“Please don’t be hard, please don’t be hard, please don’t be hard,” whispered the pint-sized cook, squeezing his eyes shut and clasping his hands tightly to his chest. The Individual Challenge on week 5 of Master Chef Junior was about to unfold, and Riley, the youngest competitor, was doing his 8-year-old best to prepare himself.
Standing a full head shorter than his 10-12 year-old competitors, he listened intently as the judges describe the single-ingredient challenge: design a restaurant-quality dish using only bananas.
Such is one aspect of the set-up on Master Chef Junior, one of the many children’s versions of the ubiquitous competitive cooking shows on American TV. Iron Chef, Cutthroat Kitchen, Top Chef, Hell’s Kitchen, Chopped, and most recently, the softer-style British Baking Show, have given way to Chopped Jr., the Kids Baking Championship, and Rachel vs. Guy: Kids Cook-Off, among others.
Master Chef Junior, set in a pristine restaurant-sized kitchen with an adjoining pantry, forces twelve school-age contestants through a weekly gauntlet of cooking challenges toward a prize of $100,000 and a trophy bearing the show’s M-shaped icon. Under the watchful eyes of Gordon Ramsay, (blessedly devoid of fury and f-bombs), Graham Elliott, and Joe Bastianich, they face carefully-timed, high-pressure cooking tests that either propel them into the next week, or send two of them packing at the end of the episode, often in stunned silence or weeping openly.
In a highly structured format, each hour-long episode summarizes two of the challenges children endure, which typically include a Mystery Box Challenge, Individual Challenge, Team Challenge, and a the requisite Elimination Challenge to winnow the pool.
The judges take turns explaining the standards for each challenge, checking in with individual children and teams during the tests to estimate their progress and interview them for a self-assessment. Emotion-manipulating music plays in the background, with high-energy horns and drums pounding during the challenges, and heart-tugging flutes or violins rising and falling during the final results. (I am a sucker for this background music element.)
Prepared dishes are walked forward by each cook or team to a presentation table at the front of the room, and sampled by two of the three judges. Specific, practical feed-back is given on the quality of the food (texture, seasoning, balance, appearance) but on the preparation also. The judges interview the contestants about their approach to the cooking and again solicit a self-assessment. Following each challenge, they huddle together behind a translucent screen to determine the winner(s) and losers, while the children nervously gather together, whispering their own predictions (“I know I’m going home,” “You got this one,” “How do you think you did?” “What would you do differently?”))
That these children reached this point — beating out thousands of peers to participate in a national competition — says something about each of them. We can certainly assume that they have had extensive cooking experience, or they wouldn’t be here. We hear snippets of their experiences during monologues interspersed throughout the show, and brief conversations with judges during the test and meal presentations. Many indicate that they have been cooking since they were just out of toddlerhood.
I stumbled upon this show early in January, and was hooked immediately. After watching a second time, it was clear to me that these young competitors were not just learning about cooking. They were experiencing a whole host of important life lessons by participating in the competition. And at this age, they are primed developmentally to do just that.
The most obvious lesson, perhaps, is in the art of cooking itself. Children are learning the science and chemistry of how ingredients interact; the careful timing and planning so critical to effective preparation; the visual and gustatory aesthetics of the final product; and the social and cultural underpinnings of presenting a dish for others’ enjoyment. This may truly be the adult vocation for several children (“I was born to do this,” declared Andrew in a recent episode. He has made it to the finals. Upon learning this at the end of last week’s episode, though, he awkwardly wiped away tears with the heels of his hands, the intensity of the weekly pressure on display, the usual swagger on hold.)
Other lessons, though, are equally important, and life-shaping. Those of us in early childhood education might see Master Chef Junior as an example of a turning point in children’s identity development. Taking a page from Erik Erikson’s theory on the Eight Stages of Man, we know that this period of time, referred to as Industry vs. Inferiority (about 7-12 years of age), is the point at which a child’s personal skills, interests, and hobbies arise. It is a time when competence is the overall goal. The opposing outcome is failure. The child is able to build new skills, and possesses the attentional ability and cognitive energy to do so — but compares his self-worth to peers and friends, and is therefore highly sensitive to feedback, and easily affected by judgment or criticism. How consistently the child’s emerging interests are supported by adults, and how the child manages feedback in the social and academic arenas of his life, often determine whether he moves forward on a path of Industry or a path of Inferiority.
The challenges of Master Chef Junior offer other life lessons.
Perseverance – seeing a project through to the end. Contestants must figure out how to create a restaurant-quality dish, typically under an hour. This involves quick planning, thinking on your feet, literally and figuratively, and responding readily when errors put the finished product in jeopardy.
