The Untold Truth Of MasterChef Junior

The original MasterChef series began airing its first season in the U.K. in 1990, taking the world of cooking shows by storm. The American version debuted in 2010, and U.S. reality competition cooking shows haven't been the same since. But once its younger sibling, MasterChef Junior, was introduced in the U.S. in 2013, a new show was in the spotlight. That's right, kids have taken over the MasterChef kitchen.

MasterChef Junior was taken on by Fox and has filmed eight seasons as of 2020, and viewers can't seem to get enough. The show starts off with 24 boys and girls, all between the ages of 8 and 13, vying to show off their culinary prowess. From the very beginning, the show was a hit as these impressive little chefs show viewers at home that just because they're little or they're young, doesn't mean they can't whip up a mean dinner or an elaborate dessert

But what's happening with MasterChef Junior behind the scenes? What are these kids doing about schooling while they're on the show, and what exactly is the prize they win at the end of it all? And are they really that good in the kitchen? We decided to take a deeper look. This is the untold truth of MasterChef Junior.

The kids on MasterChef Junior still go to school while filming

As any teenage television star could probably tell you, being cast on a screen (big or small) doesn't allow you to get out of school. And the MasterChef Junior crew has had a plan in place to continue schooling for their contestants since the beginning.

When asked about the first season, executive producer Robin Ashbrook told HuffPost that the inaugural season took almost three weeks to film. So, you can imagine no school district would allow a child to be out of school for that long. According to Ashbrook, there are classrooms right next to the kitchen so mandatory class requirements can be fulfilled, in between the four hours of filming each day. 

And those schooling requirements have stayed in place as the show recruits new contestants, although the timing requirements have changed significantly. According to the casting requirements, the contestants selected must be available for filming for close to nine weeks, missing a whole lot more school in their hometown. However, the requirements do note that a teacher will be on set during filming to fulfill school requirements during that time. 

At least if the whole cooking thing doesn't work out, they still have reading, writing, and arithmetic! 

Parents of MasterChef Junior contestants are on set too

As if the filming requirements for the kids weren't complicated enough, producers throw parents into the mix as well. But, if you really think about it, putting a child on a plane alone to film a show for hours on end is probably not the best idea. 

According to the MasterChef Junior casting requirements, if selected, the child competing and one parent will need to be available during the entire timeline of filming. So, not only is the child making a huge time commitment, as well as working around schooling, the parents are leaving work for weeks on end to support their child on the show.

When asked about parental inclusion on the show's first season, executive producer Robin Ashbrook told HuffPost there was a chaperone on set at all times. "They were at all times able to see what was going on in the kitchen," said Ashbrook. "All of the parents actually sat together and watched what happened. They really bonded. It certainly wasn't a Dance Moms atmosphere."

The prize on MasterChef Junior is ridiculous

When it comes to cooking shows, the prize purses can certainly vary. On one hand, you have The Great British Baking Show only dishing up a trophy and a cake stand, while MasterChef hands out a whopping $250,000. But again, MasterChef is made up of well-trained adults. Close to the same prize amount though, MasterChef Junior hands out a trophy and an astonishing $100,000 to the contestant between the ages of 8 and 13 who wins. But what's a kid to do with $100,000 before they even hit their teenage years?

As it turns out, the winner is awarded a trophy and a check, but that money is inaccessible until the child turns 18. Season seven winner, 13-year-old Che Spiotta told Parade he already was thinking of what to do with his money when he could finally access it. "I will definitely save some of it," he said. "I will get a nice gift for my mom because she helped me so much through the whole thing. She was out in L.A. with me and she organized everything, so I will get her a nice gift."

Gordon Ramsay is actually really nice to the kids on MasterChef Junior

Out of any of the food television show stars, Gordon Ramsay has, perhaps, the most interesting personality to try to understand. After years of watching MasterChef, with Ramsay's very straightforward and blatant critiques, or his yelling at chefs on Hell's Kitchen, the idea of him hosting a version of a cooking show entirely devoted to kids was pretty difficult to grasp for many viewers.

But Ramsay has certainly shocked viewers over the past seasons, showing a caring side to him that many hadn't seen before. He's given the kids plenty of constructive feedback throughout the course of the show, even hugging some of the contestants when they've had a particularly rough day

Season six contestant Evan Estrada confirmed Ramsay's soft side when filming MasterChef Junior when he told the Chicago Tribune"He's absolutely amazing. He is not mean at all. He is super fun. He loves to joke."

