Stop what you’re doing and watch ‘MasterChef Junior’

If you aren’t watching MasterChef Junior, I feel sorry for you. I hate to be the one to break the news, especially when we’re just getting to know each other, but there is a void in your life: you’re missing out on one of the greatest gifts reality television has to offer.

Let me be clear, I am not a cooking show enthusiast. I only started watching MasterChef (the adult version) because my husband insisted I would enjoy it. And I did. I liked the dynamic between the judges (Gordon Ramsey, Graham Elliot, and Joe Bastianich), the balance of sass and encouragement they’d throw at the contestants, and even the way they’d spit out food or slam a plate down if it didn’t suit their palate. Most of all, I liked the fact that the contestants were all home cooks, finally giving it a go in the MasterChef kitchen to see if cooking could be more than just a hobby they were really really good at. They gave me hope that I, too, could one day make a roasted chicken without the center coming out raw (still working on it).

Then along came MasterChef Junior, and my mind was blown.

These kids, these 8 to 13-year-old kids, were making things like beef wellington, snail chowder, and short rib ravioli — all cooked to perfection. But no, that’s not all; their PLATING was perfect, too. Once the entrée was ready, they’d carefully sprinkle grated lemon zest or squeeze drops of garlic aioli around the rim of the plate to ensure their dish was as aesthetically beautiful as it was delicious. What 10-year-old does that?! The only thing I knew about aesthetics when I was 10 was how to fit all my Lisa Frank stickers on my Lisa Frank folder. This was not just another cute show with cute kids doing cute kid stuff. I was watching the Mozarts, the Picassos, the Bobby Fischers of cooking.

Watching child prodigies compete sounds like it could get old really fast, but the most important ingredient of MCJ (that’s what the fans call it) is that they are, after all, a bunch of kids. One moment you’re mesmerized by the level of skill, finesse, even their refined palates, and the next we’re reminded how young they really are. Take Abby, who, at 8 years old, is the youngest contestant in season 2. In one challenge Abby presents the judges with a blood orange cream pie with apple butter, whipped cream, and jelly bean garnish, and, whatdya know, it’s “absolutely delicious” according to Gordon Ramsey. But why the jelly beans, he asks? They’re not exactly the way to elevate a dessert. “Because everybody loves jelly beans, and I love jelly beans,” Abby confidently replies.

It’s precisely this dichotomy that makes for great television. There is no doubt we’re watching prodigies at work, but they’re also hysterical, adorable, and always completely genuine — something we don’t often find on adult reality shows. These kids can’t help but be themselves because they don’t know any better. And it’s a beautiful thing to watch.

For starters, they’re actually kind to each other. Unlike the cutthroat, “every man for himself” nature of MasterChef, these kids will lend a helping hand to fellow contestants. If someone forgot to grab the chicken stock, another contestant is willing to share; if one of the kids is too small to open a heavy refrigerator door, a taller contestant will hold it open (and of course, a big “thank you!” always follows).

They’re also happy for each other, and sad for each other. They vigorously applaud the top winners of each challenge, giving them a high-five and “great job!” or “way to go!” as they walk back to their stations. On season 2 when Isabella’s dish turns out undercooked and she starts to cry, they rush to her side. ALL OF THEM. No, seriously, every single kid runs over to comfort her while Abby (can you tell she’s my favorite?) says very matter-of-factly, “My dad’s number one rule: always have fun.” Yes Abby that IS the number one rule. Please don’t EVER CHANGE.

It’s that touch of humanity and sincerity that gives me hope. Honestly, it’s inspiring. We talk about how kids grow up too fast these days and how jaded younger generations have become, but if the contestants on MCJ are even a mild reflection of where this world is going, then, my friends, the future is in good hands.

But it’s impossible to watch this show without comparing these kids to adults and coming to the sad conclusion that perhaps we are the jaded ones. There’s no question that there’s more at stake for adults on reality competition shows — they’ve usually quit a day job to participate and their entire family is relying on them to succeed. But once in a while it would be nice to see an act of good will that’s not self-serving, just sincere. These reality show personalities have the potential to impact viewers and when you have that kind of power don’t you have a responsibility to lead by example? Just sometimes?

We have a lot to learn from MCJ, and there’s so much these kids can teach us. Let’s start by trying to connect with our inner child just a little more often every day, and see where that leads. Even if that means starting to watch this show, do it. I guarantee you’ll find yourself with a pinch more faith than you had yesterday.

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