The most talked about restaurants are usually somewhere with a gorgeous view or in the middle of a bustling downtown, but today, the most sought-after dining reservations are in an industrial warehouse in Canoga Park. That’s where Top Chef Jr. is holding Restaurant Wars.
The diners are ushered in a table at a time through the kitchen. Though this junior version of Top Chef puts its young contestants through almost everything their adult counterparts experience, at least the kids are saved from the dreaded front-of-house position. Five chefs remain and all of them are furiously poring over their pans as a group of reporters pass by. (In the interest of avoiding spoilers, Universal Kids has asked us not to identify an of the contestants by name in this piece.)
In the dining room, the restaurant is indistinguishable from a typical fine dining experience — aside from the enormous TV camera and conspicuous lack of a ceiling. Each dish coming out of the kitchen is an exquisitely presented affair. The visiting diners try to be critical — this is a competition after all — but beyond one or two underdone cubes of potato, or the desire for a touch more sweetness on a plate, there is nothing to complain about. Really, the only disappointments come when our neighbor’s ribeye makes us doubt our choice of the rabbit.
Of course, the flavor of every dish is intensified by the knowledge that some of the chefs may not have even reached their teens, much less had the years of culinary training and experience you would expect. It’s enough to shake even the most jaded of restauranteurs out of their customary ways. “I don’t know if you saw Curtis actually take out his phone and take a picture of the food,” says host Vanessa Lachey with a laugh, as she outs head judge Curtis Stone. “I don’t do this and I can’t stand people who do this, but this is a 12-year-old plating this dish.”
Stone, a veteran of these reality and food TV, thought he knew what he was getting into. He remembers thinking, “’It’s a kid’s cooking show,’” but soon realized that these weren’t just kids seeking fame on a reality show. “They’re young chefs,” he says. Absent the training, the kids on Top Chef Jr. are first and foremost young people devoted to their craft. Now, adds Stone, “I talk to them chef to chef, because that’s what they are.”
Because this is a learning experience as well as a competition, the adults say they are astounded by the leaps in skill the chefs have made. “In the first challenge, seven out of the twelve chefs didn’t get everything they wanted to on their plate. Some got hardly anything on the plate,” recalls Stone. Since then, Lachey says, “They’ve grown exponentially.”
Stone found himself inspired by the willingness of the kids to learn. “They don’t have an ego,” he marvels. Unlike other shows he’s judged, “Whether it be Top Chef Masters or Top Chef Duels or just regular Top Chef, you give your advice as the judge, and quite often it’s met with hands on the hips.” Obviously, the adult chefs know more, but as a result, they are more resistant to learning new things. As a chef himself, Stone says he’s taking a lesson from the Top Chef Jr. contestants with him going forward: “I’m throwing it all out. I’m checking my ego at the door from here on out!”
In between challenges, the chefs go through culinary boot camps, learning new skills and techniques. “We have taught them to use pressure cookers, we’ve taught them to sous vide,” says Lachey. “We had Joshua Russell, the Cake Slayer — he makes the most amazing cakes in the country. He gave a two-hour master class on baking, on fondant, on presentation, and on stacking.” For some contestants, it was their first time baking.
Beyond the education, beyond the experience of cooking in a professional kitchen, Stone says what he’s really glad these young people are getting from this show is a sense of how broad the culinary world is today. Restaurant Wars, for example, is more than just an entertaining game concocted by the TV producers. “We sometimes do an event from a little satellite kitchen which is totally from our normal environment,” says Curtis. “We’re constantly doing different things in our business.”
Not only that, but the very idea of a celebrity chef barely existed when Stone first started in the business. “You got dressed up in your silly outfit and you went to work and you cooked. You prepped and you cooked and you did the service and that was that.” Now, he says, one of his sous chefs is working on the show as a food stylist, while he himself bounces around at least three continents running restaurants, hosting shows, guesting on shows, and doing commercials for supermarkets. “If you think about it, our industry goes from hospitals and prisons to fine dining in famous restaurants, and everything in between.”
Back in the dining room, the comment cards have been turned in. The burners have been switched off and the restaurants stand empty. We won’t know until the episode airs who won but — and yes, we know this sounds cliché — its clear that all of the Top Chef Jr. contestants will walk away winners. “They’re still in training and they’s still developing,” says Curtis, “But if I hear in 10 years time that one of them didn’t carry on in the culinary world, I’d be super surprised.”
Top Chef Jr. premieres Friday, October 13 at 8 p.m. on Universal Kids.
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