The kids on MasterChef Junior cut themselves far less frequently than adults on MasterChef

As with any cooking show, you really have to think about how it's possible to work with so many sharp objects under such furious time constraints. Isn't that just a recipe for disaster? Well, not on this show. On MasterChef Junior, things go shockingly smooth.

In fact, Sandee Birdsong, culinary producer for the show told Salon Magazine that the kids actually cut themselves far less than the adults do on MasterChef.

But, just in case their challenge goes awry and they do injure themselves, the show has plenty of medics on standby. According to executive producer Robin Ashbrook of the first season, there's a medic at the end of every single row of stations on standby... just in case. 

"He has his or her eyes on one kid at all times," Ashbrook told HuffPost. "There's no such thing as rubber knives and pretend boiling water on this show." Better to be safe than sorry, especially when it comes to kids, right?

There have been some accusations of bias on MasterChef Junior

As it goes with any reality cooking show, there has to be one clear winner and the rest of the contestants will be eliminated along the way. And, in theory, those contestants should be judged based on their culinary skills or the specific requirements of each challenge. But some MasterChef Junior viewers haven't been so convinced.

Caroline Framke published her concerns in The Atlantic, noting a confusing scene from the show's second season. According to Framke, the end of the season showed a pop-up restaurant challenge in which Oona, a 9-year-old girl and Sean, a 12-year-old Asian-American boy, were competing on a team with their leader, Samuel, a 12-year-old white boy. After Samuel had made huge missteps during the competition and failed to serve as a good team leader, he was still the one to stay with judge Graham Elliot at the time stating "you were the one that looked the most comfortable in that environment." 

Framke argued that the show was "a microcosm of the same old exhausting gender and race biases ingrained in daily life" causing other viewers to ponder how fair the judges really are each season. 

The kids appearing on MasterChef Junior may be prepped ahead of time

If you've watched the show, time and time again you've seen the kids helping each other out in the kitchen. If they can't carry their own mixer, they'll do it together. It's not exactly in a child's nature to be terribly competitive, and that can be seen on this show. But what if they were prepped ahead of time, so they were, indeed, quite confident of their competition skills far before filming begins?

After the second season began to air in Australia in 2011, the Herald Sun reported that the "reality" of the show may not be all that real. The production company behind the show, Shine, told the Herald Sun that the contestants did receive some information about challenges ahead of time, but not the recipes. 

Parents of a contestant anonymously told the Herald Sun that the young chefs know what they will be asked to cook ahead of time, allowing them to work on the dishes at home. "The kids act all surprised but they have had the recipes for weeks," the parent said. 

Whether they're receiving tips ahead of time or full recipes, it does make you wonder. After all, the kids certainly don't seem to crack under pressure too easily on the show.

Gordon Ramsay doesn't mind when the kids cry on MasterChef Junior

When it comes to reality cooking shows, things get heated. Contestants have meltdowns when making the simplest of mistakes during a challenge, or they cry when they're sent home. And while you see a bit of this on cooking shows with adults, you definitely see it on a show focused on 8 to 13-year olds.

But crying may actually be encouraged on MasterChef Junior, as the judges let the kids know it's okay not to hold it back. Gordon Ramsay, one of the judges for the show told Deadline that it's healthy for the kids to cry when they receive a critique in the kitchen. 

"Bottling up emotions can lead to dangerous things," said Ramsay. "I think crying is healthy." Former judge Christina Tosi told Deadline that it was her goal not to make the kids cry, but in reality, it's inevitable. After all, when you want something bad enough, it's got to make you a little emotional, right?

The MasterChef Junior audition process has quite a few steps

Although auditioning for a reality cooking show can sometimes seem just as simple as cooking an elaborate dish and catching the process on camera for submission, the MasterChef Junior requirements are a bit more complicated. Castings are set up as pre-registered open calls, and MasterChef Junior's casting requirements note that not everybody that shows up will be given an opportunity to audition. But with the large numbers of kids they see at open calls, one can imagine things might get a little busy.

According to Kelli Hendon, whose daughter Kate ended up on the show, there were close to 300 kids at the casting she and her daughter went to in Atlanta.

Kate and her mom told The Randolph Leader that part of the process was to cook an egg and to cut food with a knife. After making it past that first try out, she was called back to Atlanta to make a dish for the producers and it was filmed to see how well she did in front of the camera. The next step included interviews, psychological evaluations, background checks, and even video tours of her family home, but she didn't know if she had made it just yet. Finally, Kate was called to California for a final audition of 48 kids, and she was one of the 24 selected to be on the show. Talk about a long, complicated process for young kids to go through.

