TikTok Recipe Legend Matthew Merril On What It's Like To Be A Culinary Prodigy - Exclusive Interview

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If you're one of the millions of people who follows @MatthewinTheKitchen on TikTok to keep up with his drool-worthy recipe videos, perhaps you've noticed that there's something familiar about the 17-year-old with the booming voice. That's because ever since he was in grade school, Matthew Merril has appeared on numerous kid baking television shows, including "Chopped Junior" and "Kids Baking Championship." The high school senior has also been on "Guy's Grocery Games."

Next on deck: a recipe cookbook entitled "Teen Baking Bootcamp: 60 Recipes to Take You from Amateur to Pro." How does Merril balance high school, family obligations, and extracurricular activities, with his prolific TikTok content, TV appearances and book tour? In an exclusive interview with Mashed, the social media celeb revealed what it's really like to be a culinary prodigy and, while we're talking, he answered our most burning question: what it really felt like to be picked on by Gordon Ramsay.

How Matthew Merril became a chef at a young age

What got you so interested in food at such a young age?

I think I've always been fascinated by the concept of baking. I think one thing is that nobody in my house is actually a good chef. My parents cannot cook, but the one thing that my mom would always make is Christmas cookies. As a kid growing up in the kitchen, our kitchen would always be full of different platters of every single type of cookie you can imagine. I would always love to play with all the kitchen gadgets. She always tells me this one story of how I turned all of the knobs on the oven to 500 degrees while she was making toffee, and she could not figure out why she was burning all these batches!

So yeah, it's definitely been something that I've grown up around and always been curious about. And so, growing up in the digital age with YouTube and social media, it was just so accessible to see how all these people were making food. And so, I just started with simple recipes like French toast, pancakes, and eventually just started working up. One day I just decided, I said, "Oh, I'm going to try to make French macarons today," and just kept working my way up.

Your mom was OK with you using all of the kitchen equipment when you were so young?

At first, she was shocked. She would walk in the kitchen and she would be like, "Why is my seven year old using the stove by himself?" I would wake up before everybody in the house was up. And so, it would be this thing like, "Oh, you shouldn't be doing that. But also I'm not complaining that you're making cinnamon roll for breakfast."

What inspired you to write "Teen Baking Bootcamp?"

First of all, it is the biggest honor to be able to write a cookbook! I think my main inspiration for wanting to write a book is the guide that I would've had as a 10 year old. Because I was always scouring the internet for recipes that weren't insanely difficult that it was so far out of my reach as a 10 year old mini chef, but also something that wasn't like strawberry banana smoothie and that said in every direction, "Needs parent supervision to put in the microwave." I was just looking for that Goldilocks medium in between all of those. It's just a compilation of a lot of really amazing recipes that I've been using since the beginning, and just to inspire other young readers or adult readers to just step into the kitchen and make some amazing baked goods.

Should parents let young children use the oven and knives? Isn't that dangerous?

I think that the basis, the foundation of kitchen safety definitely is really important. It's probably not the best idea to throw a kid who's never been in the kitchen before onto the stove. I really do think that the kitchen is a lab for learning and with food and flavors and all of that. I think that, I'm not going to say no supervision is always the right answer. I think that for me, definitely that freedom to explore with different mediums was super helpful.

Staying safe in the kitchen

Have you had any kitchen-related injuries?

Knock on wood again! I have not had anything too bad, but ... actually, we have a knife in our house that's titled the "death knife" because nobody touches it anymore because every single member of our family who's used that knife has cut part of their finger on it. We excommunicated it from our cutlery.

Oh, I did have one. This is actually a really funny story. Probably the worst so far that I've had is was making a 3D replica of a cathedral in gingerbread. In order to construct this model, I was sticking the gingerbread pieces together with melted sugar. I was up far too late at night, and I had school the next day and I just wanted to get it done. I was definitely being a little too sloppy with my sugar work and got a little ... the 300 degree sugar burned a little section of my hand, but it was all good. Nothing too bad, luckily! I was able to go to school the next day.

Are you more passionate about cooking or baking?

I would say that I do a pretty good mix of cooking and baking, but I definitely got my start in baking. That's sort of what I'm more known for. Because when I was younger, I went on a few of those Food Network shows like "Kids Baking Championship."

Do you think baking and cooking is a good activity for teens?

