We might be in Phase something.O of the (un)lockdown but the fear and isolation that the pandemic brought with it at the beginning of the year continues. Add to this the endless stream of bad news we are surrounded by. The return of Junior MasterChef Australia, after a nine-year hiatus, couldn't have come at a better time. Watching tiny and delightfully cute humans cook up a storm in a professional kitchen is weirdly comforting.
A spin-off of the wildly popular cooking reality-show MasterChef Australia, this third season features contestants 9-14 years old battling it out to become the Junior MasterChef champion. The show, with 14 contestants who beat almost 2,000 aspiring young cooks, has returned to Disney Hotstar. And fresh from their rather successful first season on the franchise, Melissa Leong, Jock Zonfrillo and Andy Allen are back as judges.
When Gary Mehigan, George Calombaris and Matt Preston were replaced as judges after eleven seasons, most loyal fans of the franchise had cried 'it wouldn't be the same'. Yet when Season 12 " 'Back to Win' released at the beginning of the pandemic-triggered lockdown, most couldn't resist the comforting, low-stakes hour of TV and soon got used to the new set-up. But it's with the tiny tykes that the judges seem to have finally come into their own. Scottish chef and father of four, Jock seems to have lost his hard edge around the kids while former winner-turned-judge Andy and first generation Singaporean Australian food writer Mel's enthusiasm is truly infectious.
Like its adult version, Junior MasterChef is a delicious blend of nail-biting tension, camaraderie between contestants and, above all, food that'll make you wish you had something more exciting than bhindi for your next meal.
But where this show scores in with its adorable little kitchen wizards. There's 11 year-old Ruby who plays Harry Potter theme flute solos at her local market to earn money to buy cooking supplies; Dev, a 13-year-old Aussie-Bihari who cooked a desi feast with multiple meat dishes and accompaniments in 75 mins and; Filo, a giggly 12-year-old whose signature dish was a lobster mornay because he "likes exoskeletal animals" and eats lobsters "a few times a week".
The kids are competing for a big shiny trophy ("It looks freshly cleaned," one of them exclaimed) and AU$ 25,000 in prize money. For the kids, though, it's not about the money but more about the joy of cooking and feeding people. Vienna, a cancer survivor, bakes an incredible lemon curd tart in the first episode because it's her little brother's favourite food. Being in the MasterChef kitchen for a 12-year-old hip-hop dancer Carter, who "cooks for his family three or four times a week" is a 'full dream come true". And, 11 year-old Vietnamese-Chinese Aussie Phenix wants to "show the judges my own heritage and culture".
Just because the contestants need to stand on a step to reach the stovetops doesn't mean the quality of the food isn't topnotch.
Laura (13), who one day wants to open a restaurant called 5 Chairs (that's the number of people in her family) served a lime granite with white chocolate mousse, macadamia crumb and a Szechuan pepper meringue shard for the first immunity challenge. In another elimination round, 10-year-old Ben, a trumpet playing cub scout who is also a Bao-master, plated an ambitious dessert that featured sandalwood nut and white chocolate ganache, raspberry and Davidson plum Jellies, macadamia nut praline, turmeric and vanilla ice cream. All in 75 minutes!
Then there are the little tweaks to the format of the show itself, which ensure a higher-than-usual fun quotient keeping the contestants in mind. There are no immunity pins, but a large gong which a contestant can bang to get out of a cook. In one episode, you have the three judges dressed up as old people with some very good make up to boot, only to hammer home the fact that the kids would be cooking with aged ingredients. These small touches and flourishes might primarily be there to keep the atmosphere light and fun for the young aspiring chefs, but make for some adorable television moments.
It's just wholesome and joyous viewing. When it feels like the world is falling apart, it's soothing to immerse yourself in a world where little children have big dreams; where contestants will stop what they are doing to help a competitor on the brink of a culinary disaster; and, where adults crack terribly punny jokes and kids talk about honouring their heritage and showcasing native ingredients. It's just the kind of pick-me-up I needed as the pandemic shows no signs of letting up. Watching Junior Masterchef Australia is a much-needed reminder that excellence and kindness can go hand-in-hand.
Just two months after the MasterChef finale where Emilia Jackson's three course menu of scallops, deep fried ribs and pistachio Financier edged out Laura Sharrad's offerings based around native ingredients, we've got Junior MasterChef. Two seasons of MasterChef in one calendar year feels like the kind of miracle this shitstorm of a year needed.