They came, they cooked and they conquered the kitchen with dishes that blew the minds of famed chefs.
The young chefs in the very first season of Top Chef Junior certainly impressed the show’s head judge (and mentor) Curtis Stone.
“We ate some really delicious food,” gushes Stone in a telephone interview from Los Angeles in the United States recently.
“Judges from Top Chef and Top Chef Masters were saying that the food was among the best they’ve had. It was fascinating to see how these young chefs work ... the creativity they have.”
A spin-off of the long-running Top Chef franchise (which just concluded its 15th season this year), Top Chef Junior sees 12 young, aspiring chefs between the ages of 11 to 14, competing in a variety of challenges that mirrors the format of the original.
In every episode, contestants go through a quick-fire challenge (short challenges that test skills and ingenuity) and an elimination challenge, after which one contestant goes home.
The competition is rife but in the junior version, the challenges are designed to teach more than anything else.
Having started off in the kitchen as a young boy himself, Stone had little doubt that the young contestants he’d be judging could cook. He just didn’t expect how sophisticated their dishes and palates would be.
“A black pepper-crusted tart for a dessert? Oh my goodness that was certainly memorable. I wasn’t 100% sure what to expect (from them).
“In my mind, I thought they might try to put a spin on family favourites, you know. I didn’t think they’d serve macaroni and cheese but I certainly wasn’t expecting them to cook rabbit in a sous vide bag. The food wasn’t always super elevated, but they cooked delicious food,” says the LA-based Australian chef.
“I started cooking when I was maybe four or five, with my grandma or my mum. I wasn’t trying to be a chef but I was learning and I really enjoyed it.”
It is the same concept he tries to apply on the show as well.
Stone says: “I really wanted to see these young chefs ignite – wanted them to learn and pick up life lessons and also skills they should know as chefs – keeping a neat, organised (cooking) station, choosing the right knives and so on.
“We try and give these young chefs a little bit of an education on and off camera – they go for master classes where we teach them ingredients and techniques and then we watch them compete.”
Because the contestants are so young, their parents are on set too, watching them cook off against their peers.
More than just being impressed and proud of their young ones, parents were overwhelmed to see their children be among peers who shared the same interests – something which they don’t always get at home.
“One parent commented how great it was to see her child with other like-minded kids. She commented about how her boy prefers to be inside cooking cupcakes when all other kids are outside playing football.
“Seeing them here, with other kids who like the same things, is really a great experience. Their ambition and drive – it’s something else,” observes Stone.
The 14-episode competition sees the young contestants conceptualising and running their own food trucks, making gourmet dishes with limited ingredients and running their own restaurants – the same sort of challenges the veterans do on Top Chef.
While the format is something Stone, who hosted Top Chef Masters for three seasons, is familiar with, judging the kids version is a lot different.
“This was at the other extreme (from being on Top Chef Masters), judging 10-, 12- or 13-year-olds. These young chefs are super enthusiastic about their craft. There is always a winner and a loser (in every competition) but we tried to explain to them that it was going to be fun, they were going to learn a lot. Win or lose, they would take away a lot and be proud of their accomplishments.
“Of course there was heartbreak. It’s hard when you see a contestant go home but these kids are so resilient. They are sad one day and the next, they’re like, ‘Hey, Chef. How are you?’ I wish I could bottle their enthusiasm,” says Stone.
A father of two young boys himself, Stone invited the contestants and their parents to his restaurant in Los Angeles to let them get a feel of what a chef’s job is like. Sort of like a behind-the-scenes look at what their futures may look like.
“At the end of the show, I hope they have learnt and expanded their minds. I hope they saw a little on what it is like to compete in the culinary world.
“And most importantly, that they made great friends (during the competition).
“Me? The show gave me fresh eyes – it made me see that I’m still not too old to be a big kid and use my imagination,” he says.