The Untold Truth Of Chopped Junior

You get a box of four seemingly unrelated mystery ingredients, half an hour to turn them into a winning dish, and a panel of famous chefs to decide whether or not you win the $10,000 prize. And there's only one ice cream machine. If this sounds like your sweatiest stress dream, don't worry. There's a 12-year-old kid out there who will eagerly take your place in this scenario, and you'll find him or her on Chopped Junior.

Young contestants on the popular spinoff of Food Network's Chopped are a brave breed. In each episode, four rising chefs from ages 9 to 12 cook in a three-round competition, using baskets of mystery ingredients to craft an appetizer, main course, and dessert until all but one chef are "chopped" (via The Berkshire Edge). While the premise of Chopped Junior is nearly identical to its predecessor's, a few key differences make it suitable for prodigious young cooks. Here's what you may not know about Chopped Junior.

The Chopped Junior set is the same as the original — but with a colorful makeover

Food Network is serious about transforming the set of Chopped for young talent. Crew members spend a whole day brightening the sleek, industrial Chopped kitchen (housed in the Food Network Studios at New York's Chelsea Market) into a junior gourmand's paradise. Stainless steel cabinets and work stations are painted blue, gray window panes become pastel-hued, and even copper pipes are given colorful replacements, as seen in a Food Network video.

The kids are also given striking blue aprons and, perhaps the most noticeable change of all, cheery yellow mystery baskets instead of the customary black. They're "the color of cheddar cheese," says Ted Allen (via Food Network). Though crew members address the height difference of Chopped Junior contestants by lowering pantry shelves and providing step stools, Allen says it's still a challenge to move around the kitchen. "Anybody who designs kitchens for a living would tell you that this kitchen is a nightmare in terms of difficulty. Everything is super far apart from one another," he said in a behind-the-scenes video, gesturing to the distance the shorter-legged chefs must traverse from equipment section to pantry area.

Chopped Junior baskets are a different color, but the ingredients are just as out of the box

You'd think Chopped Junior would take it easier on a bunch of kids, but the youngsters' mystery ingredients are often just as puzzling as they are for the adults. In a Season 9 episode, contestants had to create an appetizer using "ketchup-flavored soda, a hot dog with a cotton candy bun, cannellini beans, and corn on the cob," as described by Minnesota's Star Tribune. Local competitor Kiran Alwy, then 13, cleverly turned the soda into a ketchupy soy glaze atop a vegetable and hot dog bruschetta.

In the previous season, 12-year-old Owen Osborne of Shreveport, La., cooked a first course with pickle-flavored cotton candy, heirloom tomatoes, bacon, and calamari, which he called "slimy," "really thick," "hard to cut," and "just a really weird ingredient," the Shreveport Times reported. Nevertheless, he advanced to the second round where he "perfectly cooked" goat chops and made penne mac and cheese despite being a vegan with egg and dairy allergies. Would you have known what to do with goat chops or calamari at 12 years old?

Chopped Junior stars don't have it much easier than the adults

Food Network doesn't necessarily promise that Chopped Junior contestants will make it home before bedtime. Sequoia Pranger, a former contestant on a Chopped teen tournament, described being flown to New York City to film the show, staying on set from 7:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. (via the Statesman Journal). Why the 12-hour day? Chef (and frequent Chopped judge) Marcus Samuelsson told Mashed that filming one episode of Chopped takes a lot longer than the show's quick runtime would suggest. The contestants have to be interviewed and given a tour of the studio, a crew has to clean the kitchen between each round, and, most time-consuming of all, the judges have to deliberate on the chefs' dishes before deciding who gets chopped.

Luckily, the kids' day on the set seems to be filled with plenty of levity. While adult competitors on Chopped wait in a rather sterile room during the judges' deliberations, the kids' "Stew Room" is equipped with toys and games. A behind-the-scenes video on the Food Network website shows young contestants laughing, dancing, playing ping pong, and painting crafts in the Stew Room, so the day isn't completely intense.

Becoming a Chopped Junior contestant is serious business

If you haven't gleaned this already, Chopped Junior stars are basically treated like adults. Former contestant Cecelia Clary, at the time a seventh grader from Massachusetts, said her audition process was a long one. After talking with a casting agent, she cooked and sent in a photo of a three-course meal, which got her through to the next round (via The Berkshire Edge). Next, she FaceTimed with producers, and after "a lot of pictures and paperwork and a lot of auditions," she "made it to casting [where] they choose four out of eight kids to be on an episode," Clary said.

Once the kids are greenlit for the show, the professionalism continues. They're made to sign a non-disclosure agreement, which slaps a $750,000 fine on contestants if violated. This meant that when young New York cook Elizabeth Oakes won Chopped Junior, she couldn't tell anyone at school until after her episode aired. About not violating her agreement, Oakes told Dinner: A Love Story, "It was not very hard because I knew that if I let it out, I'd have major major consequences that I would not want coming my way."

Chopped Junior contestants are given a special assistant

Chopped Juniors' young contestants do get one sweet perk: Special assistance from host Ted Allen. "Ted, I need you!" "Ted, can you help me?" "Super Ted!" These are all common utterings by the kids, who mostly seek Allen's help opening jars, carrying heavy equipment, and reaching precariously perched dishware. Allen is always happy to help, but he does draw the line somewhere. "Ted, can you tie my shoe?" asked one young contestant (via Food Network). "No, but I can tell you that you only have 15 minutes, so you ought to stop monkeying around!" Allen answered.

Pranger called her time on Chopped's teen tournament "a luxury experience" because crew members brought her ginger ale and ChapStick whenever she requested them. And if you're wondering how the kids view the judges, they seem to do so with admiration. "It's so funny how you look at people on TV," Pranger said. "Chris Santos seems like a hard, tough guy. But he was the nicest, most caring guy who took us under his wings." Sounds nice, but we'll still leave the competing to those talented young chefs.