The 12-year-old boy standing in front of Gordon Ramsay has just started to cry. He’s wearing a floral bow tie, a plaid collared shirt tucked neatly into slim black jeans, and a bright white apron tied at the waist with his name embroidered on it in all caps, “LOGAN,” along with the logo of the show on which he is one of the final eight contestants, MasterChef Junior. His two front teeth are gapped, and his sandy blond hair is parted way over on one side. When he grows up, Logan wants to be an oceanographer, an astronaut, a chef, and a garbageman. The restaurant he plans to open someday will be called “O’s Underwater Bistro” and it will have special bubbles, some “executive bubbles” and some “romantic bubbles,” where customers will dine floating around underwater separate from the main restaurant, like in submarines.
But today, Logan has overcooked and underseasoned the rice in what he says would be the signature dish at his underwater bistro. The 82-pound, 4-foot-11-inch boy from Memphis, who, unlike some of the other contestants, can actually see over the cooking counters on the MasterChef set, has had one hour to create this dish, presumably without any adult assistance. And though his perfectly seared steak has “nice char and color,” the plate overall is too simple — lackluster, Ramsay says. As the British celebrity chef tells Logan that “the judges have come to expect more from you, young man,” a tear so giant that even I can see it from behind the cameras 30 feet away drops off Logan’s cheek and hits the floor. The boy’s shoulders curve forward, his head drops, and he’s sobbing.
Ramsay comforts Logan after critiquing his dish.
Greg Gayne / FOX
Producers backstage stop whispering into their mics. The cameramen are still and tense. No one likes to see a child cry. But then Ramsay, who has seven Michelin stars, 25 restaurants, and a reputation for calling the cooks on his TV shows things like “miserable wee bitch” and “you fucking donkey” does something unexpected: He steps forward, hugs the child, and tells him it’s going to be OK, that he did his best. When Logan returns to his station, no longer crying, the other children comfort him and tell him he’s a great cook.
In spring 2013, when Fox announced it was going to air a kid-centric spin-off of its amateur cooking competition MasterChef with 8- to 13-year-olds, it sounded horribly annoying — like a desperate attempt to revive a played-out format. The built-in precociousness of the concept was off-putting: 12-year-olds talking about Sriracha foam. And who wants to watch kids being mean to one another or judges hurting their feelings? “Fox's Junior MasterChef to find newer, younger chefs to disappoint Gordon Ramsay,” wrote the AV Club.
But when the show debuted last fall, it was absolutely delightful. Now, three episodes into its second season, it’s still so good. MasterChef Junior’s first season was the highest-rated broadcast show in its Friday evening time slot among adults 18 to 49. It performed especially well in DVR and got good reviews. This season it is upgraded to a coveted Tuesday evening spot and averages a solid 5.3 million total viewers.
Seeing Ramsay’s gentler, helpful side is reason alone to watch. But the kids are the real stars because they (and the producers in the control room) turn the reality cooking show on its head by making it more heartwarming than cutthroat — they actually are here to make friends. They are more than happy to lend one another ingredients and help during the challenges. They often cry when anyone is sent home because they are sad for their friend. They release piercing screams of delight when a food for the next challenge is revealed (“Yaaaay! Pancakes!”), and collapse on the floor with relief when they aren’t sent home. And there is a visual spectacle: They have to jump to reach ingredients in the pantry and stand on boxes to cook at the counters; the scale is off. Meanwhile, the dishes they make are very impressive and just messy enough to be believable. Basically, everything they do and say is ridiculous, and yet it makes so much more sense than what adults do on television.
While we may know better than to believe everything we see on reality TV, the question remains: Are these kids as good as they seem? And if not, would that make the show any less fun?
Greg Gayne / FOX
Like many of our reality shows, MasterChef is a European export. The adult version is based on a BBC show that initially ran from 1990 to 2001, and the brand was exported globally. More than 40 countries have adapted the show — there’s a MasterChef Italia, MasterChef Pakistan, MasterChef China, and more. The kid spin-off was first introduced in 1994 in the U.K. and has been produced in 15 different countries.
