MasterChef Junior is the most adorable reality show in TV history. Sure, it’s a serious cooking competition in the MasterChef franchise that will ultimately crown one clear winner and it’s hosted by Gordon Ramsay, who, at this point, might be better known for his fiery temper than for anything else. Yet MasterChef Junior remains undeniably delightful and full of utter joy. It is also perhaps the purest reality program on television: It is untainted by fierce competitiveness, it’s free of jaded and desperate adults, and it instead celebrates the talents, enthusiasm, and raw optimism of children. In MasterChef Junior, the contestants are there to make friends.
MasterChef Junior follows the same format as the original MasterChef, pitting a group of amateur chefs against each other to win over the judges (Gordon Ramsay, Joe Bastianich, and Graham Elliot) through a set of challenges (Mystery Box, Team Challenge, etc.) in order to win the title of MasterChef and $100,000. The big difference is that these aspiring chefs are between the ages of eight and 13. They are ridiculously talented — much like Project Runway: Threads, the show constantly reminds us of their age with a sense of absolute wonder (and many of the children mention that they’ve been cooking since the age of two, if you’d like to feel a little bad about your life) — and while the casual of confidence of childhood means they’re aware of their own talents, they’re not egotistical or braggarts. Instead, they’re just stoked to be hanging out, doing what they love, and getting to meet Gordon Ramsay.
There’s no way to overstate the talent within these children, a group of kids who can barely lift their appliances and have to stand on their tiptoes to see over the box of ingredients but can whip up fancy pies and flawless-looking meals that I’ve never even heard of. But it could also be argued that what’s more impressive are their personalities and enthusiasm, their willingness to help each other out, and their desire to form actual friendships even while technically competing against each other. There are no hard feelings when they’re passed over, just a shrugging honesty: “I wish they’d pick me, but Mitchell’s dish looks pretty tasty!”
In the Season 2 premiere, which aired last night, a contestant who undercooked her chicken is devastated and begins crying. The other contestants don’t just stick up for her in their own interview segments (“I feel kinda bad for Isabella because she’s really nice and I don’t want to see her cry. None of us are A-plus students all the time”); they also all swarm around her at her cooking station, hugging her and reassuring her that it’s OK. Later, Isabella says, “These kids are really nice people, and I thought that was really cool.” It’s enough to melt even the coldest of hearts.
For a reality competition, the show does very little to foster competition between the contestants. Again, much of this has to do with the children’s inherent helpfulness. In a recent interview with Salon’s television critic Sonia Saraiya, MasterChef Junior producer Sandee Birdson remarked, “How are they going to carry these mixers? Oh, they’re going to carry them together. Go get a friend, you can do this. It was unbelievable.” (Other amazing facts from that interview: the kids “cut themselves far less than the adults,” and in between tapings, the chefs also have school.)
The show’s format and judges also help to create this friendly environment. All of the judges, particularly Ramsay, are incredibly nice and helpful (at one point, he stays with a crying contestant until she smiles, and it is the cutest thing in the whole entire world), even though they still expect restaurant-quality food — and often get it. Not all of the challenges are strict competitions: In one episode, a contestant wins the opportunity to sit out the next challenge and eat pie; the judges inform him that he can pick someone to join him, for no real reason other than giving him someone to hang out with. MasterChef Junior also turns the challenges into fun games. Last year, the kids got to dump whipped cream on the judges’ heads, and next week’s episode features an even funnier challenge, though I won’t spoil it here.
During these challenges, which feature only three of the contestants, the rest of the kids stand on the sidelines screaming and cheering on their peers as if they’re all on the same team. And even though only one of them will go home with the prize money (which one girl will use to donate to charity and to buy a horse), it’s easy to see that these children actually are all on the same team: They just want to have fun and do something cool with friends. Competition aside, they all share the enthusiasm and wonder that adults on reality shows conspicuously lack. At one point, a kid wonders if a guest judge is actually a hologram; during an important challenge, someone hands over a plate of pancakes with a bite taken out of one of them; later on, another contestant explains that she put jellybeans on a pie simply because, “Everybody loves jellybeans, and I love jellybeans!”
When the children are eliminated, as reality competition rules dictate that they must be, there are obviously tears, but there’s none of the despair that plagues adult eliminations. After all, these kids literally have their whole lives in front of them to cook, to get better, and to open their own restaurants — and they each make damn sure to reiterate the fact that they will keep cooking and they will open that restaurant eventually. This isn’t the end of the world for them. They are surely disappointed to be out of the competition, but more than anything, they just seemed bummed out to leave their new friends.