Learning from MasterChef Junior

It was humbling to watch an 11-year-old whip up a restaurant quality olive-oil poached salmon with broccoli rabe.  Especially since I had no idea what broccoli rabe was.

Nine-year-old Oona rocks some garlic crostinis. Or chicken liver pate. Or something like that.

Sadly, we missed the first airing of the finale of MasterChef Junior this Tuesday, due to Christmas preparation activities.  It had become appointment viewing in our household, and not just for the kids’ sake.  Just about every week, we learned something from those culinary prodigies–and we’re not the only ones.

1) Kids are capable of learning VERY complex things

When I saw eight year old Abby pull out an 8″ chef’s knife, hoist up the blender, and start the gas burner, the parent side of me was apprehensive. All without a grownup standing over holding their hands! It seems that training and education–and high expectations–rather than age are defining elements of these skills.

2) If they can do it, I can too

They didn’t come out of the womb knowing how to filet a giant salmon–they were taught, and tried and failed many times. Watching the risks those kids took inspired me to try cooking steaks in the oven and baking eggs in a muffin pan for breakfast, knowing how easily it could go wrong. Getting better every day means habitually breaking away from the familiar and trying new things.

3) Presentation is a mark of greatness, but it can’t cover up under-done chicken

French fries stacked like a log cabin. Sauces drizzled in perfect patterns on plates. Hardened sugar ornamentation on cupcakes. Every dish they presented was carefully arranged and looked awesome; however, one contestant was picked to leave the show after she served Gordon Ramsay underdone chicken: “I’m sorry darling, I can’t eat this.” True greatness has both flash and cash.

4) You can be demanding and loving at the same time

Gordon Ramsay–one of the most intimidating figures in reality TV, known to throw things and go on profanity-laced tirades–was the primary personality in this show.  With kids, he obviously needed to show a little bit softer side, and did a fantastic job building their confidence and helping as a teacher and coach.  However, he did not hesitate to critique–throwing imperfectly fried eggs in the trash, hammering the teams in a pop-up restaurant challenge. He made the point quite well in that episode, pulling Logan aside after he did an atrocious job seasoning something: “Logan, why are you here?” “To get better, chef,” he replied.

5) Do less better

Complexity can produce fantastic and interesting results–as 13-year-old Samuel proved with his fancy foams and pan-seared salmons.  However, for most of the kids as it is for most of us, simplicity with quality is much more robust. Due to messing up one preliminary challenge royally, Abby was stuck preparing her next dish using only two ingredients.  Two.  And they weren’t peanut butter and jelly.  The general consensus was that she was in trouble, but her Roasted Salmon with Asparagus Five Ways wowed the judges while several other kids ended up botching their dishes by trying to do way too much.