The final four of MasterChef Junior is a lot like the final four of NCAA basketball: several competitors are from Tennessee and California, there are a few upsets, and I lost a lot of money on the whole thing.
Remaining in the competition are fine food lover and vest czar Samuel, politician's son and bow-tie enthusiast Logan, feather jewelry making aunt-in-training Abby, and the remarkably mature burgeoning feminist Adaiah. It's tough for me to pick a real favorite. I'm partly rooting for Abby because she's so young and obviously so talented, and also it would be cool to see how excited a puppy gets when it wins. Another part of me likes Logan's silliness mixed with skill. I could also see Adaiah winning since she's been consistently good since the start. I have a hard time imagining Samuel winning since those vests already have a big enough ego without a glass trophy and $100,000.
The judges place a goldfish in a bowl in front of the finalists as an intro to the first challenge. Of course, they'll be working with fish. Why does the show insist on reminding these kids that a lot of the food they eat was once a living and arguably lovable thing?
Gordon Ramsay, Joe Bastianich, and Graham Elliot send the kids into the pantry to find the fish they'll be preparing. When they get there, instead of goldfish, they find giant Alaskan salmon. The fish are easily as long as Abby is tall. Their challenge is to break down this enormous fish into as many perfect fillets as possible in 30 minutes.
Samuel is not scared by the challenge, saying, "I'm excited to be working with salmon because I really like breaking things down." I've dated least three guys who share that general outlook.
Gordon demonstrates for the kiddos how to properly fillet the fish and how many servings they should be able to cut. He moves quickly since it's so second nature to him, but the little chefs are all watching with a mix of focus, confusion, excitement, and fear. I'm watching them with the same emotions, but also terror (that they'll cut themselves) and reflection (on if at 30 I could handle this task without slicing my hand off).
The clock starts and the kids get to it. The judges whisper their commentary about everyone's performance like they're on the PGA tour, which I'm completely on board with because the last thing that a ten year old with a giant knife needs is noisy distraction.
Samuel and Adaiah are both doing well, which has to be in part because they are bigger than Abby and Logan, who probably can't get that great of an angle for certain cuts without standing on a mountain of phone books. Abby just hacks at her fish, and the orange colored meat is bursting out of the rough cuts like it's Play-Doh.
Logan slices off his two large fillets and then realizes he left half of the meat still on the bone. Gordon comes to help him see where he went wrong, and also to encourage him to keep going and make the best of what he has at this point. That's a pretty great lesson to learn before age 12. Most of the people I know in their thirties still don't have a grip on it, so kudos to Logan for pushing through and doing the best he can.
Time's up and the judges look at both the number of servings each contestant got from their fish as well as the precision of the cuts.
Abby's cuts are rough and inconsistent, but she has, as always, an upbeat and positive attitude about it even though she wasn't successful in the challenge. There's a lot that is shocking about eight year old Abby's abilities, but more than her skills at cooking proteins or seasoning a puree, it's unreal just how level-headed and unemotional she remains during these challenges. I've had large-scale meltdowns over hitting the wrong button on the screen when trying to buy a Metro Card, so I can't imagine keeping it together when some of the world's top chefs tell you that you've made a mistake.
Samuel is way too confident in this challenge. Though he does manage to cut 15 servings of the salmon, the pieces from one section still had bone fragments in them and thus won't count toward his final tally.
Adaiah, kind of the sleeper pick here, crushed this challenge. She flawlessly sliced 13 perfect portions of salmon in 30 minutes, having never broken down a fish before, and wins the challenge.
When the judges announce that Adaiah wins and will go into the elimination with an advantage, Abby very sweetly says how happy she is that Adaiah won and that she deserves it. Moments like that are what makes this the most important show on television. I know that sounds like an insane exaggeration, but I really think it's true. There is so much reality television out there telling us that we should be ruthless and manipulative and drink enough white wine to fill a water tower during a dinner party. This is the only show that purely and honestly shows that you can want something so badly and still be kind and supportive to other people. The 8-12 year olds on this show have more maturity in their (to me, shockingly-not-injured) fingers than every other adult on television combined.
The judges explain that for the elimination challenge, the contestants must make a salmon dish using their best fillet from the previous challenge. This alone puts Adaiah at an advantage. They then explain, via an in-show commercial for Samsung's new refrigerator, that she gets to determine how many ingredients each contestant has for their dish. There are four refrigerators: one with 100 ingredients, one with 50, one with 25, and one with five. Adaiah chooses the one with 50 for herself so she doesn't feel overwhelmed by choice. She then gives Abby the one with 100, Samuel the one with 25, and Logan only five ingredients to prepare his salmon.
