & Roen have serious problems with the dish. While Jewels says she went light on the salt, it turns out to be very salty due to the mustard not being put on right after searing the steak. It ends up making it more salty. Gordon is very disappointed. A strikeout to be sure.

So the bottom two are Kaylen & Jack, Jewels & Roen. There is a rule on these food shows (see my rules here) that if you over salt the dish, odds are you are going home. And that is what happened to Jewels & Roen.

My thoughts
Not a bad episode. I did think they overdid it on the whipped cream part. They ought to have let the other two finish before they tested the results. Having them do the testing on the judge’s heads was interesting but went a bit too far in my book. The Beef Wellington task really showed both strengths and weaknesses. It also has raised questions on the Internet was to whether these kids are actors, being coached, or the real thing. We know on Hell’s Kitchen they put people on just to fill space and to cause friction. Did that happen here? There is no evidence of that but it is right to ask how these kids can produce pretty good renditions of a difficult dish they have (we presume) never done before. So I have to keep the skeptic hat on. I am not totally convinced these kids are true amateurs but they are not pros either since they do make mistakes.

The most recent numbers provided by TV By The Numbers show this last episode(11 Oct 2013) got just enough winners to beat out ABC’s Last Man Standing and CBS Undercover Boss. It was actually close in terms of ratings points:

FOX     MasterChef Jr         1.4     5     3.78
CBS     Undercover Boss     1.3     5     7.82
ABC     Last Man Standing    1.2     5     5.86

That last number on the right shows how many millions watched live and watched the same day on their Tivo or other dvrs. Which means, if the numbers are right, more people watched MasterChef Junior live than the others. I happen to be one of those people. I record Last Man Standing and watch it usually after MasterChef (I actually record both but watch MasterChef live). Undercover Boss had more viewers when you include in those who recorded and watched later but loses when you remove that factor and only include those who watched live.

A Sad Note About Josh Marks
As I finished writing this, news came that Josh Marks of MasterChef season 3 (who left and then came back ending up facing Christine Ha in the finale) had been found dead. And it appears he took his own life. This is a very sad outcome of someone so talented and destined, I think, for a long career in the food business. He apparently suffered from a bi-polar disorder which likely caused an incident that led to his arrest over the summer. He was undergoing required medical evaluations. This sad outcome is no doubt devastating to his family and friends. My heart, condolences, and prayers are with them in this time of sorrow. He was a good fellow who had a good heart. RIP Josh Marks.

MasterChef Junior: Are These Kids Really Kids?

Update 28 Sep: The Friday television ratings are out.TV By The Numbers at zap2it.com reports the premiere of MasterChef Junior was number 1 at the 8:00 p.m. hour beating out the premiere of Undercover Boss, Last Man Standing (a show I liked until they fiddled with it and changed a cast member), Michael J. Fox Show, and Perfect Score.

When I heard they were considering a kids version of MasterChef, I cringed. The success record of shows that try a junior version is not pretty. American Idol tried it and never did it again. We saw parents acting like divas, kids trying to be divas, and the American Idol judges trying to be serious about judging young children singing the hits. It was a mess. And The Amazing Race tried a family-friendly season. Except it turned out those families could be just as competitive and sometimes just as nasty as some in the regular season. And so it it appears MasterChef’s turn to go the kid route. I ask myself why. Like Del Shannon’s Runaway, I keep hearing why, why, why in my head.

From what I learned before the first episode aired, it was clear they were going to hold these kids to the same standards of the regular MasterChef. Which means these kids really have to know how to cook. This is not opening a can or using a box mix to make a cake here folks. Safety wise it means a full brigade of medics are right there to watch those kids should they cut themselves. And the judges, while mostly the same as in the regular series, have to hold back on the nastiness they might throw out in the regular show when something nasty is put in front of them.

Fortunately most of the kids presentations in this preliminary round were all good with some surprising exceptional cooking. It made me realize that some of these kids are learning to cook very young considering the techniques we saw. One kid brought up an exceptional looking sushi dish that a trained sushi chef would nod approvingly at. Perhaps this demonstrates a major shift in our culture where so many kids are interested in cooking food as a possible career choice. The Food Network and other places have made chefs and cooking more popular. Actually it is good thing kids learn to cook food. It is something that will carry with them all their lives and possibly pass on to their children.

MasterChef Junior is not a cooking school but a real competition. And it looks like the judges–Joe Bastianich, Graham Elliot, Gordon Ramsay–are going to demand high standards from these kids. They might not use the nasty looks or comments they would use with adults, they will still have to tell them when a dish is unacceptable. Or send a kid home when they are on the bottom. I did wonder when they were judging the dishes whether they were being totally honest at times. Then again when a dish did not quite meet expectations they did tell them what was wrong with it. They seemed very surprised by the quality of the dishes prepared.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out over the entire season. Right now I am still not entirely convinced this was wise or needed by MasterChef. Clearly they must have done some research and found a market for this show. However judging from what I saw in the season opener, it looks promising.