Oh my gosh, of course! I think it's been, single-handedly, the most impactful thing on my upbringing basically because baking... it's so therapeutic to be able to just bake something and set all your worries aside for one to two hours and just have that gratification of making something with your own two hands. It's just so amazing. I feel like it does have a lot of life skills packed into it. It's really taught me how to be patient and time management skills, and how to be organized because that is one thing, especially when you have to clean up after you bake. That requires a whole other set of skills.

Do you think adults are aware of how beneficial baking is for teens?

I totally think that the idea of teens in the kitchen is not something that is explored a lot. But I know so many teens love baking. A lot of people who I've never met before, who I know through mutual friends or who watch my TikToks, they'll say, "I love trying all your recipes." And I think ... when COVID hit and nobody had anything to do–baking, it was on such a surge of popularity. I think every teenager made banana bread at least four times! I think people just really realize how fun it is to be in the kitchen. It is the perfect activity regardless of what age you are.

What it's like to be a teenager who is also a culinary celebrity, according to Matthew Merril

You live with your parents. Do they cook dinner, or do you?

I'm definitely not the person in charge of all the food in the house! Just because I'm at school so late every day because I'm really involved with a lot of extracurriculars. I do a musical, so we don't get out of school until 8:00. But I wish I could. Every weekend I try to do one fun thing.

I guess the one part of the food that I'm in charge of is the house is the food I make for social media. It's definitely the most interesting mix of food. One day we'll be having muffins, and the next day we'll be having Baked Alaska or Beef Wellington. It could be anything.

Do your family and friends eat all of the food you make for social media?

My friends definitely love it when I bring food to school! I actually do this thing called "Muffin Monday" where I just bring in muffins to school for the first people I see. Yeah, definitely whenever I can, I love giving away the food that I make. I think it's just such a great way to just say how appreciative I am for you because it's just a sign of all the hard work and passion. You're doing a nice thing for someone else.

What are your most viral TikTok videos?

There are definitely some top categories of videos that I come back to. So when I need ideas, I know if I post a cake pop video, it'll do really well ... I know that my audience really loves cake pops because it's really fun to watch the process of making cake pops and it's also just a really fun dessert and it's bright, it's colorful. And also cookies, but it's such a wide range.

One of my most viewed videos is Cookie Monster cookies, and it's got that appeal of the bright blue cookie base. But then you break into the cookie and there's chocolate oozing. And so, it's sort of the mix of what people want to see versus how easy your recipe is, and it's how to gauge those different aspects of a video.

You are pretty busy between school, theater, cooking and your social media! What's the secret to your time management skills?

It is definitely crazy being a part of anything. I would say that when I was able to do all of this, I was inspired to do all of it when COVID hit because there was just nothing. There was no school. I was home all day, and I really had time to make these videos.

But as we've gone back last spring and into this fall, I've noticed that there's little windows of 10 to 20 minutes where...I just try to make the most out of that time, whether it be edit a video during office hours at school or in between dinner and musical rehearsal, try to get some homework done. And just how to optimize all of that time because there is just so little of it these days.

Becoming a celebrity

Do you feel like you're kind of like a "regular kid" who's also a food celebrity? Or do you feel like being a food celebrity is the driving force in your life?

It's definitely weird because going to school with people who have known me throughout before I reached "food notoriety" in any way–not much really changes at school. But it is really weird going in public and sort of having people almost freak out when they meet me! I'm still not really used to that, but it's definitely something that's really funny and I think is really cool.

I think for people who don't know me, it's probably their first notion of me. For people who have known me before, they definitely know that I'm not always I don't ... I guess one comment I get a lot is like, "Oh, do you really talk like that in real life?"  [I'm] super over emphatically sometimes on TikTok. It's good to laugh about it at school.

So you don't use your TikTok voice when you're in chemistry class?

No, no. But it's a lot of fun! I love doing it.

Who is your biggest culinary role model?

Oh, I will say that I watched the documentary on Anthony Bourdain and I think that his view with food was, it changed the way that I view food. I've always loved cooking and baking. "Teen Baking Bootcamp" is really about how to get into the kitchen. But I think what he does with food after you learn about it is just so amazing, and how he connects with culture. It's something that's just been so inspiring to me with what I really want to do going forward.

