It might have come to us one and half years later than when it was shown in Australia, but Junior Masterchef is here and it seems well worth the wait. If you love Masterchef Australia – not the Indian rubbish version — or like kids or like cooking or like all three, this is the perfect show for you.
The programme pretty much works on the same format as the grown-up Masterchef. Just this time there is a galaxy of pocket-sized adorable little kids –and I’m one of those who believe children should be seen and very rarely heard, and even I was moved – who seem to be as talented as their adult counterparts were. The three usual judges - Matt Preston, Gary Mehigan and George Calombaris - are joined by Anna Gare, who is an Australian TV host of cookery shows and a mother of four. While she’s extremely at ease co-hosting with the trinity, I feel she was brought in to provide a feminine motherly touch to the show.
5500 children competed to make it to the top 50, which was then narrowed down to 20 children, chosen in 3 days of heats in the first couple of episodes. (No one goes home empty-handed, so the 30 eliminated contestants got a plaque and an array of cooking equipment). After the heats, there were two more challenges to narrow down the number to 12.
What strikes you right from the beginning is that there is no drama. No back stories. No tales of destitution, amputation, abuse, broken homes and desperation. Nothing to pull at your heart strings, other than a bunch of unimaginably talented kids. And this is where the programme wins out. You don’t root for these kids or their parents, because you feel sorry for them. You root for them and get teary-eyed – and trust me you will, over and over again – because they are just so darned talented and focused.
You do see the parents though, because they sit on bleachers on one side of the kitchen. They don’t scream, shout, gesticulate or faint, unlike the desi parents on Gurgaon Has Talent or Little Bhangra Kings of Punjab. What really works is these are kids who are not being asked to behave precociously. They are just themselves. There is calm and collected Siena who is the youngest. A mini-sized person at 9. And strapping Jack, who’s the oldest at 13. Anthony is an adorable brat. And Isabella and Sofia Bliss are fraternal twins.
And they all happen to be more talented than most adult trained chefs I’ve seen. How does an 11 year-old even know how to temper white chocolate? And after dishing up one of the most spectacular desserts I’ve seen on any of the Masterchefs – without a recipe to guide him – the kid in him popped out when he got selected. He started crying in happiness and explained it away calmly by saying, “This (the crying with happiness) always happens.”
What’s also heart-warming is that for the 40 composed and collected contestants, there are the other 10 who behave like any of us would under pressure. Like the boy who got confused about what ingredients he needed from the pantry for his dish and then went on to cook an Asian glass noodle salad so lovely that he got selected. Or the little chap who realised he’d burned his lemon meringue and looked utterly crestfallen.
The reaction of the children on being complimented or selected is what is endearing. There is neither mad hysteria nor practised calm. You cannot not get teary-eyed when Sam serves up his fancy looking chicken roulade all calm and composed till the judges compliment him and he nods like an old hand and then blinks in happiness. Or the kids’ expressions of wonderment when they win their Masterchef aprons and the key to the Masterchef kitchen. There was also a moment when Sofia, one of the two fraternal twins was given her qualifying apron and her twin, Isabella started crying in joy for her. Only to receive an apron herself.
For the 14 that didn’t get through there was a second chance in round 2. A pressure test where Callum, the 2010 MasterChef finalist presented his Chocolate Croissant Pudding with Macerated Berries, Clotted Cream and Chocolate Sauce for the kids to replicate. They were given pointers on keeping an eye on the cooking time, the chocolate sauce and cutting the croissant which they listened to with full concentration. And then they made you giggle by saying in all earnestness, things like, “I’m going to bring my A-game to the table”.
It’s like hearing food critics talk until the kiddishness comes out when they cover their faces in despair or giggle. Or they are forced to say, “I’m doing a brilliant job” by the judges to rev themselves up, but say it like they’re humouring the judges. Cassidy, who is a pudding in herself, took her cake out of the ramekin and in all the sweet and innocent confidence of youth said of her own cake, “When I took it off, it was just like wow.” I loved it when Lucy was told that hers was the best pudding and her parents started crying. And she did a half-pirouette because Matt Preston knighted her Princess of Puddings.
The skills and techniques and culinary expertise shown by these children are just mind-boggling, to anyone who can or can’t cook. What’s also nice is the character traits that come out of these children which make you root for them. There is a modesty, confidence and anxiety about them which any of us can relate to. There is healthy competition but they hug each other, cheer each other and even help each other plate up. The judges are not patronising at all. There is no condescension in their tone and they are appreciative without fawning.
This programme is head and shoulders above any cooking or reality programme coming off our shores as well as abroad in a while. This is what family TV and reality shows should be all about. And there seems to be a lot more to look forward to. Guest judges include Donna Hay, Kylie Kwong, and of course the oh-so-delectable Adriano Zumbo in the finale. I’d say tune in for sure. There’s no reason for you not to love it.
Junior Masterchef airs on Star World at 9 pm, Monday - Friday.
Rajyasree Sen is a bona fide foodie, culture-vulture and unsolicited opinion-giver. In case you want more from her than her opinions, head to www.foodforthoughtindia.blogspot.com and order some delicious food from her catering outfit. If you want more of her opinions then follow her at @rajyasree