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Culinary kids and more

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Junior chefs pose with judges Monti Carlo, Scott Conant and Sarah Michelle Gellar and host Ted Allen on Food Network's 'Chopped Junior.' (Photo courtesy of Television Food Network) Junior chefs pose with judges Monti Carlo, Scott Conant and Sarah Michelle Gellar and host Ted Allen on Food Network's 'Chopped Junior.' (Photo courtesy of Television Food Network)

Talking 'Chopped Junior' with Ted Allen

When many of us were between the ages of 9 and 14, our cooking skills were limited to toasting a Pop-Tart or (in my case) opening a box of 'Freakies' breakfast cereal in hopes of finding a Boss Moss' fridge magnet hiding inside.

On the part cooking show/part game show, 'Chopped Junior', we see young people preparing fresh tarragon, mincing ginger, searing quail or grilling octopus. These kids can cook. New episodes air Tuesdays at 8:00 PM on the Food Network.

In early 2009, the Food Network aired the first episode of what has become one of its most successful franchises, 'Chopped.'

On each episode, four competing chefs are handed a basket of 'mystery ingredients' and are challenged to create a dish to be judged on creativity, presentation and taste. Contestants are also granted access to the show's pantry and refrigerator where they'll find other ingredients. The winner takes home $10,000 and a coveted 'Chopped' chef's jacket.

After 26 seasons and more than 300 episodes, word went out that 'Chopped' was looking for kids who could cook. The first season of 'Chopped Junior' aired last fall and winter and is back with 13 new episodes hosted by Ted Allen.

'These are kids who have never been alive when the Food Network wasn't on and they've always had the internet,' Allen told me in a phone interview last week. 'You know how when a kid gets into something, whether it's comic books or the Disney Channel, they're obsessive about it. These kids come in armed with a great deal of knowledge and it's amazing.'

Allen, 50, says that he enjoyed cooking when he was the age of the young contestants on 'Chopped Junior' but that these kids come to the show equipped with an unusually high level of knowledge and ability.

'(At their age) I was doing stuff like making cakes out of a box or what I used to call doctoring up' hamburgers,' Allen told me. 'Here, we're talking about 9-year olds who know how to use lemongrass. They know that you only use the white part and you have to bruise it with the back of your knife to release the essential oils. You're nine! Why do you know that? Because you're watching this network constantly and it's amazing.'

Adding to the fun on 'Chopped Junior' is a rotating lineup of celebrity judges who sample and judge the work of the junior chefs.

'We had Sarah Michelle Gellar on the premiere which was super exciting,' Allen said. 'When you do these shows, you never know who's watching. Mila Kunis and Ashton Kutcher are big fans of the show ('Chopped'). Mila came on as a judge in the first season. She started out by saying I'm not going to say anything negative.' By the end of the second dish, she said This is not edible.''

According to Allen, the baskets of mystery ingredients presented to the contestants of 'Chopped' are not as randomly selected as some viewers might believe.

'These baskets look like they're awful combinations of food but our staff actually has an idea in mind,' Allen said. 'There's a riddle in the basket. It's just that the riddle is so arcane and difficult, people rarely figure that out. We're not putting training wheels on the baskets used in 'Chopped Junior' Those kids are getting ingredients every bit as tough as professional chefs.'

What are some of the more bizarre mystery basket' ingredients that Allen has seen in his capacity of hosting 'Chopped' over the past seven-plus years?

'Whether an ingredient is strange depends on where you come from,' he said. 'If you're from Chinatown and go for dim sum (a style of Chinese Canton cuisine prepared as bite-sized portions), seeing a bowl of fried chicken feet is not so strange. And we've had chicken feet several times. We've had whole chicken in a can. Rocky Mountain oysters have made themselves known.'

Knowing what to do with those ingredients and crafting a superior dish with them is the challenge of 'Chopped Junior'

'What they lack in experience, I think they make up for in their open-mindedness,' Allen said. 'They're like Yeah, I'll take a pigeon and put it in a blender with some ice cream and it'll be a great sauce!''

Allen, a native of Columbus, Ohio, first appeared on the radar of TV viewers in 2003 as a member of the cast of 'Queer Eye' on Bravo, where he served as the show's food and wine connoisseur. He has authored two cookbooks and is a longtime contributing writer to Esquire magazine.

When the young contestants of "Chopped Junior" walk into the studio for the first time, Allen said that some of them experience 'sensory overload.'

