There is an argument to be made that children shouldn’t be used as self-debasing gladiators in the often-exploitative arena of competition shows. I won’t be making it here: MasterChef Junior is a delightful, heart-healthy Happy Meal of Hunger Games entertainment. It’s a pint-size extension of the MasterChef franchise, but is superior to it and a welcome tonic to so much schadenfreude-y reality blah-blah-blah. The stove-top sport is thrilling, the personalities are precocious, and the storytelling is committed to graciousness, good cheer, and of course, gourmet excellence. Five-spice chicken wings. Apple-juice-injected pork chops. Blood-orange cream pie. These kids can cook—better than you ever will. Never has a show that so humbles its audience felt so rousing.
This year’s contestants, most of them middle schoolers, include an array of familiar but colorful personalities prone to saying the darndest things, like ”You clearly like my filling” or ”That looks like baby throw-up.” The premiere identifies a pair of instant-star alphas who could dominate the competition and certainly dominate the screen. Samuel is a stout, sophisticated foodie whose self-confidence borders on arrogance. ”I want to change the minds of culinary thinkers around the world,” he announces. Oona is a sly, self-conscious imp with a sharp palate and a way with neologisms (”I am not a maestro of pancake flippery,” she says after blowing a flapjack challenge). One wonders if they’ve spent as much time in acting classes as they have in cooking classes. Then there’s the kid who will steal your heart: Abby, all big glasses and pink accents, who claps excitedly when her rivals prevail, hides under her chair in agony when they fail, tops her pastries with gumdrops, and says she’d donate her prize money to charity. ”And I would buy a horse.”
Gordon Ramsay and his fellow judges set much of the winning tone, dialing down the hard-ass-aesthete act but retaining just enough tough-love ‘tude. They engage the children with respect and care, and have a ball with them without being condescending or treating them with kid gloves. The show is all about pitting innocents against one another, sure, but it finds its fun in delighting in the developing personhood and extraordinary artistry of these gastronome wunderkinds. They, and we, want them all to succeed and none of them to lose. MasterChef Junior exults in the joy of cooking, the joy of childhood, and the joy of treating people decently. I clearly like its filling. A-