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‘MasterChef Junior’ Season 4 Premiere Recap: Let the Games Begin

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.

MasterChef Junior/Fox

It's that time of year again. The time when the leaves change, when the temperature cools, when it gets dark at 4 p.m. and not just because you have blackout curtains and need a nap after a day of rolling your eyes at people with complicated coffee orders. It's also the time when 24 child cooks arm themselves with knives and KitchenAids to compete on MasterChef Junior.

If you've read along with my recaps of past seasons, you know that 1) I love this show, 2) I drink a lot of wine when I'm writing late at night, and 3) these things end up being pretty straightforward accounts of what happens, which is basically the same every week except different cute nine-year-olds leave crying. I'm shaking things up this season and will be instituting a very serious and totally scientific ranking system. (If it works for the Verge's Game of Thrones recaps and worked for the Contest, it will work for tiny humans cooking with Gordon Ramsay.)

And since parents aren't supposed to pick their favorite kid, why not have a 30-something childless adult who lives in a glorified box in Manhattan do it? I'll award points, and at the end of every episode/bottle of wine I will attempt to add them up and see which kiddo is leading the pack. So stay tuned for some seriously sloppy math and, of course, spoilers.

Since MasterChef Junior is a lot like a school play — a few kids get center stage and most of them end up milling around in the background — I'm setting up some baseline points for all of the kids. Here's the breakdown:

1 point for staying in the competition

2 points for making it to the top three in a challenge

5 points for winning a challenge

3 points for making me cry

50 point deduction for being eliminated

Glad that's settled. Let's get into it.

The most notable change this season — aside from Gordon Ramsay's "Macklemore light" haircut — is new judge Christina Tosi. She's a brilliant replacement for very-famous-in-Italy former judge Joe Bastianich. Who better to help kids in their quest to be professional chefs than the woman who pioneered cereal milk (TM) soft serve ice cream? If I didn't know it already existed, I would assume it was the concoction of one of these kids with a taste for Lucky Charms (marshmallows only, duh).

Before anyone can start cooking, Gordon announces what exactly they're all competing for. The giant trophy and the title of "MasterChef Junior" send the kids into the kind of ballistic excitement that can only be replicated by snorting a case of Pixy Stix. When he gets to the cash prize of $100,000, they try and maintain their excitement even though they clearly have no idea what that really means. Kind of like the way I react when my accountant tells me he found a mutual fund with a better interest rate. I know that's good (right?), I just have no idea why.

Avery reacts to the prizes the way only a pigtailed nine-year-old could, by shouting "HURRICANE AVERY, COMING THROUGH." +10 for understanding the value of a good sound byte and being adorable. In this early part of the show we also meet eight-year-old Kya, whose life goal is to own a three-Michelin-star restaurant. What second grader isn't familiar with the international fine-dining ratings system? +8 for precociousness.

Now, the kids can't cook without aprons, but it wouldn't be a reality show if the judges just handed them out. Gordon explains their aprons are in the the scariest part of the MasterChef kitchen. If you were thinking meat locker or rafters, you're wrong. They're all in a giant piñata of Gordon's head that's lowered from the ceiling. The kids will have to whack it open. [Note to Fox producers: Where did you get this and also can I commission one in the shape of my ex-boyfriend's head, for, um, research? Email me.]

Once the kids are all outfitted in their kitchen-wear, it's time for the first mystery box challenge. The ingredient in the box itself is an empty hamburger bun, which as a woman on day three of a "get your shit together" diet, looks pretty good on its own. The kids are charged with making their signature hamburger and a side. If David Hasselhoff were competing, I bet his side dish would be a carpeted floor.

The judges and cameras make their rounds as the kids mush together patties and clumsily wield knives. Vivian channels her Arizona roots with a southwest burger, something that gets slightly brushed over as she jumps to say that she's an A+ student. Of course she is, her parents named her Vivian. She gets +7 for totally owning it.

Avery and her overalls are making a pork and venison burger with "jazzy cole slaw" and sweet potato chips. I want to take away points because using sweet potatoes instead of regular potatoes is a JOKE in my book, but I have to give her 10 more points for using the word "jazzy."

We also check in again with Kya during this challenge, who still hasn't opened that three-Michelin-star restaurant she's dreaming of, but there's still time. The judges ask how she feels about being the youngest competitor, and she responds with, "I think it gives me an advantage because age doesn't matter, it's more your knowledge of food." +100 for saying something I wish my manager and the rest of the entertainment industry would acknowledge: Age is just a number and no, I don't have any grey hairs those are blonde I got highlights please don't think I'm old!

