There are television events that shape the way we view the world. They are the shows that alter our understanding of humanity at its very core, that ask the unthinkable questions like, "What is our true place in the universe?" and "Can an 11 year old successfully prepare a salt-crusted fish entree?" That show, my friends, is MasterChef Junior.
Well, it's been seven weeks of gruelingly friendly competition, which must feel like an eternity for the 8-12 year olds watching themselves on television, I'm sure now marveling at how young they once were. Through undercooked chicken, burned eggs, and surprisingly no kitchen fires, only two chefs remain: Samuel and Logan.
Normally, the kids come bounding into the empty kitchen full of equipment, but tonight the show feels more like the opening of WWE Raw fight than a kids' cooking competition. Screaming friends, family, and former contestants line the mezzanine of the studio as judges Gordon Ramsay, Graham Elliot, and Joe Bastianich (he's really famous in Italy) welcome the evening's two contenders.
The kitchen doors open, and in walks Samuel, enveloped in fog and neon lights. We see a brief recap of the 12 year old's time on the show, which is mostly a montage of pastel button downs trapped under vests. The clips highlight his love of trendy culinary buzzwords like gremolata and mousseline. They say that he was, "a frontrunner from day one," which is a complete lie. Samuel actually struggled early on in the competition with his overly ambitious dishes and didn't really start doing well until later in the competition.
Next up, entering the ring, at what I would guess is like 4'3" and weighing in at, I don't know, 63 pounds, is Logan. He gets a much shorter montage than Samuel, probably because throughout the season he was less of a nightmarish show-off when it came to technique, but who's to say?
The judges yell up into the rafters at the parents of these two fine young chefs, who are surprisingly normal and not scary considering that they let their children be on a reality television show. Logan looks so much like his parents that I'm less convinced he's their son and more thinking that he's some test tube clone of them. His mom talks exclusively in supportive but vague catchphrases, reminding us once again that this family is in politics.
The challenge for this evening is straightforward: no live animals running around, no need to replicate a million versions of a simple dish, no distinct advantages for either contestant. They simply have to present their culinary vision in a three course meal of an appetizer, an entree, and a dessert. While neither contestant has an advantage, Samuel and Logan are both at a disadvantage of not wearing their trademark sartorial items, the vest and the bowtie, respectively.
Both boys plan dishes that involve molecular gastronomy, which isn't surprising but is still impressive. Samuel uses liquid nitrogen, even though most kids don't even learn what nitrogen is until they get to high school and are forced to take a real science class.
Instead of the normal rows of cooking stations, the MasterChef kitchen has been transformed into some kind of round, culinary cage match-style double station, where two boys enter, and also two boys leave because everyone is very nice and supportive and just wants to encourage these kids' natural talents.
The two have 90 minutes to prepare their three course meal. This is the point where I think that there has to be assistance, they have to be getting help. It's not so much the techniques or tools, but the pure time management. These two are in sixth grade and have the insight to prep their baked or cold desserts before cooking their proteins? Please, I'm in my thirties and still struggle properly time toast and eggs without having a breakdown (that's probably hangover-induced most of the time, but whatever).
The judges take a break from whispering amongst themselves to check in with the boys on their progress. Samuel is working on a southeast Asian-inspired menu, while Logan is going more Mediterranean. At one point when discussing Samuel's style, Joe comments, "I think that there's a life experience in his cooking that he's bringing to the table." Life experience. He's 12. That's like looking at a brand new tech start-up and praising the young CEO for his business knowledge before he bankrupts an entire organization all while wearing a zip-up hoodie.
Logan's appetizer involves a smoked aioli, which he prepares using a smoke gun, clearly his favorite part of the preparation. He says, "A boy's two favorite things are fire and a little plastic nerf gun." Well, Logan, that's nice at 11, but you'll grow up and realize that a man's two favorite things are beer and everything else that isn't his.
Time's up and the two contestants finish their three courses. Gordon asks the pint-sized chefs to bring their dishes up to the front of the kitchen. Then he asks them to bring them into the MasterChef restaurant. This challenge is apparently 60% plate carrying skills.
