Food for Thought: Lessons From MasterChef Junior

baby chefCOOKING can be one of the best (and most fun) ways to spend your time. But sometimes, you might want to enjoy food without the calories, prep time or pressure of forcing yourself to go to the gym the next morning. Which is why cooking shows  and televised competitions are so popular, and why it’s so easy to catch an episode of Gordon Ramsay’s MasterChef Junior and become officially hooked after finishing it. Which, I admit, is what happened to me.

Now, Ramsay doesn’t have the reputation for being the nicest of guys, but in the junior version of his hit show, he and his co-judges Joe Bastianich and Graham Elliot are much less egomaniacal and more encouraging, which in turn encourages you to focus less on his Mean Girl snarkiness and more on the competition and, in this case, the contestants. The kids range in age from 8-12 and yes, although the nature of these scripted “reality” shows is to convince you that these captured moments are genuine, these baby chefs just seem to really get life and crush/chop/slice/beat it. Unlike someone who isn’t crushing it right now: me.

I am the total opposite of these kids. Without realizing it, I’ve morphed into an older, slightly less-offensive version of Regina George: quick to gossip, quick to roll my eyes, and quick to find the flaws in others, superficial or otherwise. And even worse, I realize that I become jealous when I hear about others’ successes, when exerting a similar if not greater amount of effort has not gotten me as far. And this epiphany at the hands of a bunch of kids making flan and foie gras.

Forget the fact that these kids are incredibly talented. Not one of them treats it as a competition against each other. Of course, they talk about how much they want to survive the rounds and not be sent home, but instead of trash-talking or trying to sabotage their competitors, they are all focused on their own dishes and what they literally bring to the table — letting their actions and their efforts do all the talking for them. They even support their fellow MasterChefs when one of them is having a difficult time handling the challenge. They really exemplify the idea that there’s enough room for everyone to stand in the sun. Watch an episode of Chopped or Cake Wars and you’ll see that, more often than not, sportsmanship is not one of the ingredients in these adult competitors’ cupboards.

Boys and girls from all manners of ethnicity and cultures participate in the competition, and they all treat each other with respect instead of chiding each other for their differences. With the rampant bullying that goes in in schools (and even/especially among adults), whether this camaraderie is real or not, it’s nice to see people celebrating each other’s uniqueness instead of making fun it. Their ambition and determination is nothing to laugh at, either. The only time these kids say the word “done” is when their pot roast has finished cooking Nothing is too imaginative or tricky for them to accomplish — they just go for it. Sure, sometimes they’re in over their heads with ingredients they’ve never used or heard of or don’t make sense and it doesn’t work out (maybe papaya and anchovies aren’t the best-paired ingredients), but they take it in stride because they seem to know this key lesson: “Hey, that’s life.” The point is, these kids are in that precious moment in their lives when fear doesn’t exist and “no” isn’t a word they’ve heard regularly. Everything is possible, which is a lesson that those of us whom hear “no” more often than “yes” need to remember.

Granted, they’re just kids. What kind of setbacks do you face when you’re eight years old and cooking is your hobby? These pint-sized chefs serve as a reminder to those of us who have ambition to remember where it came from and the reasons we’re so passionate about whatever it is we dream about at night. It doesn’t all have to be about the business of it — there’s joy that needs to be found again.

Say what you will about cooking competitions and reality shows, but MasterChef Junior is about a lot more than just cooking. There are important life lessons to be reminded of, ones that have been shoved down after too many years living in a world full of Regina Georges. I honestly think it’s made me kinder and more compassionate over the last few weeks, and that kind of personal growth is more delicious than any meal.

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