The judges on MasterChef Junior are parents too

It's hard to imagine putting three adults in a room with 24 kids, and allowing them to critique their mighty masterpieces along the way. After all, this is a spin-off of MasterChef, and the competitions and critiques on that show are tough. But perhaps the selection in judges was all part of the plan, as all of the judges on the show are, in fact, parents too, and they probably understand a thing or two about kids.

Gordon Ramsay, known for his harsh critiques on the adult-version of MasterChef has five children of his own, including a newborn as of April 2019, and the show's newest judge who came on in Season 8, Daphne Oz, has four kids of her own. Aaron Sanchez told Parade in a 2019 interview that since he and Gordon Ramsay are parents, they might be better equipped to work with the kids on the show.

"Maybe because Gordon and I are parents and we understand the patience level it takes with kids, how they retain information and how long it takes to improve, so I never get frustrated," he explained.

MasterChef Junior initially only had two castings

First thing's first, when you're going to launch a cooking competition show on television — it needs to have contestants. But when MasterChef Junior producers began their search for the inaugural season, they didn't expand their reach terribly far.

In a 2013 interview with HuffPost, MasterChef Junior's executive producer Robin Ashbrook said that the show was picked up by Fox a little late in the game, so there may not have been as much time for casting as they would have liked. "We actually physically sat and did casting sessions in two cities, New York and Los Angeles," he said. "My intention and hope is that for any future seasons, we'll cast much wider."

As of 2019, the castings had been increased to include abigger demographic, but not by much. The 2019 castings were scheduled in Houston, New York, Atlanta, and Los Angeles. With such a successful show by now, it does make you wonder why a wider net is not being cast to find contestants.

The winner of the first season of MasterChef Junior is still a success in the kitchen

MasterChef Junior turned the world of cooking shows on its head when it debuted in 2013, crowning children under the age of 14 with the title of a lifetime (not to mention a pretty hefty monetary prize). And with that title, winners of the show have gone on to continue showing off their culinary skills in a multitude of ways.

The inaugural winner crowned in the first season, Alexander Weiss, has proven that a win in the MasterChef Junior kitchen can lead to years of culinary success. Weiss, who was 13 when he won the competition, certainly didn't go back to a typical teenage life after collecting his trophy. 

TheRecipe reported in 2018 that Weiss had been devoting his time to working in a number of restaurant kitchens after the show, and according to Weiss' Facebook page, he's now offering in-home dining experiences for personal clients. The first season winner has also gone on to attend The Culinary Institute of America, something he noted on his Instagram that he's been dreaming of since the age of 13.

Past MasterChef Junior contestants are cooking on the road

Even if only one of the child contestants can take home the ultimate grand prize trophy and the $100,000, it doesn't mean the whole experience was a total loss. The amount of exposure the kids get by being on this show, demonstrating their culinary aptitude, continues to open doors for these kids as they get older.

The MasterChef Junior name has continued to make that happen for several of the previous contestants already, putting their live show on the road. MasterChef Junior Live! launched in September 2019 bringing previous winners, as well as season fan favorites to live stages, competing in front of crowds across the U.S. The previous contestants get to continue competing head to head in cooking demonstrations in front of their audiences. The 2020 tour is headed to at least 40 tour stops, giving previous contestants exposure to traveling the U.S. and the ability to continue connecting with their fans. 

One challenge winner got to interview Michelle Obama over dinner

MasterChef Junior's season 5, episode 6 saw the mystery box challenge take on a presidential turn. While one of America's favorite television moms (Julie Bowen of Modern Family fame) presented the elimination challenge, former First Lady Michelle Obama presented the top 14 contestants with their mystery box, which was inspired by fresh produce from the White House garden. This challenge afforded the winner (Justise from Georgia) immunity from elimination, and also the chance to attend the Kids' State Dinner to interview the former First Lady.

The fifth installment of the Kids' State Dinner was hosted at the White House and challenged kids between the ages of 8 and 12 to collaborate with a parent or guardian, and create a recipe featuring the USDA's recommended food groups. In line with these guidelines, Justise prepared a pan-seared shrimp dish, with sautéed vegetables and quinoa. When she had the chance to interview Obama, the 11-year-old wanted to know what advice the former First Lady had for young, aspiring chefs. Obama answered: "There is nothing more important that you can do for yourself than to get an education. Doing your best not just in the kitchen, but you've got to be your best in the classroom. I want you all to keep pushing and preparing yourself for college and doing well" (via People).

