This week's MasterChef Junior was a lot like canceling plans: it required both creativity and also technical skill. The first challenge was all about taking something very normal and finding an exciting way to present it, and the second challenge was all about precision. When you want to get out of dinner plans you have to come up with an excuse that's interesting enough to be believable, but also you have to sell it. Success in this episode was basically the equivalent of a phone call to your friend saying that you'd love to meet for tapas, but the heater in your apartment isn't working right and you have to stay home and wait for your super to come check it out.
Gordon Ramsay welcomes the eight remaining chefs and introduces the key to their mystery box challenge. The lights in the studio start changing colors and a column of smoke pours down from the ceiling. It's a scene that reminds me of the kind of nightclubs I've been avoiding ever since I discovered there were men who use product in their hair and then put on a fedora (honestly, it's both unattractive and downright idiotic).
All of the tiny chefs keep guessing what they will be cooking. Some giant, predatory bird? An alien? A chandelier made of neon-dyed, crystallized sugar (this is not yet a real thing but I'm interested in commissioning one for my studio apartment)? The smoke clears to reveal...a banana.
For this challenge, the contestants must make a restaurant quality dish that highlights the lowly banana. If you aren't familiar, bananas are the brown thing you pull out of your purse three hours after putting an unblemished one in there for later. They bruise more easily than an NFL player's ego.
I assume that most kids like bananas. I'm a big fan, always have been. They are a fruit that has a kind of bad rap in the health food community though. Someone once told me that in terms of calories and sugar "eating a banana is like eating a piece of cake," so now I slice up cake in my cereal for breakfast.
Surprisingly, a lot of the pint-sized chefs concoct savory dishes for this clearly dessert ingredient. Kayla is working on a banana chicken mole, and Andrew and Jenna went right for the shrimp in the pantry.
Nathan, in a headband fit for a bronzed, European professional soccer (futbol?) player, takes the risk of making macarons, as white girls in their twenties across the MasterChef viewing universe squeal, "Omg SO CUTE!" They are technically difficult to make right and could easily be inedible, so this is a real gamble on his part.
Throughout this mystery box challenge the judges have been walking around and tasting dishes, and when time's up they take a final survey of the room before picking the top three. I have to say, I appreciate the producers' decision to only highlight the best dishes in these preliminary challenges and not the worst. If there isn't an elimination at stake, there's no real point in telling these kids whether or not they did a good job. For all each of them knows, they just missed the cutoff.
The first contestant the judges want to see is Jenna. She prepared coconut shrimp with banana coconut milk puree and banana, mango, and pineapple salad. Unlike the tempura shrimp of the sushi challenge, her shrimp is beautifully coated and perfectly cooked. Ramsay also notes that the flavors all work together, and that banana and shrimp both have a sweetness to them that complement each other. After rave reviews from Gordon and Graham Elliot, Joe Bastianich tastes it and half-heartedly says, "I'd pay $20 for it," which is about as effusive as he'll get during a judging.
Next up is Nathan. He made French ma-ca-rons (with correct pronunciation) with banana caramel filling. The judges are all floored by how technically perfect they are, down to the sound they make when you tap a fork against them. Gordon loves them so much, he tells Nathan he'd serve them at his three Michelin star establishment.
Last of the three is Ryan Kate and her Caribbean spiced pork with sweet potato hash and spicy banana sauce. The judges love the flavors and are impressed with her flawless cook on the pork.
All three presented excellent dishes from a fairly difficult ingredient to make exciting, though the win obviously goes to Nathan.
For the next challenge, Gordon announces that they will be joined by another accomplished, young home cook. He builds her up to the point where all of the contestants - especially the girls - are nervous about who is coming in. Lo and behold, it's Gordon's 12 year old daughter, Matilda Ramsay.
Matilda, or Tilly as we learn she's called by Gordon and the hashtag on screen, introduces this challenge. She explains that the chefs must recreate her and her family's favorite dish that Gordon makes at home: salmon en croute with hollandaise, fingerling potatoes and minted peas.
Since Nathan won the mystery box challenge, he enjoys the advantage of not having to cook in this one. Instead, he gets to sit in the mezzanine above the stressful kitchen while enjoying the same meal his competition must scramble to make. The difference is that his plate was prepared by Gordon Ramsay himself. I hope they give him a phone to hold onto while he's sitting up there. I'm not even sure it's physically possible, even for a child, to eat alone without being on your phone.
