Perpetual motion machine Gordon Ramsay has taken a break from cooking in prisons and calling people "f*cking donkeys" on national television to work with children. MasterChef Junior, a new spinoff of Ramsay's Fox series MasterChef, features kids aged 8 to 13 who cook better than most adults, all competing to win a trophy and $100,000.
At first I assumed it would be a show about insufferable child foodies, but though these youths have shockingly sophisticated palates and do their fair share of mugging for the camera, in the first episode anyway, they didn't come across as pint-sized food snobs as much as preternaturally talented cooks who also happened to be in elementary school.
One thing that struck me while watching it is how much food culture has evolved even since I grew up in the '80s. These are fifth graders who not only eat things like sushi, truffles, and pate, but also know how to make French macarons, homemade tortillas and ravioli, braised octopus, and more. "I started making [pasta] when I was around four years old," says Troy, a 12-year-old from Thousand Oaks who got agitated in the pantry when he couldn't find the semolina flour. I'm not entirely sure what I was doing at four -- Riding my Big Wheels around the block? Watching Saturday morning cartoons? Learning the alphabet? -- but I do know that it would be 20 more years before I attempted pasta-making from scratch.
Format-wise, the show's not very different from the regular MasterChef. Some of the smaller kids stand on step stools to reach the counters. A manic 8-year-old from Woodland Hills, the youngest on the show, struggles to carry a stand mixer that's almost the size of his body. All of the kid-testants have to jump to reach precariously balanced tools on the top shelves of the MasterChef pantry (seriously, can't the producers give them a chair or something?). I also got a little uncomfortable watching children who seemed too young to be using a stove or sharp objects show off their impressively fast knife skills and operate the deep-fryer (imagine the liability waivers their parents had to sign).
The other thing about the show is that the kids cry a lot, which isn't really a departure from a Gordon Ramsay production starring grown-ups.
To learn more about the psyche of a child chef, I caught up with 11-year-old Gavin, a sixth grader who lives with his family in Cow Hollow. As the only S.F. representative on the show, he repped the city well in the pilot, making a tortellini with sage butter that the judges loved:
How long have you been cooking?
I started cooking around when I was about six. I just loved it -- loved playing around with different combinations and just experimenting in the kitchen. The first thing I made was probably like [when I was] three, assembling an ice cream sundae. It was so fun to think of what should go first. Should I put the ice cream down first or last? Do I want a cherry? That was just awesome for me.
What's your favorite thing to make?
Panko-crusted salmon, tortellini, which I made on the show, raspberry cheesecake. I love making lots and lots of different things.
How often do you cook at home?
I make dinner two to three times a week.
Usually I look up the recipe and ask mom or dad to go to the store and get the stuff. Usually they say yes, but sometimes they're too busy and I just have to improvise.
What was the audition process like?
The first round you come up, they see your personality. [They have you] chop some celery and make some scrambled eggs. The second round you make the dish that you want. I made blintzes -- berry blinzes and salmon blintzes. I love pancakes, but I think pancakes are really simple, so I tried to take it up a notch.
Had you ever been on camera before? Were you nervous or felt pretty cool?
I might have looked like I was kind of cool but inside my heart was beating out of my chest and I was really nervous.
I've seen some of Gordon Ramsay's shows, and on every one of those he was screaming and swearing. I thought he would be screaming. I was nervous. It turns out that he was on his good behavior and he wasn't swearing and being really nice. I was like, "Wow, I can't believe this. Gordon Ramsay being nice, I can't believe this."
What were you thinking when they said "homemade pasta" [Gavin's challenge in the first episode]?
Oh my gosh, I can make tortellini, this is perfect. I knew it like the back of my hand so that was awesome. I go to North Beach a lot with my family and I eat there a lot, and I like pasta a lot and Italian food, so I thought tortellini would work [as] a no-brainer.
You mentioned on the show you first had tortellini somewhere in S.F., where was it?
Lucca Deli on Chestnut Street. I like it a lot, and it just inspired me.
What's the next meal you're making?
Today I might make some whoopie pies. I've always wanted to make them. I don't know, it seems like fun. It's a little bit simpler, but sometimes you've got to go old-fashioned.
Any big cooking projects you want to tackle next?
I've always wanted to make sushi. I don't know why, but I've always wanted to make homemade bread. I've always heard it's really good.
So do you want a culinary career when you grow up?
I have so many years to go. I don't think I want to worry about that.