MasterChef Junior:Phone Home and Gourmet Burgers

Photo: Wikipedia

Having survived the initial trials, the top twelve junior chefs arrive at the kitchen to face their first mystery box. Last week I wondered whether these kids are kids owing to the quality of the cooking shown. Keep that in mind about this show. Perhaps, as some suggest in jest, they are actually Hogwarts students on vacation. Now one funny thing to remember is that many of these kids are too short when they stand at their cooking stations. So they stand on platforms that give them the needed height. Even with that, some of the shorter ones had some difficulty raising the mystery box. When asked what they do would do with $100,000 prize money, most thought about gifts and parties. Only Alexander would use it for culinary school.

Mystery Box
Fortunately the mystery box did not have anything like offal or a pigs head. Perhaps they are saving that for a Halloween themed episode. It did however have filet mignon, tiger shrimp, mixed berries, blue cheese (which Sara said stank like feet), arugula, potatoes, and assorted vegetables. So right away they are giving them high value ingredients to see what they make of it. They also had an advantage no one else had before: the ability to use a tablet to call home or a friend for advice. Skype got some good product placement out of this show. And not a mention of Walmart at all (which I think supplies groceries for this show as well.)

As the camera followed the junior chefs, we saw them busy at work as if they had done this all before. Pretty amazing to watch these kids tackle these ingredients. In the end the three that were brought up for judging were:

Alexander (filet mignon with garlic mashed potatoes, carrots and salad)
The chefs all loved this dish which had the right sear on the meat, delicious mashed potatoes, and carrots. One small complaint Gordon noted was that salad does not go under the meat. Alexander showed real talent here. Graham sees himself in Alexander and notes he has more talent then he did at his age. In short, a triple (using a baseball metaphor here).

Jack (surf & turf)
He was one of the few that incorporated the shrimp into his dish. Another great dish as the chefs all had compliments about its quality and presentation. Graham used a carpenter metaphor to say he nailed the dish. I would say a grand slam. But do not say “bam” too much Graham. I think another celebrity chef may have trademarked its use. 🙂

Troy (filet mignon with poached egg and root vegetable hash)
Once again compliments all around. Joe really liked it noting the intense flavor with bay leaves. Gordon would have preferred the steak medium rare rather than medium. Triple.

Jack wins the round and heads back to find out his amazing advantage. First off, he is spared elimination. Then he will decide what food his fellow junior chefs will cook. And this is where we take a trip back in time since it is our masterchefs favorite foods when they were a kid. Each one holds up a photo of them around 8 years old or so. For Joe, it was not a pasta or pizza dish but chicken wings. Who knew! Graham holds up his picture and it is hard to recognize him. Back then little kid now a Michelin star chef with tattoos, a hairstyle from an old cartoon strip, and funky glasses. Jack does not see the resemblance. For Graham, his favorite was the hamburger. Gordon looks much younger without wrinkles and it turns out he liked fish fingers (fish sticks in America).

Now for some strategy. Chicken wings are not hard to do but you have to know how to prep them. There are lots of easy combinations here but the wrong sauce, a badly made one, or mangled wings could send someone home. Fish sticks require to use fish meat coated in a batter and deep fried. Lots of ways to go here and easy to screw up (like what our favorite vegetarian did with calamari in MasterChef). And then the humble hamburger. Easy to make but easy to over complicate as well. Jack chooses hamburger but of course these are not going to be two all beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese and pickle on a sesame seed bun. Nope, these are going to be Gourmet Burgers.

Gourmet Burgers Challenge
After the mad scramble in the pantry, we see Gavin working on an Italian style burger, Kaylen on one that incorporates many flavors, Alexander is working on beef sliders. Joe tells Alexander that Jack is targeting him. Alexander is totally unafraid and says he has it all working together. And then tells Joe to step back while he dumps kale into frying pan (which immediately sounds explosive and Joe flinches). Molly tries a Korean themed burger with kimchee, rice, soy sauce, and rice cakes. Gordon asks if that sounds good to her. That sound you hear is the gong of doom being heard and her face reveals she is nervous. Tommy is making a breakfast burger with American cheese, an egg, and sweet potato. Gordon is concerned about using that kind of cheese inside a burger. Most chefs would use a good cheddar or other cheese that melts since American cheese needs more help to melt.

Those that really stretched flavors using beef or pork fared much better than those using lamb or turkey. Gavin, Alexander and Kaylen are chosen as the best for their flavors and presentation. Really it was quite amazing especially with Alexander. No doubt about it, this kid is destined to become a great chef one day. Sadly though this is an elimination so three have to be called up and two are going to be sent home. Jewels had a dry lamb dish. Both Tommy and Molly both tackled turkey that came out dry. Molly’s Korean themed burger was sadly a mess in terms of flavors. And Tommy’s breakfast burger was dry and the American cheese did not melt enough in the middle to give it any moisture. Joe observes at one point when tasting that he never has had a good turkey burger. I would have to agree. In most places they slab on lots of toppings to obscure its dryness. The same is done in cheap burger joints to hide the fact they quick cooked the beef by mashing it down (and oddly end up being praised by a ninny on Food Network for it) and then covering it up with gooey cheese and sauces.

Jewels survives but Tommy and Molly go home. It was sad to see and they were comforted by their fellow junior chefs. Joe mentions earlier that sometimes we have this idea in our heads but when we put it on the plate it does not match. Unfortunately on MasterChef you only get one chance and if you blow it, out the door you go.

Final Thoughts
These kids are remarkable. They are able to put out dishes that rival those seen on regular MasterChef. And that is a problem for this show. We have to believe that kids who have not yet graduated from high school are able to produce masterful dishes that get praised by the judges as restaurant quality. I suspect many are going to find that difficult to believe. Sure it is possible to get food training in their home kitchen. As a kid I knew families where cooking was very important and everyone was involved in the activity. You pick up quickly lots of knowledge this way (like Joe did with his mother Lidia) and learn a lot of techniques. Or your family is serious foodies that like to cook. Your apt to pick up a lot that way along with watching lots of food television programs.

At the same time, I suspect a lot of viewers will wonder if they are being tricked. They display skills that seem beyond what most kids have at that age. And that may end up losing viewers who wonder if the kids are being used or manipulated by reality television. They might very well be the most talented young chefs in America today but one wonders whether it is a one time thing or a trend that kids are learning to cook so well at a young age when most kids have to deal with doing their homework.

Postscript: The numbers are out and there was a dip in viewers watching MasterChef Junior. ABC won the night and Last Man Standing (half-hour show at 8:00 p.m., same time as MasterChef Junior) got more people watching. (6 million compared to MasterChef at just under 4 million). MasterChef was third in the first half-hour behind Last Man Standing (ABC) and Undercover Boss (CBS/full hour/7 million viewers). MasterChef 18-49 rating (the top demographic they target) dropped to 1.3 (last week 1.6).

Next week: Can the kids recreate Gordon’s famous Beef Wellington?