Samuel is up first with his appetizer, which is southeast Asian chicken oysters with pickled cucumber and radish and crispy rice. It took me halfway through the judging to realize that his dish isn't oysters, it's a part of the chicken that I then had to google. I'm a modern day, Chicken of the Sea brand tuna-era Jessica Simpson. The judges all enjoy the flavor and the preparation, though find his use of vinegar in the pickled vegetables to be heavy-handed and overpowering.
Logan serves his appetizer, which is grilled spot prawns with grilled romaine and smoked saffron aioli. The judges love the dish and the shrimp is cooked perfectly.
Throughout the show, the kids have been pretty realistic and accepting of where they think they stand after talking to the judges. For elementary and middle schoolers, they're all shockingly self-aware. Samuel's confessional after the appetizer round of judging though is the first and only departure into nastiness. According to the judges, Logan's dish was clearly more successful, though Samuel says, "My dish was more technical than grilling prawns and using a gimmicky smoke gun." Shots fired.
The kids again walk back into the studio kitchen, retrieve their entree plates, and carry them into the restaurant for the next course. What is this, MasterBusBoy? Can't someone else transport them? Samuel's entree is a seared arctic char with baby bok choy and mushrooms in a coconut saffron curry. The judges question Samuel's decision to take a protein from one area of the world and the seasonings and spices of the complete opposite side. He replies, "It feels wrong, but you know it's right," kind of like a 12 year old in a suit vest.
All three agree his fish is cooked perfectly, and while the curry is tasty and well seasoned, it's a bit heavy with the bright fish, and he might have been better off with something lighter.
Logan rolled the dice on his entree by doing this preparation with this fish for the first time ever. He serves a salt-crusted branzino stuffed with lemon and thyme and served with chimichurri sauce and roasted vegetables. Because of the preparation and heavy salt crust, there's no way for Logan to know if his fish was flawlessly moist or dry and too flaky. It's kind of like buying an apartment from just looking at the front of the building. Sure, the facade is nice and the listing says it's a spacious one bedroom, but you don't know if it's actually just an organization of rats living in a broom closet.
Thankfully for Logan, the fish is perfect. It seems clear at this point that he is the stronger of the two based on these two dishes. Joe and Gordon both find the chimichurri to be a bit overpowering, and maybe he would have been better off with a lemon butter sauce. But either way, the dish is successful.
Finally, it's the last course. Samuel's dessert is a kaffir lime panna cotta with passion fruit and raspberry with a ginger anise dust. His dish wows the judges, who can't find a negative thing to say about it. Gordon comments that not only is the dessert itself something he can't stop eating, but that it nicely harmonizes with his previous two dishes.
Logan's dessert is personally more my speed. He prepared a meyer lemon madeline with berry compote and goat cheese mousse. It's impressive he knew that you could use cheese in a dessert course. At 11, I think I would have seen that and been like, "Wait, you can just put cheese in whatever you want? THAT'S AN OPTION?" Probably for the best cardiovascular health-wise that I didn't really put that together until later in my life. The judges praise his balance between the sweet berries and the more acidic goat cheese, though the madelines could have used a few more minutes in the oven.
The judges have their girls-chatting-in-the-ladies-room-style deliberation while Logan and Samuel wait outside to hear which of them is going home with a chunk of cash and which one will cry in the car like an eliminated contestant on The Bachelor.
Gordon, Graham, and Joe return to the kitchen and stand in their regular spots where they spent the last seven weeks delivering challenges and doling out some of the sweetest encouragement I've ever seen on television. They then ask Logan and Samuel to come stand where they are, and they are going to stand on the other side of the stage. It's more walking. It's just so much walking. I guess they needed to find a way to fill an hour, but still, cool it with the runaround.
The winner of the $100,000, the glass trophy, and the title of MasterChef Junior is LOGAN. Bowties win! He's happy, his parents are happy, the judges are happy, I'm happy. It wouldn't be an episode of the show without me crying, so I started to, if for nothing else but consistency (AND ALSO SEEING KIDS ACCOMPLISH SOMETHING).
Samuel is understandably upset. He doesn't enthusiastically hug Logan back after the winner is announced, and I don't blame him. At the end of the day he's a 12 year old kid who came close to winning something and ultimately did not. He keeps it together though, eventually coming around to being impressed he made it this far and achieved second place. Well, Samuel, now you do have something for your high school application, and for therapy.