An okay cook would best describe my culinary skill level, one earned through no particular effort on my part, but rather a process of elimination, one born out of necessity eons ago—as in feeding five active offspring. Plus an equally active husband who worked six days a week and in his spare time, officiated sporting events. Cooking was never on his radar; nor did I ever think of looking for it there.
I did, however, make sure all the offspring knew how to survive on a few basics—scrambled eggs, hot dogs, hamburgers, French toast, mashed potatoes, sliced tomatoes and cottage cheese among others. As for desserts, Lucy’s Lemon Squares from the Peanuts Cookbook still reigns supreme at our empty-nest household. Over the years and with marginal help from me, said offspring increased their cooking repertoire to include roast turkey/dressing, grilled steaks, and pork loin roast. For the more ambitious—ravioli with a variety of fillings. And for the more adventurous who required no help from me—prime rib, lobster, beef tongue, venison, and elk.
All of which leads to my ongoing fascination with TV cooking competitions, especially those that have expanded to include young chefs. For example, MasterChef Junior. From all over the country, hundreds of kids between the age of 8 and 13 try out for a revered spot, one of 20, as I recall. Some of these courageous cooks are so short in stature, they have to stand on stools to comfortably access the counters and stoves. Many of them aspire to be restaurateurs when they grow up and consider MasterChef a stepping stone to achieve certain goals in the culinary world. Most of them started out with help from one or both parents. Even grandparents—it’s all about family, traditional or today’s version of modern.
The MasterChef Junior judges are led by producer Gordon Ramsey, along with Joe Bastianich, both known for their devastating critiques of adult cooks on other shows. On the softer side of the junior version is Christina Tosi, who specializes in pastries but knows all aspects of cooking. And on occasion, the affable Graham Elliot. Although he’s lost a ton of weight, this hasn’t compromised his love of good eats. Each week all of the judges excel in teaching these young chefs, critiquing their work, and most importantly, sending the losers home with gentle words of encouragement. Never one loser—at least two at a time, which makes the going easier. After turning in their aprons, these brave chefs leave with heads held high, hugging each other amidst the sincere applause and good wishes of peers who have survived to cook another week. Toss in a few understandable tears but no back-stabbing, no grumbling, no whining. And with the exception of only one chef destined to earn the coveted trophy and $25,000, what good losers all these kids eventually become—which make them all winners in my book.
Now I ask you: how can an 8-year-old possibly compete against a 13-year-old? Incredibly well, thank you. In fact, MasterChef Junior’s latest winner is a 9-year-old girl from Chicago. Who, in the finale, cooked a fantastic 3-course meal; as did the other two finalists—an 11-year-old boy and an 8-year-old girl. These were restaurant-quality meals, produced using techniques most home cooks wouldn’t even attempt.
Which brings me to the crux of my message. Teach your kids to cook. You won’t be sorry, I promise. Simple or complex, whatever it takes to get them started and to hold their interest. Even if it means first teaching yourself. Don’t have time? Sure you do. Just catch a few episodes of MasterChef, MasterChef Junior, Top Chef, Top Chef Junior, or Worst Cooks in America.