Production assistants sneak essentials to the kids during filming

If you're one of those MasterChef Junior skeptics who, while mesmerized by kids cooking and baking dishes you can barely pronounce as an adult, still wonder if it's all a gimmick, you're not alone. You might be asking yourself if the kids receive hands-on help along the way, or if after they've all frantically plated their dishes and lifted their hands into the air, the timers really go off. You might also wonder whether they actually handle the sharp knives and scorching oven pans all by themselves.

According to Entertainment Weekly, the kids do indeed do all the cooking themselves, and they've been trained to use all the kitchen equipment as a safety precaution. However, production assistants are allowed to sneak the contestants some essentials during filming. This might be in the form of a pot of hot water or a piece of equipment they don't have at their cooking station. Which is quite frankly, barely enough to count as help when they're otherwise preoccupied with showing off some complex technique that professional chefs take years to perfect.

MasterChef Junior is mindful about helping the kids to deal with stress

When Junior MasterChef — the Australian spin-off of the popular culinary competition — first aired in 2010, it was met with some trepidation. According to The Sydney Morning Herald, a child psychology expert and neuropsychological therapist both expressed concerns about how the impact of the show's high pressure situations might effect the children's long-term psychological and emotional wellbeing. That said, other experts argued that it's important for children to grapple with the realities of failure and competition, and more importantly, to learn how to deal with them.

As reported by Entertainment Weekly after a behind-the-scenes set visit, Gordon Ramsay echoed the latter's sentiments. When two girls, Amaya and Addison were left feeling particularly raw after a tag team challenge in which they had to create a platter inspired by an array of international cuisines, the judges emphasized the importance of failing — whether real or perceived — and learning the value of resilience and reconciliation in light of that failure. These are lessons that even the most "well-adjusted" adults find themselves having to learn over and over again.

MasterChef Junior stylists help the kids create their own signature looks

From floral headbands and bows, printed fedoras and sporty caps, to bow ties, Hawaiian shirts, and buttoned-up gentlemen outfits, many kids have appeared on MasterChef Junior donning a signature look. While the show's stylists might provide a wardrobe for the kids, they're generally quite enthusiastic about the kids arriving with their own signature accessories and outfits. If anything, they're more likely to simply help them to mix and match them into a range of outfits, without altering the signature itself (via Racked).

Dara Yu, who reached the season 1 finale, is now famously known as the girl with the red bow, for her adorable and freakishly big hair bow. And Cory Nieves has been dressed by J.Crew for public appearances, including the Emmy Awards, after the brand noticed his signature buttoned-up style. As the Racked article questioned, it's not clear whether or not the signature outfits grant the kids some kind of competitive edge. But what we do know for sure, is that it makes them even more endearing.

14-year-old MasterChef Junior contestant, Ben Watkins passed away in 2020

In November 2020, former MasterChef Junior contestant, Ben Watkins, died from an extremely rare form of cancer. The 14-year-old's death came three years after the tragic loss of his parents. Ben, who placed 18th on his season, had secured himself a white apron by preparing a peach cobbler dessert for the judges. After news of his death, Gordon Ramsay tweeted: "We lost a Master of the @MasterChefJrFOX kitchen today. Ben you were an incredibly talented home cook and even stronger young man. Your young life had so many tough turns but you always persevered. Sending all the love to Ben Watkins' family with this terrible loss Gx" (via BBC News)

The June 2021 premiere of MasterChef: Legends ended with a tribute to Ben featuring the young chef's fellow contestants and Gordon Ramsay. In a recent statement on Ben's GoFundMe page, the Watkins family said, "Thanks to all of you, we were able to create a memorial scholarship fund at TCNJ in Ben's honor, and Ben's memory and passion for helping people will live on. Students who would have undoubtedly been his friends will be able to receive a scholarship that will allow them to excel in the field of music, which he loved."

Most of the MasterChef Junior winners are still independently involved in food and cooking

It's always wholesome to see individuals on reality TV shows go on to succeed in the field of the shows they appeared on. MasterChef Junior is particularly interesting, though because after the show, the winners must go back to school and the general mundanity of life until they turn 18. 

That said, it seems like most of the MasterChef Junior winners have remained on the culinary track. Alexander Weiss went to study at the Culinary Institute of America and currently offers Dining with Alexander experiences in New York City. Now a student at Pepperdine University, Logan Guleff launched an NFT dining experience in 2021. In the same year, Nathan Odom launched Restaurant Neo — a catering and private dining company. And as of 2022, high schoolers Addison Osta Smith, Jasmine Stewart, Beni Cwiakala, and Che Spiotta are working on a cookbook, launched an LLC focused on empowering girls, are involved in restaurant relief, and have appeared in cooking shows and demos, respectively (via Entertainment Weekly).