While Gordon and Tilly argue over the continental pronunciation of "basil," the contestants taste the dish and, I assume, are given a recipe or some instructions about how to prepare it. There just HAS to be some kind of assistance that we don't see. I have a hard time believing that a couple of forkfuls of puff pastry and a rough sketch of what it looks like is enough information for an 11 year old to recreate a complicated, multi-part dish.
During prep, Ayla is very confident, and I think rightfully so. She doesn't get nearly enough screen time on this show even though she's incredibly talented and her colorful bracelet game is on point.
Gordon and Tilly visit Andrew's station to see how he's doing early in the challenge. Luckily for him, this happens before his white apron becomes more or less a Jackson Pollock painting. He clearly has a crush on Ramsay's flaxen-haired offspring, and acts all tough and cool in front of her in the face of the challenge. "I'm not afraid of salmon en croute," he says confidently. After Gordon tries and fails to spark some romance between them, Tilly tells her dad that she doesn't want to marry a chef. Good call, girl. While you're making that list, here are some other professions you shouldn't marry based on some field research by yours truly: investment banker, litigation attorney, actor, actor-waiter, waiter, voice of the Geico gecko.
Of all of the components of the dish, the hardest to master is the Hollandaise. Jenna starts struggling with hers and the sauce ends up breaking. In a panic she starts furiously whisking and yelling, "I don't know what to do!" Just when it seems like all is lost, Andrew heroically comes over to help her. He calms her down and walks her through how to get the mixture back on track by adding water and removing it from the heat. With his coaching, she manages to get the consistency perfect and plate her dish just under the buzzer. THEY ARE SOULMATES.
This feels like the beginning of a romantic comedy where there's a flashback to a boy doing something sweet for a girl, but then we flash forward to current-day to see her as a man-eating career woman in the big city who has long forgotten her kind roots and is only reminded of them when she drops a whole stack of important files on the ground in front of her awkward childhood friend who grew up to be a handsome guy. Kate Hudson, you busy? Want to get in on this or what?
Jenna and Andrew both prepared excellent versions of Gordon's dish, from the perfectly cooked salmon to the crispy potatoes to the fluffy Hollandaise sauces. During his rave review from Gordon you can tell Andrew is just dying to run laps around the room, fists pumping in the air and screaming, "I'm number one!" He keeps his cool during the judging though, and only a few excited hand gestures escape.
Kayla struggled with the challenge, particularly with the proportion of salmon to pastry dough. She basically serves a loaf of bread with a few bites of fish and mustard inside.
Ryan Kate also ran into problems with the cook on her fish. During the challenge, Graham pointed out that some of her puff pastry was still pretty raw, so she popped it back in the oven. This lead to her overcooking the salmon. Unfortunately, she made a technical flaw early on and put the creased side of the pastry up instead of down in the oven, which also lead to the fish being overcooked.
Riley is clearly a chef, but perhaps at 8 years old, isn't quite a master chef yet. His salmon is cooked nicely on the inside, but the pastry is practically raw, the potatoes aren't crispy enough, and his hollandaise sauce looks like scrambled eggs.
Last up is Jimmy, who surprisingly enough has made this dish before and went into the challenge confident he could nail it. And he did.
The judges need to decide which two chefs are going home. As the three of them head off to deliberate, Gordon tells the children, "Have a chat amongst yourselves," which is I guess the British version of Coffee Talk with Linda Richman's, "Tawlk amongst yourselves." Shame he didn't even give them a topic.
Back and with their decision, the judges announce that the two best salmon en croutes of the day were Jimmy and Andrew. I really like both of these kids and are happy they were successful with this tough challenge. Deep down, though, I'm rooting for Andrew. He's so excited to be there and kind and supportive and mature, but not in a weird "calls his parents by their first names" kind of way. His helping Jenna with her hollandaise alone should put him in the finale.
The bottom three dishes of the evening are Kayla, Riley, and Ryan Kate. All three certainly struggled. Ultimately, Kayla stays and the other two are tearfully sent home. I really thought that Ryan Kate would be safe. She overcooked her salmon, but at least had a closer proportion of fish to pastry than Kayla did, not to mention her killer mystery box challenge pork dish.
Well, that does it. We've reached the point in the season where the adorable 8 year old is gone. Next week the kids take to a real restaurant kitchen, so we'll be replacing the tears of Riley and Ryan Kate's eliminations with screaming. And then also probably more tears.