How staged/fake is MasterChef Junior?
January 10, 2015 5:22 PM   Subscribe

On the recommendation of several friends I watched the entire last season of Masterchef Junior (US), and I was amazed at what 8-12 year olds on the show were doing, but part of me wonders how real the show really was. I've googled and can't find much beyond people saying it's fake and others saying it's real. Is there more info I'm missing?

I'll list the reasons that made me wonder about the realness of this reality show:

- The kids are all amazing on screen, seem almost like hollywood show kids that were maybe recruited to talk on camera more than cook. They say some incredible things, usually in the classic couch reaction bits, so I wonder how much of their responses are coached/written/on cue cards.

- Most ~10 year olds I know can cook one or two simple dishes (pasta, grilled cheese) but I'm having a hard time believing a 11 year old kid knows how to break down a salmon then cook it using a really advanced method, and can also do three side dishes within an hour that are intricate as well. Do the kids get cookbooks/coaching to help them along? Do 8 year old kids really know how to cook steak several different ways and make a huge variety of vegetables?

- On one of the episodes, they had to make cupcakes it looked like they were clearly pouring pre-measured amounts of ingredients into bowls. Was every challenge a bit pre-staged like that?

Honestly, I don't mind if they used cookbooks, and I'm impressed with the stuff they were cooking, but some of the responses they give sound too smart and written by adults, and I'm genuinely curious if real kids are capable chefs at such a young age. Even the most interested kid that grew up to go to culinary school I knew growing up could probably only cook about 4-5 basic dishes around the age of 10.

Friends told me it was the first good Gordon Ramsey show they'd seen (he doesn't yell at people, tries to be supportive), so I watched, but I'm skeptical. I've seen a few news stories about earlier seasons and non-US versions where former contestants made claims they were coached/helped a bit in the kitchen, but I'm wondering if anyone has seen anything more definitive about the current and past US versions of the show.

It seems too good to be true, so I'm wondering if it really is.
posted by mathowie to Society & Culture (30 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I did not watch the show, but the winner lives in my neighborhood in Memphis so I was exposed to a lot of info during the course of the season. He is real person, not from Hollywood, homeschooled, and his interest in cooking started at an early age. I can tell you that after he was picked for the show, he spent many hours being tutored in the kitchens of prominent Memphis restaurants. One local newspaper article specifically addressed his skill at cooking fish and the chef here in Memphis that taught him.

Not speaking to how staged it is, but that kid does know how to cook.
posted by raisingsand at 5:39 PM on January 10, 2015 [14 favorites]

Best answer: i read this article ...dunno if this helps or frustrates you.Buzzfeed article
posted by tipsyBumblebee at 5:43 PM on January 10, 2015 [4 favorites]

Have you read this article? It explains how the show works, or at least how the show wants a journalist to believe the show works. But I think a lot of what seems suspicious is explained by the training and coaching the kids receive.
posted by Lyn Never at 5:44 PM on January 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

i can't speak to the realness of this specific show, but i can speak on kids cooking. my brother was about that age when he was making bagels and donuts from scratch. my siblings and i were all making dinner for 10 by the time we were 11.

as to master chef, i'm nearly positive they have a room of cookbooks for the adult contestants to peruse during downtime, so it'd make sense if the kids get that too.
posted by nadawi at 5:45 PM on January 10, 2015 [2 favorites]

kids that were maybe recruited to talk on camera more than cook

This is pretty typical of reality TV, or really any non-scripted television. I was a Jeopardy! contestant, and while I am a smarty and did well on all the trivia tests you're required to take to get in, I'm pretty sure the reason I was chosen to be on the show over hundreds of others is because I'm also pretty good at things like public speaking, appearing on camera, telling a personal anecdote, etc.

Every single reality show that follows a cast of characters over the course of a whole season or more is going to be casting as much for the skills required of a reality TV star as they are looking for people who can do the thing the show is about.
posted by Sara C. at 5:47 PM on January 10, 2015 [3 favorites]

Best answer: aha! i knew i hadn't imagined it. here's an interview with prior contestants about the show and it includes this,
Says Josh, “We cook every single day except Sunday. On Sunday we either have free time in the kitchen or in a cooking class.”

Wait, what now? You read correctly: cooking class. We were wondering how two non-bakers with no culinary training made three souffles in 60 minutes. As it turns out, the MasterChef-testants do get a bit of training behind the scenes, and everyone has access to “a full library of pretty much every cookbook in the world” between challenges to study. But no one has any prior knowledge of what the challenges will be, no one gets to consult the library during challenges, and the cooking classes aren’t necessarily specifically tailored to that week’s challenges.
posted by nadawi at 5:55 PM on January 10, 2015 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Gordon Ramsey has four children and is legit great with kids ... you can actually see this on ALL his shows where they make the chefs/contestants cook for children one week; he gets down on their level and pays very serious attention to them and the kids really respond to him and love talking to him and he's got a very "dad" vibe. (I think Joe and Graham have gotten more comfortable over time with the kids; it was not as natural with them from the start, and Joe in particular seems to have to check himself sometimes and pause before he speaks.)

Buzzfeed has a pretty good behind-the-scenes article that jibes with a lot of the other things I've read about it, including:
"Birdsong and her culinary team of as many as 26 people teach the kids cooking classes in between episodes, walking them through the techniques they need to succeed and giving them safety training. The MasterChef classroom is identical to the set — same ovens, same food processors — so the contestants can get familiar with the equipment. The culinary team squeezes in as many classes for the kids as they can given the short amount of time children are legally allowed to be on the Paramount lot every day. “The kids are here to learn as much as they can the whole time,” she says.

Birdsong says she doesn’t teach the kids exactly what to do for a challenge, but rather shows them a basic and (most importantly) the fastest way to accomplish things like make a sauce or filet a fish. There are lots of different ways to make a piecrust, for example, but one way is probably best when you’re racing the clock. The kids have the option of writing down and memorizing anything from class."
I was not a good cook as a child, but I could bake hella cakes by the time I was 8. Several different types, and many kinds of cookies. Following a recipe, obviously, but I did know how to add more of different ingredients to adjust based on how the batter or dough was coming out, and lots of tricks for making the cookies the right size and the cakes come out of the pan properly and so on, and I could make several frostings from memory, by ear, by the time I was 11 or so. My five-year-old is very good at making crock-pot stews ... he can follow the recipe very well and do all the cutting and measuring and mixing of ingredients (although I usually do the raw meat preparation part, as I don't think he's reliable with raw meat safety), and after he makes a recipe two or three times, he remembers most of it and only uses the written recipe to verify. I don't let him use the oven or stove yet, but he does know how to prepare some different vegetable dishes that I then cook for him. We're not very foodie ... little kids just think the kitchen is an awesome science laboratory where experiments end in deliciousness.

I have also noticed that a disproportionate number of the kids on the show seem to have parents who own restaurants.

Curious Chef has kiddie cooking utensils, including safety knives that can cut most vegetables (and in fact are now our preferred bread knives) but don't cut little fingers; this is what we have our 3- and 5-year-old kids use for cutting, for anybody else with tiny people who want to let them do more in the kitchen.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:56 PM on January 10, 2015 [28 favorites]

I can't speak to this perticular show, but I have recently seen a "behind the scene" look into other similar cooking shows. From what I saw, each contestant is generally giving the information on certain ingredients used before the actual day of competion and often times an actual cooking "class" on that perticular style or challenge. Whatever makes good tv right? I'm sure those kids are still all incredible cooks.
posted by Spacefish at 5:56 PM on January 10, 2015

Best answer: A MeFite recently confirmed that the kids get some coaching.
posted by Room 641-A at 6:45 PM on January 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

Everyone on a reality show is cast based on being telegenic, perky, a decent speaker and someone to whom the audience can relate. Sure, they're directed but no PA is replacing their souffles with ones made by a Master Chef.
posted by Ideefixe at 6:54 PM on January 10, 2015 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Yeah, no one is going to cast anyone in a reality show like this one if they can't get a funny and appealing bite from them in their interviews. I suspect that a big reason those kids are funny in interviews is because the person who casts Masterchef Junior is really good at his or her job. No one working on a show like this has time to coach the kids to be Extra Charming; it's honestly way easier to cast a person who is charming to begin with (especially when you're dealing with a group as unpredictable in their behavior as kids). If you want to see a reality show where you can tell that the contestants are occasionally fed lines in the interview (usually lines the producers need to set up a challenge or to explain some bit of plot, nothing nefarious as much as just We Need This Or This Episode Makes No Sense), watch Big Brother.

Also, the interview bits that you see are like two seconds out of a LONG ASS interview, often. You see the cute, funny, pertinent bits but there are tons of questions where the person doesn't answer succinctly or is just boring.*

*I assume. I have never worked on Masterchef, but I've worked on shows like it in the past.
posted by Countess Sandwich at 7:28 PM on January 10, 2015 [4 favorites]

The latest episode of Still Untitled: The Adam Savage Project podcast discusses MasterChef Junior, and the "competition" reality TV in some detail. The guy who had been on that sort of reality TV talks about how they get the right sort of "TV-friendly" comments out of the contestants (especially the couch bits), and how you can foil their plots to manufacture controversy, if you ever end up in that situation.
posted by that girl at 7:53 PM on January 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Yeah, I listen to the Still Untitled podcast and that was like the third time I heard about MasterChef Junior, which prompted me to watch it, but I asked the question mostly because I wondered what went on in the kitchen.
posted by mathowie at 7:55 PM on January 10, 2015

The question I've had, if I can piggyback, is what the hell they do if one of those kids trips carrying their plate up to be judged.

(Also that Buzzfeed article wasn't bad. Abby was the BEST. My neighbour and I watch MC and MCJ together and just wanted to eat her with a spoon.)
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 8:04 PM on January 10, 2015

My understanding is that all of the contestants are there because of nepotism/industry connections, adults make some of the food presented, and that of course, there are re-shoots of scenes. I'm pretty sure someone told me this this rather recently, but I can't remember who since they probably shouldn't have dropped this info on me in the first place.

Just in general... I have many friends that work in reality tv, it's all scripted. The one competition show I worked on was definitely rigged. I've had to stop watching Chopped because the rigging was getting sloppy and obvious.

I know I wasn't shocked when the nepotism and stunt cheffing came up in regards to this particular show. I'm sure I just speed bumped the comment and moved on to the next topic because it's so common in "reality" competition shows.

I've never watched this show, but after hearing that the contestants are there through connections, and that there are professional chefs working off camera making dishes for presentation, I have every confidence the competition is "curated." I doubt the entire production staff is in on that aspect of the show. Likely, the winner is decided behind closed doors and everyone goes through the motions of pretending they don't know the outcome is pre-decided.

I've heard both that Ramsey is great to work for, and that he's a terror. I worked on one of his shows once, but got another more lucrative gig before he arrived on set. I specifically left that gig because I didn't want to get to know him. FWIW.
posted by jbenben at 8:24 PM on January 10, 2015

feckless - if the trip makes for dramatic tv, it is probably kept in. More likely though, those moments are scripted. Otherwise, there are dishes on stand-by for presentation. (I assume. I wouldn't know. I'm repeating industry gossip, but it is gossip congruent with my experience.)
posted by jbenben at 8:29 PM on January 10, 2015

Best answer: General notes, in my opinion, on reality television that probably apply here...

- It's more real than you probably think... Sure the entire scenario is heavily contrived, but what plays out in front of the camera is (for most shows) very seldom directly manipulated by crew. The idea that contestants of reality shows are coached, told what to do or secretly given help (or sabotaged) is usually outright false.

- Casting is a huge part of the process... For a show like Junior MasterChef they are going to be looking for precocious and cute youngsters with the right skills. On other shows they will be casting to specific types with a fairly specific recipe for the mix of participants they want - many people in reality TV casting have a background in clinical psychology. They often know how a contestant will react in a situation better than the contestant themselves.

- There's so much you never see! On most reality shows a 22- or 44-minute episode will consist of 6-8 hours of shooting with multiple cameras, covering multiple groups or individuals. The amount of footage that's generated is insane. You never see most of that. Instead what you see is the pieces that best tell the story that the shows producers have decided they want to tell.

- The interview process is super-important... Whenever you hear someone on a reality show describing their thought process, or narrating their actions, it's from an interview conducted from an associate producer, either during the shoot day or afterward. Those interviews can last hours (less than an hour would be unusual) and contestants are basically talked through all the events of the day. Where producers know they want to push certain story angles they will guide discussion in a way to provide content for that. But even in those process participants are seldom coached on specifically what to say - the interviewer is just good at asking the right questions basically.

- Scripting doesn't happen... Basically most people are shit actors. If you tell them exactly what to say they will do it poorly. Instead the brilliance of reality TV is putting the right people into the right situations to get them to do and say basically what you hope they will.
posted by sycophant at 8:44 PM on January 10, 2015 [9 favorites]

I work for television. There is so much deception and staging, and that's even before editing begins (which in itself is a way to contort reality). It's so appalling I don't watch television anymore (apart from the work day television I of course have to watch). So I would say: take it with a grain of salt. Anything that looks perfect means more material was recorded and the best parts were edited together in a way that may not be analog to the way time flowed during the recording. In my opinion this is even more true for "reality" television.
posted by hz37 at 1:52 AM on January 11, 2015

I would assume that tripping and dropping the food is never really an issue. Having just quickly watched the cooking and judging segments of an episode, it looks like each kid is carrying only one dish a very short distance, with both hands. And I would guess that if disaster struck, the kid would either get a do-over (it's very obvious from the editing in the cooking segment that they play fast and loose with the times, anyway), or that they may cook more than one portion of food to begin with.
posted by Sara C. at 2:15 AM on January 11, 2015

I remember during one episode this season, the kids were asked to make as many pancakes as possible in some time limit. When one of the kids brought his stack up, the plate tipped a bit (or something similar) and it was clear that pancakes were impaled on a rod to keep the stack upright and perfectly centered. While they were cooking, you could see the plates they put the pancakes on and they definitely had no structural aid visible. A very small detail, but one that may speak to the kind of invisible augmentations they do after cooking to accomplish the level of presentation they show.
posted by Schismatic at 5:56 AM on January 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

I just wanted to say that I started cooking at 7, easy things like scrambled eggs and oatmeal, and by 12 I cooked the family dinner all by myself. I wasn't doing sous vide, but I baked and chopped and assembled quite well. I also ready my mother's Larousse Gastronomique and other cook books to get ideas for new things to do with chicken and hamburger. If a kid is interested, and the parents are supportive, you'd be surprised at how much they can learn in just a few years.

There's another show, Project Runway - Threads, with kids who are sewing savants.

I do suspect that these kids, once chosen are told to bone up on certain skills. I mean, if you were chosen to be on Survivor, wouldn't you practice learning to make fire?
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:46 AM on January 11, 2015

My neice at age nine placed in a recipe competition, with her pasta sauce recipe, much to the confusion of the organisers when she turned up for the cook off section of the event. She came in second against four adults. She has two chefs for parents but it was her recipe etc.
posted by wwax at 7:14 AM on January 11, 2015

My friend Derek has a great blog about cooking with his young son. There definitely are kids who have the palate, repertoire, and creativity to cook in this way at a very young age.
posted by judith at 7:33 AM on January 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

The one kid Troy from season 1 is definitely an actor and featured heavily on those Kids React YouTube videos. After I noticed that I started to assume most of them are cast as performers, especially the ones who are extra young/precocious.
posted by SassHat at 12:47 PM on January 13, 2015

the first good Gordon Ramsey show they'd seen

FWIW, the UK version of Kitchen Nightmares is quite good; a lot less staged shouting at the subjects, a lot more constructive (and genuine-appearing) advice. It always surprised me how different, and how one-dimensional, his persona in his various US series is.
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 5:47 PM on January 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

Conversely, SassHat, the kid who won the first season is genuinely talented and has gone on to do some pretty amazing things.

The F-Word is also great Ramsay, for that matter.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 5:57 PM on January 13, 2015

Doesn't directly answer the question, but another point of anecdote about kids cooking: Yea, I mean it's a reality show so I wouldn't be surprised to learn it was scripted or whatever, but honestly I don't think it's entirely impossible for young kids to cook real food. I'm one of those kids who was interested in cooking from a very young age, and did things like watch cooking shows along with Saturday morning cartoons and clipped recipes from newspapers after reading the comics. Even if I wasn't in the kitchen doing certain things, I definitely had "academic" knowledge of things.

But beyond that, like Ruthless Bunny, I was scrambling eggs on my own and making easy things from the age of 7. With parents who both cooked and were pretty lackadaisical about me faffing around in the kitchen (they obviously told me to be careful about knives and fire, but I was still allowed to do stuff), I learned a lot from watching them, helping them out, asking questions, and just plain trial and error applying things I learned or just trying some harebrained idea out when I wasn't being supervised closely. For example, I remember being 10 and being obsessed with making "soups" for a while, making different variations with different vegetables that I cut myself using a real knife and mixing everything in a big pot (some more/less successful than others). I never tried, so I don't know how I would've done breaking down a whole salmon on my own at 11 on limited time, but I probably could've done it if I was being taught as others say above or following recipes since I started regularly doing stuff in the kitchen around that age. Considering I made a meatloaf using a recipe from "Encyclopedia Brown Takes the Cake" at age 11, flan for a social studies class at 12, and homemade pizza with pizza dough I made from scratch at 13, it seems entirely possible in the right environment kids could be making those things.
posted by kkokkodalk at 8:59 PM on January 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

I wouldn't be surprised if a percentage of the kids involved at the outset are child actors (a lot of reality TV personalities are actors, that doesn't at all mean that it's "staged", just that LA is a city full of people trying to get their face on TV by hook or by crook), just looking at how many of the contestants are from the LA area. Which makes a degree of sense from a production perspective -- you don't want to fly a bunch of families out from all over the country only to lose them the first day. So you get a bunch of adorable local ringers who most likely don't have a chance and mix them in with the real cooking phenoms who are going to be able to keep up with the challenges in the final episodes.

Notice for instance how many of the kids in the first episode are from SoCal, vs. the final 4.
posted by Sara C. at 9:35 PM on January 13, 2015

Heh, Sara C, I noticed the exact same thing at the start of Food Network's current "Worst Cooks in America" series -- a higher-than-you'd-expect proportion of "I'm from LA" contestants filling out the wacky-characters roster.
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 11:10 PM on January 13, 2015

My husband and I have a joke that all reality show contestants are from Sherman Oaks. Most of the viewers in the country have no idea where that is - or Woodland Hills, Agoura, Calabasas, Irvine, Whittier. You think, "well, California's a big state..."

Reality shows aren't Union, so they can pad with locals really cheap for anything they need. I have a friend who played a tour bus guide on Hell's Kitchen - I can only imagine that every tour bus guide in LA is already an actor, but I'm guessing using a real tour company would have been more expensive.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:52 AM on January 14, 2015

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