When explaining her choice, Adaiah says she thought Samuel would struggle with the more basic ingredients since he usually goes more high-end with his dishes. His response? "I'm confident I can make an upscale dish with these pedestrian ingredients." I hope that someone saves this video for him so that in ten years whenever Samuel does something nightmarish, they can force him to watch this again as he (hopefully) cringes at some of the things he says on camera.
Abby is like a kid in a candy store when it comes to picking ingredients because, well, she basically is a kid in a candy store in this scenario. With so many options, she seems a little lost when planning. One trip to the fridge to find kale while Gordon waits at her station turns into a several minute ordeal, and when she comes back, she doesn't even have kale, it's broccoli rabe.
Samuel starts talking about his dish and it sounds like he played Mad-Libs with the menus of restaurants no one can afford. He mentions puree, confit, gremolata, and one or two things I didn't even catch. He's doing well, until at the fifteen minutes left mark he burns his salmon. Forced to choose between serving overcooked fish and firing another fillet, he opts to try and squeeze another one in under the buzzer.
First to serve the judges is Logan. He prepared an olive oil poached salmon with a potato rosette, broccoli rabe, and a dill lemon puree. Gordon notes that it is cooked absolutely perfectly. He nailed the confit with the olive oil and the fish is really excellent. Great, so an 11 year old made a flawless poached fish and I tried to bake a chicken breast, then started eating it and couldn't tell if it was done, then called my mom about it, and then ordered a pizza. Feeling terrific. Joe notes that the one flaw in Logan's dish is his basically raw broccoli rabe. I'll maintain that I think most vegetables taste better raw or cooked to be crisp, but broccoli rabe is not one of them.
Next up is Abby and her hundred ingredients. She made a mango and orange glazed salmon with a carrot puree. Unfortunately for Abby, her salmon is dry and it's not her best dish. The judges all enjoy the glaze and her puree, but the fish itself is overcooked. Even in the face of criticism and a harsh dose of reality that here in the semi-finals she didn't deliver her best dish, Abby is positive and gracious with the judges and never loses her cool.
Samuel presents his dish next, which is a pan-seared salmon with tomato confit, tomato honey, and a cilantro shallot gremolata. The judges all agree the dish is excellent and that the fish is cooked perfectly, if not a bit of a small portion. Honestly, if you're going to be 12 years old and throw around the word gremolata, you better be able to nail it, and Samuel does.
Last is Adaiah, who came into this challenge with the most advantages. She prepared an Asian-style salmon with garlic and a broccoli and green bean stir fry. The judges love the fish and the vegetables, but neither Joe nor Gordon can get over the aggressive smell and taste of her burnt garlic.
Each contestant had some good aspects of their dish and some aspects that needed improvement, so it's tough to say at the end of the judging which two will move on and which two will be sent home before the finals. What I do know, thanks to an ad, is that they are casting the next season in New York soon and I'm spending the rest of my night finding out where, when, and if any of my Facebook friends have a kid I can borrow so I can go and not look like a psychopath.
The first finalist announced is Logan, which they finally got to after what seemed like 45 minutes of intensely suspenseful music and shots of the judges and contestants. The second underaged chef headed to the finals is Samuel (and I guess there's technically a third finalist spot for his vests, because they really feel like their own entity at this point).
Sadly, Adaiah and Abby are sent home. Even Samuel, who often on this show has been a little competitive and a little haughtier than the others, is upset at the elimination. These kids all genuinely seemed to become friends during the show, so it's hard for them to see each other have to leave.
Abby finally sheds her unbelievably mature shell and breaks down to cry at the news. Despite her unreal cooking abilities and her unnatural calm during judging, she's still an eight year old girl who got rejected from something, so of course she's going to cry. Abby cries, Adaiah cries, even Joe cries. Honestly, if you watched Abby get eliminated and didn't shed at least one tear, maybe go to a doctor and make sure you're not made of rocks.
Adaiah is upset at her loss, but she almost seems more upset that there isn't a girl going to the finals. I'm obsessed with her determination and demand for equality and seriously hope that in ten or fifteen years she's on the cover of a magazine being lauded as the woman changing the way we think of female chefs. Well, I seriously hope that a woman succeeding in a male-dominated field like this isn't newsworthy in ten years, but, let's be real.
Abby and Adaiah, even though I'm still a decade older than the two of you put together (dear god, brb, need to go have an age-related panic attack), I'd eat your food any day and will miss you both in the finals.