So much has happened in the last seven weeks. The majority makeup of congress shifted from liberal to conservative. A record amount of snow blanketed Boston and the rest of New England. The phrase "Academy Award Winner, Common," went from being a silly joke to something real and accurate. And, most importantly, the third season of MasterChef Junior has gone from 19 impressive young cooks down to the final two.
The epic, almost-a-man to almost-a-man battle is between 12 year old Nathan from San Diego against 11 year old Andrew from New Jersey. On the surface these two look like they might be cut from the same cloth, but they are two wildly different chefs. This is an east coast/west coast battle. They are basically the white, tween, at-home chef versions of Tupac and Biggie.
Nathan coasted through the beginning of the competition. He was never in the bottom, but he didn't have a loud kitchen presence, so he and his headbands became kind of a quiet killer. When he started winning challenge after challenge with elevated, mature dishes, the other kids started to take note and get scared. Once he served flawless banana macarons that Gordon Ramsay himself wanted to serve in his restaurant, we all knew deep down that he would end up in the finale.
Nathan's adversary in the last challenge is Andrew. The rough, tough, and gruff kid from New Jersey was also up to snuff when it comes to rustic yet refined Italian cooking. He made a name for himself with his yelling in the kitchen, which was mostly directed at inanimate objects like a standing mixer or a raspberry mousse. Despite his boorish nature during challenges, he also whipped up some of the more successful dishes on the show. More impressive than that, though, is how he kindly helped Jenna set her hollandaise sauce when she was on the verge of a mid-challenge meltdown.
For these two young chefs, this final challenge is everything. It's actually a lot like the SATs though. They had weeks of practice and also years of experience leading up to this, and it's all over in one day. And then, years later, everyone will forget about it.
Both of the competitors parents are cheering them on from the balcony. A few shots of the crowd show us that Nathan's father also wears his long locks pushed out of his eyes with a headband, and now all is right in the world.
Andrew looks like the perfect combination of both of his parents, who seem to be cheering as much for him as they are for the state of New Jersey. All of the family members are predictably adorable and supportive.
Gordon, Graham Elliot, and Joe Bastianich greet the two boys to give them their final challenge. It's a simple one: they must each create a full three course meal including an appetizer, entree, and dessert. During every challenge I find myself imagining what I would do if I were competing. This one would be easy: cereal, cereal, cereal. But not all the same kind, duh. Maybe Kix, Go Lean Crunch, and rounding it out with Cinnamon Toast Crunch in a luxurious 2% milk instead of skim. I know, real envelope-pushing.
The two clearly have their menus already planned as they enter the pantry to grab their ingredients. It makes sense to have your dream meal planned out in your head during the whole competition. It's the same as a girl having her dream wedding in her head when she goes on her first Tinder date. You're just thinking, "If I can survive all of the nightmarish surprises and curveballs and not cry too much, I'll get my chance to make this happen."
Nathan and Andrew enter their kitchen, where they aren't cooking so much head-to-head as they are back-to-back. The circular space feels more like a cage match than a cooking competition. Two boys enter, and, well, two boys also leave, but one of them will probably be crying.
As they start on their dishes, Andrew's mother claims that "Andrew is going to put New Jersey on the map!" Her enthusiasm is obviously sweet, but New Jersey is very much on the map and for a lot more relevant things than an 11 year old making homemade ricotta. He's sticking to his roots and creating a rustic Italian meal including beef cheek ravioli and a sweet rice pudding. Nathan, on the other hand, is part Mexican and enjoys that cuisine, but is going French for his meal with a fennel gratin, rack of lamb, and a tart for dessert.
Graham and Joe ask Andrew about his dessert, which is a sweet rice pudding with cinnamon and figs. He's using arborio rice (which showed up earlier in the season during an ingredient identification challenge), which is an odd grain choice. His plan is to make more or less a sweet risotto. I love risotto. Making it is how I get my upper body workout in thanks to all of the stirring. My lower body workout is the squats I do every day so I can pick up the Hershey's Kiss wrappers on my kitchen floor.
As Nathan is trying to determine whether his rack of lamb is fully cooked or not, Andrew is working on his entree with the beef cheeks for his ravioli. They should be in the pressure cooker for almost an hour, according to Gordon, but after nowhere near that time Andrew takes them out and starts preparing the filling with them. The judges all know they will be noticeably undercooked.
