These were the parting words from Chef Gordon to the two eliminated young competitors at the end of last week’s MasterChef Junior.
I’m not sure why I like this show, but I’ll be watching the newest episode tonight. I am not a routine watcher of cooking competitions and the “secret ingredient” that must be dealt with in a certain amount of time. Like many, I wasted away many weekend hours watching the Food Network when it first became part of the cable line up. I was like an addict with that and HGTV. I finally took myself back to basic cable so as to prevent such mindless, but happy, watching of tv. Still, I liked the shows that showed a lot of different cooking, maybe along a theme. Or that explained the reason things worked. Or were Martha Stewart — my generation’s Julia Child — the generation that went before us…
I don’t have any chef-y aspirations though I do enjoy trying out new things. I do have kitchen failures and I’ll occasionally try to make something again (like pie crust!!!) that hasn’t gone so well before. Sometimes it’s better. Sometimes it isn’t. Either way, my goal is just to be a good, solid home cook and to make things that are fun for me, my family, and my friends. I do like to push myself, but I also have those comforting favorites that I come back to over and over again.
I had good cooking role models. My mom always cooked so it wasn’t a rare thing in my household to sit down to a meal which my mom made. My grandmothers cooked, though the style and variety varied by side of the family. Both grandmothers empowered me to help in the kitchen and let me do my own cooking. In those early days, my cooking consisted of mostly “souped up minute rice” which was either part of the minute rice box or I saw the “recipe” on a tv commercial. You basically use Campbell’s soup (cream of whatever, but tomato was good too), a can of milk, and a can of minute rice. You heat up the mixture, let it stand 10 minutes, and you have a creamy “pilaf” of sorts. It’s not great to my adult palette, but as a kid, I thought it was special. I thought it was cooking. And it made me happy.
Aside: I did try instant rice once after Japan. It was not an experience I enjoyed so my minute rice days are behind me.
My mom’s mom made German coffee cakes (kuchen) and jar after jar of pickles. She made the most amazing cinnamon rolls (no frosting!) and egg noodles. My dad’s mom gave me a sage-heavy stuffing at Thanksgiving and Dorothy Lynch salad dressing which is still a bright-orange treat even into adulthood. I remember hanging out in kitchen, wandering around in kitchens, and just loving the kitchen. I watched my grandma Emma fry chicken and stir gravy with an ever disappearing fork. My grandma Maxine pounded and floured thin pieces of steak and fried them to a golden goodness with a simple gravy from the drippings. With my mom, there were Saturday’s out trying restaurants my dad wouldn’t have liked. Or eating my favorite — still –macaroni and cheese with velveeta. I eat better mac n’ cheese as an adult, but I have a soft spot, of sorts, for velveeta. My mom gave me confidence in the kitchen and let me “fend for myself” now and again so I could try my hand at cooking. She celebrated my junior high home economics adventures — jelly rolls, a very American sukiyaki — and helped me make extravagant recipes like Italian cream cake which had what seemed like a hundred ingredients. With my friend Sam, I got to explore the idea of cream cheese frosting which broadened my world beyond the “normal” buttercreams we were making in my family. All through my teen years I was decorating birthday cakes with any childhood favorite character that was requested. Cooking just was a part of normal life.
I’ve sometimes wished I had spent more time in the garage with my dad and uncles learning how to take care of a car or how to tackle some construction project. Instead, I was always in the kitchen. It has only been recently that I have come to really cherish my abilities in the kitchen (though I still wish I knew what to do when I hear a mysterious sound in my car). Cooking for me is not really a chore, though on a tired evening after a stressful or long workday, I’m as inclined as anybody else to seek an easier route or to call a friend to go out. Still, I find cooking to be mostly restful. Creative. Fun. It usually has a clear beginning, middle, and end — unlike most things in life. It’s self-sufficiency. It’s a way to nurture oneself and anybody else who is around to eat with you. And these days it seems to be something special that not everybody does regularly, but maybe that’s changing.
So, no, I am not a MasterChef. And I am not drawn to these shows, but this one I found by accident from a passing mention on a website. I decided to give it a look. The kids range, I think, from 8-13 years old. These kids are pretty incredible. They are chef-y. At their young ages, they’ve obviously had a lot of cooking experience. They make pasta. I don’t make pasta. They cook unusual meats like alligator. I don’t cook alligator. They cook under a time clock of one hour. I don’t.
What I like about it is that they are kids who obviously like cooking. They’re excited by it, not bored by it or scared by it. They like being in the “big kitchen” and cooking for the three real chefs. They do get some criticism that is hard to watch because of their young ages, but mostly the judges are kind to them and make them laugh. The kids are also really kind to each other. One of the oldest girls will help the youngest boy lift something heavy. A girl who was struggling with something was helped by her competitor who was standing behind her. When kids do well, they say “good job.” When kids are eliminated, the others all rush to hug them. Cry. Say how much they like them.
And the judges always encourage them to be proud of how far they’ve made it and to keep cooking. And I hope they do.