Even so, the American show’s executive producers Robin Ashbrook and Adeline Ramage Rooney, who also produce on the adult version, say they had a hard time getting Fox to sign on for Junior.
Monty Brinton / CBS
The not-distant memory of CBS’s failure with Kid Nation must have been a consideration. The 2007 show put 40 children ages 8 to 15 in a New Mexico ghost town and asked them to create a viable society without adult supervision, then was canceled amid allegations of child abuse, child labor law disputes, and a New York Times article about the insane contracts the parents signed. That same year, Bravo ordered eight episodes of Top Chef Junior with 13- to 16-year-olds, which never aired. (Bravo did not respond to a request for an explanation why.)
“You could go to anybody in the world and go, ‘Right, so we’ve got Gordon Ramsay,’ and they’d go, ‘But he shouts at people,’” Ashbrook says. “And you’d say, ‘And we’ve got this show with ovens and knives and hot dishes — and then we’re going to do it with kids.’ So on that pitch you’d be like, ‘You’re fucking out of your mind.’”
In 2012, while taping the third season of adult MasterChef, Ashbrook and Rooney taped a mystery box challenge with a group of kids — each got a box with the same surprise ingredients and had to create a dish. They sent the tape to Fox. It worked.
When the casting call went out, the press was especially critical that the kids would be as young as 8. But Rooney says having younger kids for MasterChef Junior was essential.
“Once you get to 14 to 17, they might be more skilled, but they’ve also kind of shut down a lot more,” she says. “So they’re not as good for TV, frankly.”
The rest of the show is almost identical to the adult version of MasterChef, which just aired its fifth season. The other two judges are New York restaurateur and winemaker Joe Bastianich and Chicago chef Graham Elliot. The set’s the same, the format’s the same, and the production, editing, and culinary team are almost exactly the same.
Greg Gayne / FOX
“We want it to be a show that is co-viewed with parents and that our Hell’s Kitchen fans would watch, so we didn’t want to neuter Gordon,” Rooney says, referring to one of Ramsay’s other four shows currently on Fox in which he verbally abuses aspiring chefs cooking in competition for a job at one of his restaurants.
The Gordon Ramsay who appears on MasterChef Junior is a completely different judge — helpful, goofy, and sweet — so that you start to understand why some of the people who work for him show an irrational-seeming loyalty in the face of his insulting tirades and long list of scandals.
“Firm but fair. I liken it to a soccer coach,” Ramsay says of his attitude toward the kids on the show. “If you want your child to succeed — a ballerina, become the next basketball superstar, or play for the Dodgers — then you will push them.”
Greg Gayne / FOX
The eight kids who remain in the competition on Episode 4 in Season 2 stand in a row in front of a stage where the three judges are also standing in a row. They’re on a set on the Paramount lot in Los Angeles where they’ve been staying at a nearby hotel with their parents for the first two weeks of the three-and-a-half-week production. They’re ready to find out what the first challenge of the episode will be.
Ramsay’s voice has more bravado and is much louder than the other judges'. He wanders around set with an enormous, devious presence that makes even off-camera moments feel like reality TV.
A production guy coming from the behind-the-scenes kitchen rolls a cart near the set and tells me to be careful, please don’t put your coffee on this. Covered by a cloche, this plate is handed to the judges a minute later when they announce the challenge.
“There is one ingredient that every chef relies on,” Ramsay says. His voice rises with booming excitement to build the moment where he lifts the cloche: “It’s simple. It’s glorious. And delicious! It is an…egg.”
Greg Gayne / FOX
“Duuuuuuuh,” says Oona, an extremely bright 9-year-old with big eyes and dark hair pulled into messy pigtails. Oona’s favorite TV show of all time is Alton Brown’s Good Eats; she’s seen every single episode and most of them several times over. Oona’s dad, a Yale Law School professor, says he wasn’t inclined to let her watch MasterChef Junior when the show first came out: “My picture of reality TV was snarky adults saying mean things to each other,” he says. “We didn’t want her to see that.” But the show wasn’t that, so he and his wife agreed to let her watch it.