Time's up and both contestants managed to plate their three courses. This is where the competition apparently shifts from being chef-focused to being waiter-focused. Gordon instructs Andrew and Nathan to bring their three dishes down to the front of the kitchen. Once they are set out there, he invites them to bring their appetizers into the MasterChef restaurant for critique. The show couldn't pay a PA or two to move these plates around? Hell, they spent like thousands of dollars on raspberries just to be thrown away last week.
Nathan is first in the judging. His appetizer is a roasted fennel and gruyere gratin with French ham along with a fennel and grapefruit salad. Joe tastes the gratin first and says, "It's very crunchy, is that what you were looking for?" Nathan says yes, even though with a gratin, the answer is obviously no. That's never a question you want a judge to ask you. He and the other two judges all comment that the gratin just needed more time to cook so that the cream, fennel, cheese, and ham could melt together a bit more. Nathan starts to look a little sadzies at these comments but tucks his hair behind his ears and continues to listen to the critique. The fennel salad that accompanies his gratin though, is perfect. They all love the crunch and the freshness of the flavors.
For his appetizer, Andrew did a handmade herbed ricotta with roasted beets, apricot jelly, and toasted pumpernickel bread. He impressed the judges by making the cheese from scratch, and for finding such a sophisticated balance of sweetness in each of the items on the plate.
Nathan's entree is an herb crusted lamb chop with morels and fava beans and a white asparagus puree. It's plated as if it's from a Michelin starred restaurant. If you told me a 12 year old made that I would be like, "Made what? Like helped cut up the asparagus?" It's truly shocking to see it. Graham thinks it's the best dish Nathan has made in the entire competition, and is truly impressed with his restraint to just do the lamb and the beans and not add a reduction or sauce to it.
Next is Andrew's entree, which is braised beef cheek ravioli with pan gravy and shaved parmesan. It's a beautiful, restaurant quality looking Italian dish. The raviolis are perfectly formed, the ratio of pasta to filling is flawless, the pasta itself is very tasty, and the sauce is well seasoned. The real problem with this dish is that the meat is undercooked. The judges knew before they even cut into a single piece of pasta that this was the case. Though the beef isn't right, they all agree that the dish was cooked with a lot of heart and passion.
Even though there's no real scoring in this competition, the boys are kind of tied at this point. Each had a really successful dish, and one that had an execution issue. Dessert might serve as somewhat of a tie-breaker. But before that can happen, Andrew and Nathan must once again participate in the waiter portion of this challenge and walk out to get their last course.
Nathan's dessert is an earl grey and meyer lemon tart with candied orange peel, mashed pretzel, and a blood orange coulis. Like his raspberry tart in the previous challenge, the pastry crust is crisp and perfect. The combination of flavors is subtle and balanced. "It shouldn't work, but it bloody does." That quote is clearly from Gordon, telling us both that Nathan made a beautiful dessert out of dissimilar ingredients and "I AM BRITISH, REMEMBER?"
For the last dish of the night, Andrew serves sweetened arborio rice pudding with figs and verjus. Graham absolutely loves it to the point where he doesn't actually want to share it with the rest of the judges. Gordon is so blown away by this elevated rice pudding that he tells Andrew he's going to go back to London and cook it. None of them can get enough of it.
At the end of the three course meal it's hard to say who will win. Andrew had a better appetizer, Nathan had a better entree, and they both knocked it out of the park with dessert.
Gordon asks Andrew and Nathan to switch places with the judges and stand on the stage at the front of the kitchen where they belong. It's here, in this place, where they pied the judges in the faces, saw how weird Joe would be in his older years, and received challenge after challenge, that one of them will finally be named the winner.
With a dramatic pause in his sentence long enough to make me think he actually forgot which name he's supposed to say, Gordon announces that Nathan is the winner of season three of MasterChef Junior.
As the confetti falls and the friends and family cheer from the balcony, Nathan smiles and screams at the reality that he will now be able to pay for culinary school. He gets the crystal trophy and the $100,000. A lot can change in the six years before he would have to enroll, though. It took me just six weeks to go from pre-med to an English major, but here's hoping Nathan retains his love of cooking long enough to make it his career.
During all of the fanfare around Nathan's win, Andrew is nothing but a good sport. He hugs his competitor, smiles, and compliments him on the win. This was the "helping Jenna finish her sauce" Andrew, not the "screaming at Jenna in a restaurant kitchen when she burned herself" Andrew.
So there it is. The quiet, long-haired, French cuisine-loving Nathan is the MasterChef Junior winner. It was a great season, though I personally am looking forward to a few months of watching reality television without asking myself, "Did I wait too long to decide if I want to have kids?"
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