Interview with MasterChef Junior judge Graham Elliot. Twenty-four kids ages 8 to 13 demonstrate their culinary smarts and passion for food in the “junior” version of FOX’s successful foodie series MasterChef — in MasterChef Junior airing Fridays at 8pm ET/PT on FOX. Gordon Ramsay, Joe Bastianich and Graham Elliot serve as judges in a format that is quite similar to what fans are familiar with.
“It’s the exact same format — the same judges and really the same tone,” Elliot tells us. “We wanted to make sure we didn’t dumb it down. The only big difference is when they leave it’s not like they are quote-unquote ‘eliminated’ — instead they go two at a time so nobody feels like they are the loser. There’s some added kindness to that but we really wanted to make sure it kept the spirit of the original show.” OK, but when you’ve got hothead Gordon Ramsay as a judge you immediately think they’ve got to change the format for working with kids, right? That’s not the case. “I’m generally the nice guy,” Elliot says. “I think Gordon is a really good cheerleader and able to directly communicate and get his point across to try and make them better, and surprisingly, well, Joe’s got three kids of his own, and he was just really great with the kids. I think based on how he is with the regular show where he’s much more black and white and calls it as it is and is, he’s maybe a little more – well definitely — he’s really warm and fun with he kids.”
The critique of contestant dishes is similar to MasterChef too. “We taste everything. We give our feedback and comments. There might be a little more lightheardeness at times,” Elliot says. “You would absolutely be amazed at how seriously these kids take cooking. There are some that instead of piano lessons they have a chef come to their house and do a cooking lesson with them. They know all the food shows and channels and blogs. They can make macarons from scratch and cook a perfect steak – it’s really incredible. It shows that food has really evolved from chicken nuggets and things like that to really letting it be a creative outlet for them.”
The age for the contestants ranges from 8 to 13, where maturity levels could definitely come into play but Elliot didn’t think age necessarily was an advantage. “When you are younger you are less inhibited. You think outside of the box a little more, and you are more vocal, where you kind of call people out as you see it,” he says. “Skillwise if you are a little older you have more time to hone those skills and learn who you are a little more, I guess, but a lot can be said for passion and drive. When you are younger you are free for all and do whatever it takes. It’s really fun in the team challenges to see the younger ones push the older ones aside.”
The level of culinary talent these young chefs possess will leave you jaw-dropped. The judges were literally pinching themselves over the complex dishes these kids could prepare and the way the kids interacted and mastered challenges. “I think the one dish was homemade splashlah (German dumplings) with a perfectly roasted rack of lamb that they cooked and there were pomogranites with it. Everything made sense and looked like you would get it in a restaurant,” Elliot shares.
One of the most difficult parts of the show for the kids wasn’t with the challenges, it was saying goodbye to a fellow competitor. “The most surprising thing was when anybody had to go home,” Elliot tells. “It was like a full-on cry session. It was like a losing-your-best-friend kind of thing.”
When I asked Elliot if any of his kids would be up for the competition he laughed. “No. No. My oldest son is 6 and he’s extremely eccentric and ridiculously intelligent for his age. He knows his geography and he would not participate or consider being on the show because he is obsessed with Greenland right now. And he knows all the towns in Greenland and found out that the show can be seen there, so he wouldn’t do that because he doesn’t want the people of Greenland to watch him. That’s why he’s not on. My almost 3-year-old makes eggs with me every day — it’s his dad and him kind of thing to do – he’s cracking the eggs and adding the milk, and he’s jumping up and down and is just the happiest person in the world when he gets to make food. I’m super excited to watch him blossom into that.”