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Charming 'MasterChef Junior' cooks up redeeming reality TV

FOX

By Maddie Thomas, Daily Arts Writer
Published November 11, 2013

Gordon Ramsay has become a household name by building an empire out of a niche genre: cooking competition shows. He currently has nine different television shows on his resume (Does he ever actually cook anymore?) and has been nominated for three BAFTA awards, the British version of the Emmy’s and Academy Awards. The newest of Gordon Ramsay’s many projects, “MasterChef Junior” is, as evident in the title, a junior version of the popular competition cooking show, “MasterChef.” And though it stars America’s most talented young chefs, the quality is anything but pint-sized.

The rules of “MasterChef Junior” are essentially the same as those of its senior counterpart, except instead of adult competitors, it stars 12 prodigious, young “home cooks” between the ages of eight and 13. The final two chefs facing off in Friday’s finale were 13-year-old “Big Al” Alexander Weiss from New York City and 12-year-old, bow-loving Dara Yu of Culver City, Calif.

The final challenge of the season is always the most comprehensive: create an elegant and innovative three-course meal in 90 minutes. Dara wowed the judges off the bat with her ahi tuna appetizer, which required the deft technical skill that Alexander’s flavor-based heirloom tomato crostini lacked. But Alexander made up for the minor setback by whipping up a perfectly cooked veal chop with potato gnocchi that was praised by Ramsay, who said, “Young man, that is one of the best visually cooked veal chops anywhere in the country tonight. There are chefs right now shuddering with the way that’s cooked.”

Their desserts were evenly matched. Dara took a risk with a poached pear in lemon-ginger miso sauce while Alexander, dubbed the “Pastry King” earlier in the season, crafted a deconstructed cannoli. May I remind you (as the judges do at least 10 times per episode) that these children are only in middle school and cooking a three-course meal at a professional level?

Of course, no competition show would be complete without its winner, and despite the producers’ best efforts to throw the audience off track, (spoiler alert) long-time favorite and front-runner Alexander took home the “MasterChef Junior” trophy and $100,000 prize, in addition to the prestige of being the first-ever winner. But he won’t be alone in the winners’ club for long — the show has (thankfully) already been picked up for a second season.

“MasterChef” junior has proven to be one of the most entertaining reality shows on TV this year despite facing speculation early on. To be fair, the concept of a Gordon Ramsay cooking show for kids is pretty terrifying without context. The kitchen is filled with many potential dangers: sharp knives, boiling water and the most destructive of all, Ramsay’s notoriously dirty mouth. Luckily, Ramsay had a secret weapon that saves the show from disaster: experience as the father of four kids between the ages of 11 and 15. Striking an unfamiliar balance between patient but firm and critical but constructive, he takes on the role of a wise old sage, guiding the young home chefs on their journey through the worlds of beef wellingtons and layer cakes.

Despite Ramsay’s pleasant persona, the real charm of “MasterChef Junior,” obvious as it may seem, lies in the children. The kids’ emotions are so genuine — they cry when they’re eliminated, jump up and down when they make it through to the next round and hug and support each other in times of crisis. Even in this final episode, when Dara becomes lightheaded and worries that she cannot go on, superstar Alexander stops what he’s doing and lets the clock run while he makes sure she’s OK. And after losing the trophy in the end, Dara expresses genuine excitement about having even made it to the finals, and about the awesome chef outfit she gets to keep as a result. While in the adult “MasterChef” competitors have their entire futures and careers on the line, elimination is only the beginning for the juniors.