What other food creators do you admire on TikTok?

I guess the first one that comes to mind is Nick DiGiovanni. I'm sure you're familiar with him. He is a big inspiration. He does a lot of really awesome things with food, and it's just sort of something that I strive to do just to make food interesting, but also really educational.

Oh gosh, there's so many! I love Claire [Saffitz] – she [did] the Bon Appetit videos. She just released her cookbook, "Dessert Person." I think she's so amazing. I love the way that she presents different baking techniques.

Matthew Merril talks about being on kid cooking TV shows

What was it like being on "Chopped Junior?"

It is as stressful being on "Chopped Junior" as it seems on TV! I would say that "Chopped Junior" out of all the five shows that I did was the most stressful. But it's so much fun. Obviously at the end of the day, you're just thinking to yourself, "Wow, I'm on 'Chopped!'" I'm watching at home all the time!

But man, it just goes by so quick. It's a rush. I will say it's definitely really difficult, but you build a lot of great bonds that way with your fellow competitors because of that. I still talk to one of the contestants to this day. I went on his podcast for also similarly motivating teens to just do great things. His name is Josh: "Joshy" [Altamura].

What was it like being on 'Guy's Grocery Games'?

That was a dream come true! I love grocery shopping. That is just like a weird thing that my mom never understood, but I would always love to go grocery shopping just because I feel so inspired. Maybe it's just my inner foodie coming out, but whenever I go to the grocery store or I need inspiration for recipes, I'll just walk through the aisles and just look at the different ingredients.

Growing up, I think "Guy's Grocery Games" was the one show that I always thought to myself, "Oh, this is the one show I would love to be on." When they called, it was tears of joy. It was everything I wanted and more. It was the least stressful cooking show in terms of, I could just have fun. I remember I grabbed a box of Froot Loops and was eating it during the competition. I was just having the time of my life! Meeting Guy Fieri, like culinary idol right there, that in and of itself, it was like a vacation.

What is Guy Fieri like in person?

He is so down to earth and he's such a great role model! He was so nice to all of the contestants. He actually had the flu or something while we were filming, so we didn't get to talk to him as much as I guess all the contestants wanted to. But I remember the first thing he said to us before we walked into the kitchen was, "You guys are so talented for just making it here." It was definitely more than what he had to say, that he was obligated to, but it was definitely super encouraging. I just remember feeling so welcome there.

Of all of the cooking shows you've been on, what is your favorite?

I think I have to say "Kids Baking Championship" because it was the original. It was the first era of media and baking in my life. It was the Hollywood experience! I felt like a movie star the whole time through! I would definitely not be doing cooking today if it weren't for that experience. All the producers were so kind. I just made so many great connections that I'll definitely keep forever. Looking back on it, I cannot believe that I was doing that much baking under that pressure at age 10. It's definitely something to be proud about even now.

What it feels like to be criticized by Gordon Ramsay, according to Matthew Merril

What was that like when you posted a TikTok showing yourself making scrambled eggs, Gordon Ramsay style, and he responded with a TikTok roasting your technique?

That was a roller coaster of emotions. I was not expecting nearly half as much of the growth that video had. It just exploded. It wasn't even doing that well at first. It had probably like 10,000, 20,000 views. And then I think I had to go to school for something, and I came back and the video was at like 300,000 views. I'm like, "What is happening?" And then it dawned on me that I think Gordon Ramsay might see this video! Because that was at the very beginning of when he started reacting to all the other chefs. I actually thought it was hilarious when he responded to my video.

I have to say, I think he was a little meaner to me than he was to most of the other chefs! So that was a little disheartening, but I thought it was still really cool nonetheless. If you're going to be roasted by someone, Gordon Ramsay is the person to get roasted by! The only thing I would say was not the most positive experiences is some of those comments, man, they were a little mean. But hey, I can handle it. It's nothing I'm not used to.

Have you ever spoken to Gordon Ramsay since that experience?

I have not spoken to Gordon Ramsay since that experience. I'd be interested to hear what he has to say.

What do you think about Gordon Ramsay?

I've always thought that he was really cool and a really great chef. And for professionalism ... I'll leave it at that.

Follow Matthew Merril on TikTok, and be sure to check out his cookbook, "Teen Baking Bootcamp: 60 Essential Recipes to Take You from Amateur to Pro."