The end of season episodes of MasterChef Junior have more of a "last day of camp" feel to them than the winding down of a furious competition. That's probably because while this show is, in fact, a contest to find the best home cook in America who isn't yet old enough to go to the movies alone, the kids all actually become friends.
And so, with many friends already gone, the final four tiny chefs head into their last challenge before the finale. Of Andrew, Jimmy, Nathan, and Jenna, only two will continue on to next week's finale. Jenna's passion for winning is strong, and she wants to win not just for herself and that sparkly, practice diamond of a trophy, but for all girls. And whether that's her competitive spirit or just innate attraction to things that look like engagement rings that all women are born with, it doesn't matter because she is in it to win it.
The four line up and Gordon Ramsay brings a covered tray to the front to introduce their challenge. He announces that they'll be making a high-end dessert, and then lifts the cover to reveal creme brulee. Jenna is instantly excited because for her birthday in New York they always go to a French restaurant so she can get creme brulee. While I get that this is an advantage in terms of familiarity, it doesn't necessarily mean she's any good at preparing it. I, personally, love wine. I've had it every day for the last decade. If someone asked me to make it on the spot, I would have no idea what to do.
Andrew is anxious about the challenge already because he doesn't like dessert. "My thoughts on dessert? I think they're tedious and annoying." Is he serious? Dessert is the best. There is absolutely nothing tedious about an excellently balanced carrot cake with cream cheese icing on your birthday when you inconspicuously remove four candles from the cake before it goes out so no one knows your real age. While Andrew doesn't appreciate dessert, he is excited to burn things.
This challenge seems a little skewed toward the boys, though. Even though Jenna likes creme brulee, there is no doubt that the other three have just had more practice setting things on fire. It's what boys do.
For the actual challenge, each chef has 20 cremes at their station that they must brulee in ten minutes. The contestant with the most perfectly bruleed dishes when time is up receives an advantage in the elimination challenge.
I feel like this is the production meeting that led up to this challenge airing:
"We should probably give the kids blowtorches."
"Eh, seems kind of dull."
"What if we also made them frantic because of a time constraint?"
"Now we're talking!"
So each kid picks up one or two blowtorches and they're off. Andrew decides to become Edward Blowtorch-Hands and use two at once for a period of time. He doesn't stick with it for long, though. Nathan seems to be struggling in the back row the most, nervous that Jenna will succeed because of her pastry skill, or Andrew because he's good at doing things quickly.
Nathan gets called down to the front first after time runs up. Though he bruleed 13 dishes, only one of them qualified with the right amount of crispy sugar. Next is Jenna, who completed 15 dishes, but only four to perfection. Jimmy comes to the front next. He impressively torched all 20 of the cremes in front of him, with eight that met the judges' rigid qualifications. Last is Andrew. He also completed 20, but in fact only had four that were up to par.
Jimmy wins the creme brulee challenge and gets a significant advantage in the coming competition. But before he does, the judges want to introduce what they'll be dealing with next. The chefs will make another dessert, but all will have to use one very specific ingredient. And as Joe Bastianich pauses for effect, hundreds of raspberries come falling from the ceiling and onto the four kids.
WHAT IS THE BUDGET OF THIS SHOW? I know they are in California and produce is cheaper than other places in the winter, but seriously? I wanted to buy raspberries last week but a shallow plastic container of them was $8.99. Given how many raspberries they literally threw away, they could have bought, not insured, burned down, and then rebuilt a Jamba Juice franchise.
There's a sponsored advertisement after this segment for American Girl dolls. Apparently there is a new American Girl, and she is a pastry chef, and there's a movie about her. When the American Girl phenomenon began I was just about the age to want expensive dolls from catalogs. But back then, it was mostly about the books, and the only thing I really held onto from that time is that Kirsten's whole family basically died of cholera. Anyway, the new movie with the new girl is going to have a whole MasterChef Junior competition scene. Three cheers for integrated children's marketing!
Back in the real MasterChef kitchen, the judges explain that they have four classic raspberry desserts in front of them. Because Jimmy torched the most cremes without burning the building down, he gets to pick which chef is responsible for which dessert. In the past the kids don't really know how to approach these strategy opportunities, but Jimmy has been in this position before and has thought it through.