'They've been watching the show for years and it doesn't seem like a real place,' he said. 'I've literally had kids say to me Wow, you're real!' like they thought I was a cartoon character. That's a big part of the fun when a kid walks in and his eyes are like saucers and they've got all this crazy equipment to work with and weird ingredients they don't normally get. It's the same competition we've had for years but with the addition of these interesting celebrity guest judges and these crazy wide-eyed kids who are willing to try anything.'

What we see on 'Chopped' and 'Chopped Junior' is a seamless presentation that looks almost as if we're watching the competition in real time. In reality, Allen said, each episode requires an intense amount of work and planning.

'It's about a twelve hour day to do one episode,' he told me. 'The kitchen has to be cleaned during every round, we have to interview the kids about what happened, and it's a little bit of a challenge because child labor laws come into it when you're working with children. We have to abide by those laws very strictly.'

Putting the contestants at ease is part of Allen's job, even though he said he's usually off-camera during those interviews.

'It doesn't usually show up in the final edit of the show but I'm interviewing these kids,' he said. 'I try to draw them out and it's more of a challenge with these kids than it is with adults most of the time. Sometimes we'll get kids who are shy. Sometimes we'll get kids who are not shy enough (laughs) and they won't stop talking.'

One would think that the $10,000 prize awaiting the victor on each episode would be the prime motivator to win. Overwhelmingly, said Allen, the kids are not motivated by money.

'When you're 9-years old, $10,000 might as well be a million dollars or five dollars,' Allen said. 'It kind of doesn't mean that much to you. What you really want is the Chopped Junior' chef's coat. When they win, I'll say Hey, congratulations! You won $10,000!' and they'll say Yeah.' And I'll say And a 'Chopped Junior' chef's coat!' and they start freaking out (laughs).'

For young chefs reading this story who would love the opportunity to appear on a future episode of 'Chopped Junior', Allen offered a suggestion.

'Our contestants apply online and they usually send in a video,' he said. 'We get a lot of people who throw 'Chopped' competitions at home and they'll often film it and put it online. We get a huge kick out of it. Sometimes they'll impersonate members of our cast or even myself which is sometimes hilarious and sometimes a little bit troubling (laughs).'

Each summer, Allen looks forward to taking a break from his 'Chopped' responsibilities by heading to Maine.

'I've got almost 20 years of history visiting Maine every single July,' Allen told me. 'In recent years, we've gone to Drake's Island and rented the same house every time, right across the road from the beach.'

According to Allen, he fell in love with Maine when he came here in the 1990s for the wedding of some friends.

'They were married on Islesboro,' Allen says. 'We were living in Chicago at the time and had this big gang of friends. There wasn't much of a hotel on Islesboro so our friends rented this big house and we just started making it a habit.'

Not surprisingly, Allen said he is a big fan of Maine food.

'The food is so fantastic. The first year at Islesboro, we were actually picking our own mussels and bringing them back and cooking them. Obviously, lobster is a great thing to get up there.'

Sounding almost like a member of the Maine Tourism Association, Allen shared his affection for Maine's coast.

'We love it there. The water is so incredibly cold - until that two-week span in July where you can just about tolerate swimming in the ocean off the coast of Maine. Unless you're like a five-year old kid and then you put on a wet suit and you don't care. The beach at Drake's Island is one of the finest beaches that I've ever seen. It's hundreds and hundreds of feet deep when the tide goes out and it's just gorgeous.'

Has Allen found Maine people to be reasonably friendly?

'Absolutely! In some ways, they're kind of like New York people,' he says. 'They're direct. They get straight to the point. Of course they're friendly, they just have stuff to do. Ask a Mainer for directions. They're always happy to give them to you.'

Allen says he can't wait to get back to Maine, but until then, you'll find him on the Food Network set of 'Chopped' and 'Chopped Junior.'

'It's a safe network for kids to watch and we've found that the show has the special quality that kids and parents want to watch together, which is a really cool thing.'

('The Big Morning Show with Mike Dow' can be heard on Big 104 FM The Biggest Hits of the '60s, '70s & '80s - airing on 104.7 (Bangor/Belfast), 104.3 (Augusta/Waterville) 107.7 (Bar Harbor/Ellsworth) and WAEI AM 910.)

Last modified on Wednesday, 04 May 2016 10:18


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