Fox enters the realm of kinder, gentler reality TV with “MasterChef Junior,” the latest series from the evidently inexhaustible Gordon Ramsay assembly line, but perhaps the first to position the U.K. chef as a cuddly teddy bear. Combining “Kids Say the Darndest Things” appeal with traditional cooking challenges, this mini “MasterChef” is ideally suited for Friday-night family viewing, but will have to overcome network TV’s lousy track record with tyke-driven competitions (e.g., long gone and largely forgotten “Kid Nation” and “American Juniors”) to succeed.
Anyone expecting Ramsay to play the foul-mouthed drill sergeant to a crop of underage culinary contestants is in for a disappointment. Instead, he kicks off the competition with the enthusiastic — and uncharacteristic — declaration “You’re all winners!”
Such cheery platitudes signal “MasterChef Junior” is taking cues from NBC’s current reality king “The Voice,” and a bit of ABC’s Friday-night breakout “Shark Tank,” in avoiding the nastiness and humiliation that characterizes Ramsay’s other Fox vehicles. Even as the group of 24 young chefs, ranging in age from 8 to 13, is whittled down to a top 12 in the one-hour premiere, criticism from Ramsay and fellow judges Joe Bastianich and Graham Elliot never becomes much harsher than “the apples are a little undercooked.”
Still, there’s something rather disconcerting about a competition that involves small children dicing ingredients with sharp knives and lugging around KitchenAid mixers. Fortunately, the show’s emphasis on professionalism helps keep any concerns over safety in check. These kids know their way around a good dish, and appear far more accomplished than the average “MasterChef” adult as they confidently step up to the challenges involving seafood, pasta (made from scratch!) and desserts.
While the rise of celebrity-chef culture surely plays a part in luring young hopefuls to a show like this (or Food Network’s recently launched “Rachel vs. Guy: Kids Cookoff”), “MasterChef Junior” isn’t trying to fool anyone with the disingenuous idea that these chosen few are somehow closer to achieving their dream careers, the way all-ages singing competitions routinely do. There are no promises of opening a restaurant (they’re kids for goodness sake!) or scoring a TV show (well, you never know), but the winner does receive a $100,000 cash prize.
Whatever motives they had for signing on, the show’s assemblage of pint-sized personalities demonstrates enough natural charm to sustain a season and potentially give both Fox and Ramsay another reliable reality franchise. As long as it doesn’t spark a questionable new craze (please, no “America’s Next Top Model Junior” or “The Junior Bachelor”), that seems as harmless as Ramsay’s nice guy makeover.