After what feels like an eternity and a half, "MasterChef Junior" returns to the air Thursday. This is the fifth season for Fox’s young person's cooking competition, and it arrives not a moment too soon – as a psychological oasis, a spiritual remedy, a joyful, suspenseful, heartwarming, heartbreaking, multicultural celebration in which real accomplishment is honored and effort, too, gets its due.
It differs from most other reality contests – from its parent series "MasterChef," with which it shares a kitchen and judges Gordon Ramsay (Michelin-starred chef and restaurant empire emperor) and Christina Tosi (pastry chef and founder of Milk Bar), as well as from, say, oh, "The Apprentice." It does not make drama from rivalry, spite, self-love or entitlement. Rather, the kids are mutually supportive and mature; you won't hear any of them say, "I came to win," or excuse some cutthroat move with "This is a competition."
I spoke recently, in separate phone calls, to Tosi and Ramsay (who is also the series' host), as well as to show runner Robin Ashbrook (also on "MasterChef"). With the departure this season of judge Graham Elliot (a rotation of guest judges will fill the third spot), Tosi and Ramsay seem very much metaphorical parents — he forbidding but also fun, she sweet but deeply serious.
“The kids have this insane fearlessness," said Tosi, who joined the show in its fourth season. "They haven't yet learned to build up their walls; they aren't ashamed to say they don't know the rules of cooking; they're not afraid to humble themselves to the learning process. And they aren't afraid, therefore, to break rules that might be in place. The adults [who compete on ‘MasterChef’] are almost entirely the opposite – they come in and they want to show you all of their knowledge. I want to shake them by the shoulders, like, ‘It's OK to not know.’ And it's almost always the more humble of the home cooks, adults and children, that come out on top."
The idea for the series was born, Ashbrook recalled, during the filming of an episode of the grown-up "MasterChef" at a block party where the judges interacted with local children. "One of the things that struck us was that these kids were as smart as the grown-ups,” he said. “And also what struck us was the incredible chemistry between our judges with the kids. That's a part of Gordon I see every day, how nurturing and mentoring he is; it’s probably fair to say it’s at odds with the general American perception of who he is."
Indeed, Ramsay watchers know that he appears in different shades and threat levels from show to show. As the host of the high-pressure professional chefs competition "Hell's Kitchen" and the makeover series "Kitchen Nightmares" (a series he folded after "I woke up one morning and felt that level of unappreciated support from the contributors"), he has been famously volatile and profane. "It’s like sports,” he said. “There's a level of passion that gets misconstrued for anger."
I prefer the Ramsay of "MasterChef," which he describes as being about "amateurs finding that passion that's been hidden and not been given the opportunity to shine," and of “MasterChef Junior,” which is all that, plus kids. Though he is always, as he put it, "honest and blunt and straight to the point,” on “MasterChef Junior” especially, he is also friendly and funny and, in a semi-tough-love way, caring and concerned. This is the Ramsay I like to regard as the genuine, or closer to genuine, item.
He can sound a bit like a headmaster. "I push them," he said of his young television charges, who range in age from 8 to 13. "They enjoy the pressure, and when they show me the commitment, my job is to get them better. They're resilient, robust, and all I try to tell them is that this journey is a little bit like life: 'In 10 years' time you're going to go up, you're going to go down, and this is a rehearsal. Get this one right, you’ll be able to overcome a lot of obstacles.’"
"Gordon has parameters of how, as a parent and as a mentor, he expects kids should behave towards one another," said Ashbrook. "We talk about this a lot. I ask him to behave as if he's their sports coach – sometimes it means that he has to deliver bad news to them; sometimes it means he has to tell them they're doing something wrong. We don't ruffle their hair every five minutes and pretend that everything they do is great."
Ramsay is the father of four – youngest daughter Matilda hosts a U.K.-based series of her own called "Matilda and the Ramsay Bunch," featuring her siblings and parents — and naturally his kids learned to cook. "It's a practical thing that they knew one day they’re going to have their own flats, their own families and do their own cooking. I thought that was an important skill to teach them as a dad, understanding how exciting food can be when you've made it yourself."
As to his own youth, he was, he said "more interested in eating than cooking. Mum was a chef working a tea house, so immediately after my soccer game I'd be into kitchen prepping for the next day with her, tasting things, doing things, always being told to hurry up to get on to the next job, so the more prep I did the more I could taste.
"We had no money growing up; it was rude to leave any food. We never had appetizers, entrees or dessert. It was one course and then a dessert once or twice a month."
Tosi’s family "baked for every occasion. If someone's sick, you bake for them; you walk your baked goods around the neighborhood and hand them out to the neighbors. I think one of the reasons I adore it as a craft is because it feels like the ultimate celebration of how I was raised – be a good person, bring joy into people's lives and make them feel special and cared about."
Perhaps the greatest delight of the show, which is pretty delightful all the way through, comes when the judges encounter an extraordinary dish and let the cook know it. There is something in their impressed authority — there is no talking down here — that makes these moments invariably dramatic and moving.
"Listen,” said Ramsay of the new breed of very young cooks, “they're bloody good. Their grandparents are buying cooking lessons for them, they're buying cooking utensils, sous-vide machines, smokers, torches – the tuition that goes into it, incredible." (By tuition, he means "teaching," not the cost of being taught.)
I asked Tosi whether there were any dishes that had made a particular impression on her.
"There are two different dishes from this upcoming season," she replied, "that are, from concept to execution, like, how does this child know how to season this thing so perfectly, how does the child understand the composition of this intricate thing? To the point where it makes me go back to the drawing board when I'm thinking about something at Milk Bar -- how do I create a flavor memory like the one that was just created for me?"
When: 8 p.m. Thursday
Rating: TV-PG-L (may be unsuitable for young children with an advisory for coarse language)
Follow Robert Lloyd on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd