"Kids cut themselves far less than adults": Inside "MasterChef Junior," the best cooking show on television

Producer Sandee Birdsong on Gordon Ramsay, the state of culinary TV, and why kids do well under pressure

Published November 4, 2014 11:58PM (EST)

Contestant Samuel and Chef Ramsay in "MasterChef Junior"  (Greg Gayne)
Contestant Samuel and Chef Ramsay in "MasterChef Junior" (Greg Gayne)

“MasterChef Junior" is nothing like other cooking shows. As Time’s James Poniewozik wrote today, it’s the best cooking show on television, and much of that is because the show is genuinely enthusiastic about demonstrating and teaching cooking, where other shows focus on product placement and drama. “MasterChef Junior” is, meanwhile, a surprisingly winning competition show that takes a gaggle of kids from ages 8 to 13 and puts them in front of Gordon Ramsay, the blustering Scot who brought “Hell’s Kitchen” to television. But Ramsay melts like butter in front of the kids, and their confidence and eagerness is an antidote to a reality television landscape that is otherwise often cynical and petty. Plus, the kids are downright amazing: Last season, they were tasked with a three-layer cake, filet mignon, chicken liver, fresh pasta, and whipping heavy cream into peaks stiff enough that they wouldn’t fall out of an upside-down bowl. (Because this is “MasterChef Junior,” though, if you did fail, the whipped cream would fall on one of the judge's heads.)

In anticipation of Season 2 of the show, which premieres tonight on Fox, I talked to Sandee Birdsong, culinary producer for this show and practically every other cooking show on TV: “Top Chef,” “The Taste,” “Food Fighters” and, of course, the “MasterChef” family. Specifically, I wanted to ask her how she managed to get Gordon Ramsay to be so nice, and what it's like working with kids. Along the way, she explained to me why "MasterChef Teen" might not be coming to your TV any time soon – and how to get your kids to cook you dinner.

What was it like setting up “MasterChef Junior,” which is part of the “MasterChef” family but obviously, in other ways, very different?

It was a game-changer. You're like — wait. This is interesting. How is this going to work? It seems impossible. At that point we had no idea what kids could accomplish. From a culinary standpoint, it became, how are you going to teach these kids how to make these things that are extremely difficult for us to teach the adults? Are they going to be able to really focus and make these extravagant pastries? Are they going to be able to do a cake? Are they going to be able to do a soufflé? How are they going to be with the knives? All of this.

The amazing thing was that it was easy. The kids were so amazing. They pick up everything, and they push themselves to limits that a lot of times the adults don't push themselves to. They were constantly wowing us, and showing us that they could do more and more and more to the point where every time we put a challenge up, they were just accomplishing it. We were stunned.

These kids were so amazing that they ... you know, they didn't cut themselves. They cut themselves far less than the adults did. Just watching them take on this task was amazing, and they took it on better than most adults do. 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.

What are you looking for when you're casting a show like this?

What I'm looking for is someone who just has a good basic knowledge of how to go about preparing a dish — a truly composed dish. When we talk to the kids, we figure out if they have some basic skill set, which they usually do. Some a little bit better than others, obviously. But a basic skill set: how to measure, how to cut, can you fry an egg? The simple, basic stuff. But then as you get to talking to them, you want to know their food knowledge. Do you know what basil looks like? Do you know what pin boning a salmon means? Do you grill? Do you use other spices besides salt and pepper? Those kinds of things.

What's very hard in culinary-based casting is that a lot of these kids do have that, and they bring it to the table. So now you're trying to figure out which one can handle the stress of competition, because that, I think, more than anything, is the biggest challenge they face.

Think about this. Think about waking up every single morning and knowing you're about to face a challenge that you have to compete at. You go through your entire day and compete at that challenge. And then when you're done with that challenge, you're faced with another challenge, and you're not really sure what's going to happen, next challenge. And then you go to bed. Then you wake up the next morning and you're faced with that challenge. Imagine every single day you have a challenge to face.

So many other reality competitions for adults, you see adults begin to feel the effect of that pressure. The kids' ability to handle pressure seems to be pretty good.

It is. And I think that's because they're in school, too, and they know — they get up, they've got to learn. I mean, when's the last time you took a test as an adult? Or the last time you didn't know what you were going to do when you woke up? [Adults] plan all that. With them, it's like, “OK, what are we doing next?”

On top of that, they also have to have their school, because it's not just competition; you also have to have your school that day. It's not like, “Hey, I'm on this show and there's a break from reality.” They actually have to go to school and have to have breaks and have to eat at a certain time. So there's a lot on them, for sure. It's amazing to see what they accomplish.

So you have a teacher who comes in and teaches these kids, and then they go to work?

Yeah. The law requires juniors to, based on age. And certain schools test on material and stuff that you have to deal with, and it's a certain many minutes or hours a day. There's also, they can't be on set for longer than X amount of time, depending on their age. It's definitely a different process.

Why did you choose the age range of 8 to 13?

The best that I can tell, as a culinary producer, is that because we want them to come up to the “MasterChef” adult quality of the show, you have to have a cast that has that knowledge and that can push themselves that hard. So going younger at that age just doesn't really work, because they're not as mentally able to handle that. There's risk.

But then older … You know, once you're 13, 14 years old, imagine, I mean, come on. Teenagers, really? They're like, “Hey, I know the world now. I've got it!” As a producer, I've worked with teenagers. I've worked with even 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds, which are amazing to work with, too, don't get me wrong. But it's just a different dynamic. When I worked with 3- and 4-year-olds, and 5-year-olds, we are kind of stuck in a certain parameter. How far we can go with certain things. And then when you get into a teenage mode, they get really focused on what they want to do. And so the age group 7 to 8 and 13, they're very moldable into competition.

I do think “MasterChef Teen” would be hilarious. 

It would. And it would be great.

You were talking about the way that the kids have to be scheduled. Would you say that's the biggest change from “MasterChef” to “MasterChef Junior,” or is there something else that jumps out at you in creating the show? 

The biggest thing that happens with our culinary team, and this is so funny, that when you're around them, they suck the energy out of you like mad. Getting to know them is a little bit different than getting to know an adult. There's an air about them. Individually, you care about them so much. You want to see them do good, and they just suck the energy out. So when you're done, at the end of a “MasterChef Junior” day, you are dead. I mean, you just don't have energy, number one. I don't want to look at anybody, whatever. They exhaust you.

One of the most interesting things I've noticed watching the show is that Gordon Ramsay frequently steps in to help. I know that he has kids of his own and he's familiar with how kids work, but that's so different from what we see of him in other shows.

Yeah, well, you know it's really interesting because we were all thinking the same thing, like, how are [judges] Gordon and Graham [Elliot] and Joe [Bastianich] going to relate in this environment? And have it not look like it's, you know, a teddy bear moment. You know what I mean?

But what's so interesting about Gordon is it really comes off so natural with him. Even when he's disciplining him, or yelling at them about something, there's this level of respect that the child has for him, and he has for the child, that total care. They know, they get it. He’s this grandiose father figure that has the career of their dreams, and he just does it so naturally. He doesn't sugarcoat things for them like they are a toddler. I mean, he really goes at them when they need it, but there's always this wonderful constructive element. So that was awesome to see.

And even Joe — I mean, we're like, “Oh gosh, how is Joe going to handle this show? Where's he going to go with it?” And he's the same way. Actually, they change him way more than anybody on the whole show.

So what is it like being a culinary producer for so many major shows? Did you invent this job for yourself?

I was in Season 3 of “Top Chef” in Miami. I got voted off second. When I got on the show, and saw my competition, I was like, “Oh, they're way past my skill level. What am I doing here? This makes no sense.” I got voted off second, and at that point they sequester you for the rest of the show, because if you were at home, then everybody would know. Spoiler alert. So I got to sit behind the scenes and watch it unfold. And that was amazing. At that point I knew, that is what I wanted to do.

I'm glad that being eliminated second turned out really well for you. 

Yeah, it did. It did. Now I have a crew of 26. Our team tests every challenge that we've done. And so we push it all the way to that exact hands-up moment, and we watch it, and we watch it unfold in front of our eyes, and make sure that it's going to be good TV.

Lastly: What's your favorite challenge that you've done on “MasterChef Junior”?

Tag team. Tag team’s always my favorite challenge. No matter how many times we test it, no matter how you think it's going to be successful, anything could happen. You've got so much riding on the fact that people are switching out — and if they've forgotten something, it's not going to happen. So, literally, I am on my tiptoes the entire time. I never sit during a challenge like that. We don't breathe. From the time that we start developing  the tag team challenge to that hands-up moment, it's tiptoes. That inspires me more than anything, because I know then the audience is feeling the exact same way.

Just seeing the kids ... when their hands go up, and the look on their faces of what they have done is unbelievable. You can tell right on their face at that moment if they're happy or if they've completely blown it. Obviously there are failures, and they're crying. For the ones that have done well, when they put their hands up and they are proud of what they just put on the plate, that look — there's no words to even go there with it. It's unbelievable, because you know that they put everything into that hour.

Just remind me, what did they make for the tag-team challenge this season?

Beef wellington, with broccolini and mashed potatoes.

I think a couple of the kids didn't like broccolini very much, if I remember correctly.

I don't like broccolini either! It's bitter, it's nasty. No matter how I cook it, I cannot get that bitterness out ... It's weird. I just don't like it. I don't like it. And I eat everything. But broccolini's not my favorite. Broccoli's fine.

What have you learned, doing the show?

Kids ... don't underestimate them. They've got it. They really do. Parents should allow them to go there and to be in the kitchen and do things. Especially parents that don't like to cook or don't have time to cook. Allow your kid to do it! They enjoy it, it's fun, it's a game. Get them a bag of groceries and say, “Hey, make me dinner.” They love it. It's not a task for them. It's a task for most adults that aren't cooks, but kids love it. And even if it's not their number one thing to do in the world, hey, it's playing a game. It's better than being on a video game. And a lot of times they play it the same way. Don't underestimate them. They'll make you a good dinner.

By Sonia Saraiya

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Cooking Shows Masterchef Masterchef Jr. Masterchef Junior Sandee Birdsong Television Tv