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MasterChef Junior Episode 1: Tears, Torches, and Tiny Cooks

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To thoroughly enjoy the wonder that is MasterChef Junior, please welcome Alison Leiby, who will be here every week to take us through the season.

I had a lot of trouble watching the premiere of MasterChef Junior. It has all of the hallmarks of a traditional reality cooking show: an expansive kitchen, celebrity judges, high-stress challenges where competitors race against the clock. I thought I knew exactly what I would be getting, just like, smaller.

Halfway through the hour program I kept thinking, "There's something missing, what do you normally get in these shows that isn't here?" Then I realized it. There were no delusional nightmares taking on more than they can handle, no utter fame-whores spewing out what they hope will become sound bites, no overly aggressive "professionals" screaming phrases like, "Oh, you're going to throw me under the bus like that?" or "I didn't come here to make friends!" There's none of that here. It's just a room full of kids working hard at something they love, not showing how good they are at shifting blame or talking their way out of failure. It is perhaps the purest competition show on television and I'm already obsessed with it.

The 8-13 year-olds on the show have proved themselves to be the best 16 kids in the nation. They are here to cook, and also probably to make friends.

Judge Gordon Ramsay welcomes the pint-sized cooks to the kitchen and they rush in faster than I run into the liquor store at 7:59pm on a Sunday. At stake in this competition, he explains, is $100,000 and the title of MasterChef Junior. While the kids are all excited over the glass trophy they can take home, I'm sure their parents are far more eager to get their hands on the money that should carry these kids about a semester and a half through college by the time they attend.

Abby, the youngest contestant at just eight years old, says that if she wins she'll donate most of the money to charity and then could buy a horse. Her free spirit and bright colored clothes combined with this answer makes Fox's ad for New Girl on the screen seem less than coincidental.

Gordon introduces the winner of the last season, Alexander. Among his many accomplishments, 13-year-old Alexander is headed to Indonesia to judge the show in that country this year. Seems less impressive to have the show in other countries besides the U.S. I'm pretty sure children in other countries are encouraged to help out around the house and learn things like cooking at a young age, unlike here, where kids turn three and are forced to learn to play the octocontrabass clarinet or speak Kaixana or whatever skill will give them the leg up when applying to Princeton.

Alexander introduces the Mystery Box Challenge, where the contestants will have one hour to create one dish using only the ingredients found inside. The boxes easily outweigh several of the kids, who then struggle to lift them when the clock starts. Once they grab their step-stools and get a helping hand, they find inside pork chops, pork tenderloin, bacon, granny smith apples, brussels sprouts, phyllo dough, wild rice, artichokes, and mustard. These kids are lucky they live in the world post-brussels sprout PR push. When I was a kid they were literally the butt of jokes. Then a few years ago some publicist (that I desperately want to hire for my own career) changed everyone's mind and now I can't go to a restaurant without seeing them on the menu.

During the challenge I found myself gasping and cringing at the sight of children wielding knives and standing over open flames. I kept wanting to yell out, "Don't touch that, you'll hurt yourself!"

Samuel, 12, is certainly the most technically advanced of the group. He tells Gordon he's making brussels sprout and bacon mousseline stuffed pork. He's at an age where he's just getting slightly too old for his precociousness — and his vest — to be cute. Samuel, listen, this is the last time you're allowed to wear a vest ever. Unless you become a club promoter, it's time cool it and stick with a button down.

During the challenge Coco, 10, starts crying because she thinks her mashed potatoes are too salty. Gordon runs over to see what's wrong and it's jarring not to hear a string of expletives come out of his mouth. Instead, he sweetly tastes her mashed potatoes and points out that they aren't too salty, and she just took a bite from the top before she mixed the seasoning all the way through. Also, Coco, I totally get the crying. I cried just this morning because I put too much milk in my coffee, and there was only $3.50 at stake, not $100,000.

Cut to a kid using a torch because sure, why not.

The judges choose the top three stand-outs to further investigate their dishes. The first is Natalie, 12, for her seared pork chop with pork stock mustard sauce and rosemary potatoes. They also love Mitchell's pork tenderloin with wild rice and a fried egg and Oona's spicy seared pork with mixed vegetables.

The winner is Natalie. Normally, in the adult version of this, you'd see some eye-rolling and hear a lot of, "My dish was clearly the best," but not here. The kids all say good job to her when she wins, and she politely says, "Thank you!" back to each of them. It just reminds me that we all don't come out of the womb thinking, "This bitch" with our arms crossed.

Natalie is safe from elimination and gets to help make an important decision about the challenge. She enters the pantry with the judges and learns she gets to pick what the other kids will have to cook. Joe Bastianich brings out a live chicken. Then Graham Elliot brings out a live duck. Finally, Gordon Ramsay brings out a live turkey, which is bold because they are notoriously aggressive.

Natalie makes her choice and the rest of the kids come into the pantry to find live chickens just walking around. Some of the kids embrace it and pet and pick up the birds, some are a bit more skittish. Josh, 10, says, "I'm a city kid, so I don't want to lift up a chicken," and now I'm going to spend the rest of the night wondering if he's my son.

The kids return to the kitchen, live chickens in hand. Ramsay now says, "I hope you don't get too close to them, because it's time to say goodbye." Um, last time I checked this show taught kids about cooking, not about mortality and the emotions connected to loss. Thankfully, they won't be killing and cooking these chickens. No, there are some other, I'm sure equally as cuddly chickens that are already dead that they'll be cooking with. The circle of life remains unbroken!

Logan, 11, feels relieved not to have to kill his, noting that "chickens are pretty nice people." His parents should probably spend a little less time teaching him culinary techniques and spend a few extra minutes on basic science.

It's strange to want everyone to win on a reality show. Normally I just root for the obvious frontrunner or the saddest story or the hot-guy-but-only-if-he's-single. But here, I legitimately wish that every one of the kids competing could win.

Time's up and the judges are ready to taste the dishes. First up is Oona, who made chicken liver pâté crostini with brûléed pear. She tells the judges, "I've always wanted to make a chicken liver pâté, so I thought I'd try." Most Americans never learn to even like pâté, let alone have a deep desire to make it. She is undoubtedly my favorite.

Isabella is next with her chicken parmesan. She serves up a rather large piece of chicken, that when Ramsay cuts into he sees is still raw and inedible. Pointing this out makes Isabella cry. She returns to her station and the rest of the kids immediately huddle around her to cheer her up and now my biological clock is ticking louder than the intro to 60 Minutes.

Sean prepared spicy chicken wings with yuzu salad that Joe Bastianich loved so much he tried to buy them for $20. The judges also love Abby's Mexican fried chicken with hot sauce sour cream and Samuel's five spice wings and pickled vegetables.

The judges call a group up to the front, and congratulate Sean, Oona, and Sam on having the three best dishes of the day. Sadly, it's time for Coco, Nasir, Isabella, and Berry to go home. There are tears, but also, shockingly positive and mature attitudes. Seeing these kids handle stress and competition and still be able to compose themselves after being eliminated makes it a bit harder to convince myself that a closet full of leather jackets will be emotionally fulfilling for me.

If not, whatever, that's what next week's episode is for.

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