Sarah Lane, 9, and Gordon Ramsay
I hadn’t really planned to review, or even watch, Fox’s new Friday night series MasterChef Junior, since I expected it would be a less intense (thus, less interesting) version of host Gordon Ramsay’s grown-up MasterChef series. I caught last night’s premiere this morning on Hulu, however, and boy, was I wrong.
Following an extended talent search, the premiere episode opened with what Ramsay credibly declared to be the 24 best home cooks in America between the ages of 8 and 13. Any skepticism was quickly banished as Ramsay and fellow judges Joe Bastianich and Graham Elliot divided these two dozen semi-finalists into three groups of eight, with each octet competing in a different challenge for a shot at making it to the final 12.
These were not, mind you, dumbed-down challenges for small-fry. The first group was tasked with preparing a dish using fresh seafood — something that many adult home cooks find intimidating — and they responded with creations that were both imaginative and sophisticated. The second group was asked to prepare a dish spotlighting pasta that the young cooks prepared from scratch, while the third group was given an assignment that routinely makes grown-up chefs in cooking competitions quake with fear: making dessert.
Obviously, I wasn’t able to sample any of the dishes myself, but the judges were enthusiastic about all of them, while pointing out any minor flaws they noticed. Based on their comments, as well as the appearance of the dishes, it looked to me as if these young cooks — especially the ones that made it into the finals — already are better at their craft than at least half the grown-up competitors we usually see on Top Chef and other such shows. They’re also utterly fearless. The youngest finalist, 9-year-old Sarah Lane, earned her spot by preparing a chocolate lava cake, one of the most difficult desserts to pull off for any pastry chef, and she absolutely nailed it.
In last night’s opener, at least, Ramsay was on his best behavior, watching his language and chatting with the kids as if they were his kitchen peers. I was impressed by how the judges genuinely seemed to be basing their evaluations on the quality of the finished dishes, not the camera-friendly appeal of the kids: In fact, the most adorable moppet didn’t make it into the finals (cue waterworks).
If you missed last night’s premiere, you can catch it online at Fox.com or Hulu.com, as well as the On Demand service of many cable systems. And you should try to catch it, because MasterChef Junior is among the most delightful family shows I’ve seen in a long time.