Also, there's Adam, who is 11 years old and from Brooklyn but talks like he's been sitting outside of a deli for 40 years complaining about the Knicks (+15).

Gordon, Christina, and Graham Elliot taste the top three burgers they observed during the challenge. First is Zac, who wears a blazer over his apron (+5) to serve the judges his sirloin burger with panko-crusted onion rings. Also in the top three are Avery with her "Sportsman's Paradise Burger and Jazzy Coleslaw," which earns her +2 for excellent naming in addition to being a pretty good burger, apparently. Finally is Kya (still no Michelin stars) who has not gotten off the precociousness train and says, "I want to do fine dining but sometimes I like to do rustic," when explaining her Wagyu beef burger and apple fries to the judges. She wins for her dish, and gets +5 for that sentence.

Kya's victory earns her the chance to sit out of the elimination challenge and enjoy a Tosi-prepared treat in the mezzanine with a friend. She chooses Vivian thanks to girl power, or the fact that they both wear bows in their hair. Either one. The challenge for the remaining 22 chefs is to create a dish highlighting a specific, secret ingredient.

The kids are all curious about what the secret ingredient might be. Nine-year-old Kyndall says, "I really hope it's candy in that box, because if I could eat candy every day, I would." Girl, wait until you're an adult and you CAN eat candy every day (because it's all you can afford at the bodega after you pay all of your bills, cab fares, and bar tabs). +6 for honesty/candy love.

A fake dynamite detonation reveals the ingredient is marshmallows, which are now raining from the rafters in the kitchen.

Anyway. Jesse is from New York, which automatically in my book gets him +3 (sorry, them's the breaks). He dreams of opening up a rock ‘n roll restaurant in the city, which gets another +3. Then he explains that he's making churros as his dish, so +7 because churros are the best. The judges love it.

Backwards hat-wearing Addison from Chicago might give Tosi a run for her money as the best cupcake baker in the country, according to Gordon. The judges love the nine-year-old's marshmallow chocolate cupcake with cereal and ganache, though I'm a way bigger fan of her business idea for Batter Up Bakery, which would combine her two great loves: baking and softball. +8 for a solid plan.

Poor, poor Kade from Louisiana. He's making a banana split with a sweet potato biscuit to get both savory and sweet on the plate. So smart! Unfortunately, when he toasts his marshmallows with the blowtorch, they catch fire and start to burn. -5 for reckless endangerment, but then +10 for staying calm and just staring at the flaming plate while saying, "ummmmmm."

Another sob story (literally) is Alexander and his Japanese bandana. I'll give him +2 for being himself and for letting Gordon try on his bandana, which was pretty easy thanks to that dumb new haircut. Unfortunately, he spent more time on karate than he did on preparing his marshmallow cherry pie and was so upset with the plating that he started crying in front of the judges.

Sam is a serious contender this season, and not just because he has the requisite badass hair to be a popular chef one day (normally this involves a big beard, too, but he's still, like, a decade away from real facial hair). +3 for his great mohawk and +3 for his killer marshmallow raspberry filled chocolate whoopie pies that the judges absolutely love.

I also want to give Mia points even though we barely got to meet her in the premiere. +1 for making a great, simple dish of marshmallow fluff butter on a biscuit that the judges loved and +1 for her center-parted long hair that would make Ali MacGraw jealous.

At the end of the competition, the judges call Jesse, Zac, and Sam out as the top three dishes of the evening. Sadly, Kade, and Alexander are sent home with the always encouraging note from Gordon and a massive group hug from everyone else. If MasterChef Junior teaches us anything, it's that we all start off as sincere, supportive people and it's life that turns us into selfish, competitive nightmares. And also that you can make butter with marshmallow fluff.

THE DEFINITIVE AND VERY SERIOUS MASTERCHEF JUNIOR POWER RANKING*

1. Kya, 119 points

2. Avery, 23 points

3. Adam, 16 points

4. Jesse, 16 points

5. (Tie) Addison and Sam, 9 points

7. (Tie) Vivian and Zac, 8 points

9. Kyndall, 7 points

10. Mia, 3 points

11. (Tie) Amaya, Annabelle, Chad, Corey, Derek, Ian, Jaeclyn, JJ, Kaitlyn, Kamilly, Nate, Tae-ho, 1 point

23. Kade, -45 points

24. Alexander, -45 points


*These points do not reflect talent, likelihood to win, years experience, cuteness, or anything aside from arbitrary numbers I yelled at my television while trying to clean up the wine I spilled on my mattress.

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