Nathan gets the raspberry tart, because it's the most difficult and Nathan has a lot of pastry experience, but also is Jimmy's toughest competition going into the finale.
Andrew has to do the raspberry mousse, because it requires a delicate touch, something he lacks. Jenna's dish is the raspberry Napoleon, because she poses the least threat to Jimmy if she makes it to the final, and it's the simplest dish of the four (also they are friends). Jimmy himself chooses the raspberry trifle. It's a relatively simple dish, and as long as he doesn't make Rachel Green's mistake on Friends when reading a cookbook with sticky pages and wind up putting meat in it, he should be in good shape.
During prep, Gordon checks in with Nathan to see how he's handling the tart. When discussing why he wants to win, Nathan says that he and his family don't have much money, so winning would mean everything to him. It's so easy to assume that most of the kids in this competition just cook for fun with their stay-at-home mom while she runs around in Lululemon yoga pants and carts them to Whole Foods to pick out organic produce to try and prepare later. What doesn't necessarily jump to my mind first is that some of these kids may learn to cook out of necessity and to help their families. I have a new favorite dog in this fight, and it's Nathan.
Andrew's station is a complete disaster when Gordon comes by to see him. The raspberries have left magenta stains everywhere and there is mousse and cream all over every dish and surface you can see. Gordon tastes Andrew's mousse and winces at how overly sweet it is. Andrew needs to start over, but is cutting it very close on time.
Speaking of cutting close on time, with three minutes left Jenna is still fumbling around her station tasting things and continuing to cook. She hasn't even begun plating, and the assembly seems like a pretty big part of a Napoleon. It's layered and elegant, which is something hard to do in only 30 seconds.
The judges call Jimmy down first. Trifle is one of Gordon's favorite desserts, so the bar is unbelievably high for this dish. He tastes it, and says that it has a "rustic charm," which if this were a home you were considering buying you'd immediately leave, but because it's a dessert it isn't the worst thing to hear, necessarily. The cream is a little thick and the berries a bit too acidic, but overall it's a tasty dish and done well considering Jimmy has never had trifle before.
Next is Andrew and his raspberry mousse. After his disastrously sweet first attempt, Andrew started over with his mousse and served the second one. Because he was short on time, it didn't quite set all the way. The judges know this and explain that while it's a bit too wet, the flavors are spot on and the compote on the bottom is delicious.
Jenna and her raspberry Napoleon are next. She did the traditional flavors, and then in addition to the classic pastry cream she did a raspberry whipped cream. Those are both delicious, as are her pastries, but her presentation is an unmitigated disaster. Whereas the example is refined, precise, and carefully assembled into a work of art, Jenna's creation looks more like she was running with the ingredients and dropped them on the plate and they happened to take a similar form. She blames running out of time for the bad plating.
The last chef to serve the judges is Nathan with the difficult raspberry tart. It looks like it came out of the display case at a bakery where I would walk in, see the prices, and then pretend I got a phone call, walk out, and head to a bodega to buy a Snickers ice cream bar (little known fact: they have fewer calories than a regular Snickers). It's visually perfect, and the taste is even better. He mastered the flaky crust and the layers of cream and fruit. Graham Elliot says, "The tart goes to 11," which I assume is a quote from the great film This Is Spinal Tap, which came out roughly two decades before these kids were even born. Dated Rob Reiner reference or not, Nathan nailed the dessert.
With Nathan obviously going to the finale with his spot-on tart, it is really anyone's guess if the other spot will go to Jenna, Andrew, or Jimmy. They each had serious issues in this challenge and have all had very successful wins throughout the season. After a long deliberation, the judges announce that joining Nathan in the finale will be Andrew.
There are a lot of tears, as expected. Andrew cries from the relief of making it to the finale. Jenna and Jimmy cry from the disappointment of being so close and being sent home. Joe and the other judges (I assume) cry from the guilt of having to possibly crush some kids dreams. I cry from running out of cereal after a measly three bowls for dinner—oh, and also because it's an emotional moment on the show.
So there it is, the finale that will be a face-off between a messy screamer from New Jersey and the quiet, headbanded Californian. While extremely different in the kitchen, both have proven to be excellent cooks. Should be a real barn-burner.