Emotional Intelligence — managing the jumble of feelings that erupt during a stressful experience, and expressing them appropriately. Meeting the standards of a timed cooking test and the ever-present reality that this could be your last dish can take its toll. All children become flushed and sweaty from the heat of the oven and the pressure of the test. Some children become visibly upset and lose control when something goes awry in the cooking process, or there is a difference of opinion with a team member. But we sometimes witness fellow contestants swoop in to save them. During a recent episode, aforementioned Andrew, putting the finishing touches on his dish, turned to help panicking Jenna re-work her Hollandaise sauce. This was not lost on the judges, who complimented him later on his “big heart” and “great attitude.”
Leadership – effectively bringing out the best in one’s team members during a competition. This may be the most difficult skill for children to develop, and we see some children’s individual style and temperament on display as they sweat their way through a restaurant dinner service, perhaps one of the trickiest tests of the season. While some team leaders seek consensus on how to proceed, others bark orders, sending their teammates into freak-out mode. Neither extreme is terribly effective, as we might all agree. Locating a midpoint balance for this skill will likely only come with much time and experience.
Teamwork – working effectively with at least one other individual. The ability to do this in pairs or small groups often determines whether contestants move on. When communications styles and skill sets match, it goes swimmingly. When children find it difficult to listen to each other and adjust, though, conflict reigns (disagreements about procedure, next steps, dicing styles are typical) — and the result is a mediocre product. This is one of the best lessons: thinking from another individual’s point of view, stepping out of the ego … and it’s a tough one.
Sportsmanship – accepting both victory and failure gracefully. We see contestants cheer each other on following their presentations, high-fiving or whispering, “Good job!” as they return to their station. There are always loving hugs and gentle wishes of good luck during goodbyes when the losers depart the kitchen. Losing contestants often say how much they appreciate the chance to be on the show, that they are grateful to have made new friends, and vow to continue cooking.
Communication – orally articulating the preparation of a dish, its appearance, and decisions made during the cooking process; responding to judges’ comments and queries during the presentation of the dish. This is a skill they will need in every aspect of their professional adult lives.
Poise – composure. This quality of balance and equilibrium, coupled with skill, may be the overall duo for success in the competition. Eight year-old Ryan, who made it to week, five, seemed to possess both. I immediately fell in love with this tiny cook, partly for his charm and under-dog status. He calmly and joyfully worked his way through each challenge, responded with quiet confidence and candor to judges’ questions, and was a strong and friendly team member during group challenges. His sweet disposition and affectionate nature may have put a spell on Gordon Ramsay as well, who at one point admitted to him that he was his favorite young cook on this season’s show (OK, well, he could have left that out, but no one asked me for my opinion, so ….). During one of their interactions, as Ramsay leaned over him to point something out about a dish, Ryan spontaneously cupped his chin in his hand and patted hi face. Ramsay beamed with surprise and delight. Proof the guy possesses a heart.
Self Assessment – honestly and accurately evaluating your performance and accepting the outcome of your efforts and choices. Children who are able to take that understanding and use it for future challenges develop an personal sense of responsibility and internal sense of their own ability to adapt and change — which is the essence of learning.
Because they are young, and still rather innocent, we come to care about children on Master Chef Junior. Maybe they remind us of our own young selves. But it is wonderful to watch them create such beautiful culinary masterpieces, and be so delightful in the process. Their responses are refreshing, honestly, in comparison to much of the behavior on display in many of the adult cooking shows, where we witness name-calling and behind-the-back derision of fellow contestants. While watching the junior cooks, we root for them, wince when they make errors, cheer for them when they succeed, and agonize for them when they fail.
They seem to have an effect on the judges as well. Through all the pointed feedback and finger-wagging, and the high compliments, they make it clear how deeply impressed there are with the advanced culinary skills children bring to the show. They sincerely want want to them to succeed. It’s also evident in the water welling in their eyes when they see the pain and disappointment in the faces of the losing contestants. It’s there in supportive, final coaching offered, and in the warm hugs and shoulder-hoisting before the children exit.
The show has had a personal effect on me, of course. It has caused me to increase my supply of spices. We all start start somewhere. I will likely never be a marvelous cook, but I can try to better than I am now, by making more time for it and being less overwhelmed by it. I nearly expired on Thanksgiving bringing a dish of Brussels sprouts to a friend’s house, partly because it was a a recipe she’d passed along to me. Talk about your pressure. It worked out fine, though. One person actually took seconds, stunning me into momentary slack-jawed silence. No one became visibly ill. And managed to remain in my chair, rather than slither to the floor in a dead faint.
Master Chef Junior gives me hope.
The final episode for this season is this Tuesday, February 24 at 7pm on Fox. Check it out.
Speaking of hope … some family members are coming to my place for brunch tomorrow. I’m off to embrace some spices.
My hands are already clammy …