Bastianich, the third judge, begins to describe the sunny-side-up hero egg: “Notice there are no brown edges, there are no wobbly whites,” he says. “They're not snotty or runny.” The words “snotty” and “runny” are too much for some of the kids, and they burst into giggles.
Then there is a confusing silence for a minute or two. The judges have earpieces to receive stage directions during taping from producers in the control room who tell them what to redo. By now, the kids are used to these awkward pauses, but they are kids: They have a hard time standing still. Actually, so does Gordon Ramsay. Similarities between the celeb chef and the children are shockingly clear in person: They love to make trouble, they have scary amounts of energy, they get bored easily, and they throw temper tantrums.
All of a sudden the judges are alert again and Elliot starts talking: “You will have 10 minutes to make us as many perfect, sunny-side-up eggs as you can,” he says. “At your stations you will find everything you need: oil, butter, and a whole lot of eggs. You'll have eight pans, which I highly recommend you use simultaneously. Every perfectly fried sunny-side-up egg that we decide is good enough will give you a huge advantage in the upcoming challenge.”
Then, it seems like it’s go time: The cameras start moving and the kids begin to run to their stations. But the producers yell, “Can I have the kids back up at the front?” and the judges take a break. What the kids will do between finding out the details of their challenge and 20 minutes later when they start cooking eggs I don’t know, because Ramsay wants to chat backstage in another room and ushers me away.
Greg Gayne / FOX
Gordon Ramsay is worth $47 million, according to Forbes. In addition to owning restaurants all over the world, he’s produced and starred in 23 television shows since 1999. He’s published 27 books, has a line of tableware with WWRD (Waterford, Wedgewood, Royal Doulton), and has so much energy that you feel rushed to keep up with the cadence of his speech and under pressure to keep his attention. His attention is actually impossible for anyone to keep most of the time. Even his own thoughts don’t keep his attention long enough for him to properly finish them.
“I absolutely 100% categorically submerge myself in the, you know, I don't give a shit what's going on outside, there could be a crisis — last week we got a stupid lawsuit issued over a total ridiculous, ridiculous place, there's a big conference call tonight where we are putting the defense together. It's just if there's one thing that always puts me off about working over here [in the U.S.] it's that the more popular and the more famous you become then the more litigious and the more small excuse people take as advantage to sue…”
The way Ramsay talks is part of his manic power. He has the same force to his speech as on television, but without an editor to cut it and make it coherent. He spits out raw quotes that apart might be worth something, but together become extremely confusing.
“…so that's one thing I've learned over the last decade. In terms of everyone says hey and of course the British press 'he's been sued again, that's 14 times in 7 different countries!' It's a joke. Whatever crap’s going on there, when I walk in here and I'm with these guys, they've got me 100% because it is so important; look at the sort of rip-offs already in terms of Food Network and Bravo now, and the amount of people that try to imitate, and you've got that sugarcoating ass-kissy, let's get all gooey and this is real — this is seriously real.”
He says he is involved in every aspect of the show, including casting, to identify the kids coming from desperate stage moms who aren’t really passionate about cooking. He was not fazed by initial skepticism about his working with children. “I’m a father of four and there’s no script for being a parent.” He talks about his own children a lot; they are between the ages of 12 and 16 and they are all over his Instagram feed amid pictures of him getting in race cars, getting on helicopters, and training for the Ironman.
Greg Gayne / FOX
The kid contestants idolize Ramsay. Logan, for example, says Ramsay’s opinion is the only one that matters during judging. Logan’s mom tells him to try to not look so pitiful during taping that he gives her a heart attack every time he looks at the camera. Logan says he’s probably just bored because judging takes so long.
“He’s the best chef out of all three of them,” says Sam, a blond 9-year-old contestant from Reseda, California, who has a Skrillex-like hairstyle. Sam says he knows Ramsay’s the best chef because “he’s done so many TV shows and so many things like that, and you can see he looks so good as a chef.”
“Bless him,” Ramsay says about Sam when tell I him this later on. “I mean, that’s a bit of a wrong interpretation. There needs to be an actual passion there, and that’s what we weed out very quickly.”
Greg Gayne / FOX