Grub Street will confess it’s on the fence about MasterChef’s American iterations. (You know our feelings on Gordon Ramsay.) But MasterChef Junior is not without its charms — in fact, perhaps because it’s devoid of much of the conflict that’s become commonplace in other cooking-competition shows, it’s downright charming. So, with that in mind, here’s Junior superfan Libby Hill to recap it all this season.
Perhaps you missed the debut of the second season of MasterChef Junior last week, and while I absolutely judge you, you’re certainly not the only one who overlooked the return of the most unironically joyful show on television. Certainly, it’s surprising that the show, hosted as it is by Fox’s resident dark lord Gordon Ramsay, as well as Joe Bastianich and Graham Elliot, is able to rise above the dreck that constitutes a typical Ramsay show, but all of the credit has to go to the tiny contestants. As tiresome as precocious children can be, there’s something winning about seeing a group of kids passionate about something that has less to do with competition and more to do with proving and improving their own abilities.
This season began with 16 undeniably talented youths between the ages of 8 and 13, whose numbers, in typical reality-show format, will be whittled down throughout the season. But this doesn’t mean things are automatically nasty. In last week’s premiere, there were plenty of instances of the young chefs being kind where adults would be cutthroat, older kids helping younger kids out with heavy equipment and children rallying around their own when someone’s dish underperforms. The jaded heart warms watching little ones prepare composed plates that few of us could replicate, then that same heart nearly bursts while watching the contestants show actual compassion to each other in ways rarely seen in the realm of reality television.
For the non-fans, here’s what you’ve missed: Shortly after the premiere begins, the contestants are informed that a special guest will be arriving to inform them of their first mystery-box challenge, where they’ll need to concoct a dish from a preselected box of ingredients. (Think Chopped, but adorable.) Naturally, the kids assume it’s the president, which would have been my first guess as well, before discovering that it was actually season one’s winner, Alexander. All you need to know about Alexander is that he is, by no stretch of the imagination, a cool-looking kid who may remind you of your first boyfriend in sixth grade, whom you only ever held hands with, and even then just the once because his hands were super sweaty.
So the moment Alexander walks in the room, you can see the pupils of half a dozen little girls dilate. They look upon him as if he were the slightly husky, lost member of One Direction. Let us breeze through the rest of this episode and let you know that kids named Berry, Coco, Isabella, and Nasir, adorable though they may have been, were eliminated.
The trouble with Gordon Ramsay as a MasterChef Junior judge is that he’s made his name, especially on Fox, as a raving madman who seems to take vast enjoyment out of working with incompetent people and screaming at them until they (hopefully) magically improve at what they’re doing.
This, of course, presents a problem when it comes to a show populated entirely with small, eminently breakable children. As much (deeply sadistic) fun as it would be to see Ramsay singlehandedly break a child’s blossoming psyche in a kitchen mock-up of the worst Skinner box ever, the network instead goes to great lengths to assure the audience that he’s definitely not the monster going apoplectic in the Hell’s Kitchen commercials airing during the break, and that the children are in good hands.
Fox’s grim determination to make Ramsay seem like a good man has resulted already in some of the strangest reality-show moments to date. Consider the moment in the premiere where a young contestant weeps over her ruined mashed potatoes. Ramsay heads to her work station and inquires after her tears, then assures her the potatoes weren’t ruined at all, before leaning in near her face and telling her in strangely threatening dulcet tones that his daughters cry in the kitchen, but they cry of laughter. And that he wasn’t leaving until she laughed. She tittered nervously, and the whole thing was sort of weirdly menacing. I half-expected to see Ramsay rocking some “LOVE” and “HATE” knuckle tattoos.
That motif carries right over to the second episode, which opens with the three chefs with the best dishes from the premiere — Oona, Samuel, and Sean — competing in a special challenge in which they have to make as many pancakes as possible in six minutes. Each contestant is paired with a judge, and the winner will “save” his or her judge from the sticky punishment that the other judges will undergo: having a giant vat of maple syrup dumped all over them. There’s something slightly unnerving about watching Ramsay, a man who is essentially a White Walker, stare down a nervous 9-year-old with so much syrup at stake.
The challenge itself is charming enough, though, since naturally, all three judges end up soaked anyway.
Really, after that, there’s no way the rest of the episode can hope to measure up. Especially since it involves desserts.
Any regular viewer of competitive cooking shows knows that desserts are generally the downfall of even the most seasoned chefs, so it’s unsurprising that the kid chefs of MasterChef Junior don’t produce their finest work in a second episode that prominently features a pie-making challenge. (Credit to the producers for getting this out of thw way early, though.) Admittedly, I experienced more than a little schadenfreude watching the contestants try and largely fail at their complicated citrus-cream-pie concoctions, because as heartwarming as their talent can be, it can also be exhausting to constantly feel shown up by children, many of whom remain a handful of years away from puberty. My unquenchable bitterness aside, the only thing really missing from watching child after child produce severely lackluster pies is the fact that the judges are just so nice about it all.
Here’s my theory: The reason so few adults on cooking shows can make truly quality dessert is because as children, everyone told them their crap-ass pies “had good flavor” or “were a nice effort.” So people grow up with an unearned sense of pastry confidence. No. Forget that. There’s a world of difference between constructive criticism and calling a spade a spade. These kids should have been told, “Your pies are bad, and you should feel bad.” So here’s the lesson America’s youth should take from this episode: Sometimes people lie to spare your feelings, and while that’s a nice thing to do, it makes it very difficult for you to learn and grow as a person.
That said, one of the contestants, Natalie, after being told unequivocally her pie was among the worst and she wasnconsequently being eliminated, said that she was going home to plan her restaurant and that it would not be serving desserts. So maybe the ultimate lesson is that, regardless of whether people lie to you or tell the truth, life is still an enormous kick in the pants. Either way, a valuable lesson for us all.
Next week, Gordon Ramsay’s mom shows up to talk smack and cook things. Watch so we can all psychoanalyze where, precisely, she screwed up in raising him.