In celebration of the one year anniversary of winning Chopped Junior, I’ve decided to ask my mom to share her personal notes from the time they told me I was absolutely going to compete on the show to after I won, and when we had the viewing party in my hometown of Auburn, CA.
It was really exciting! Mason had been auditioning for different projects and most of the time, he made it all the way to the final casting decisions, like Rachel vs Guy Kids Cook Off in 2013, it came down to him and another boy and they selected the other child. They asked if Mason would be an alternate and of course he said yes. I believe he prayed every day that someone would trip and fall or break a finger. I don’t think he wanted any real harm to come to any of the kids, but come on, he needed someone to not be able to make the trip and compete! No such luck!
The audition for Chopped Junior was the worst audition of his young life! He had had a bad day at school, he got in a fight with another boy and his audition was just 45 minutes after he got home. He had to hurry and cook his signature dish and be ready to be energetic and bubbly on camera. He managed to smile and put on a front that he was his normal happy go lucky self, but in fact, the things he was saying were telling a different story. I can’t recall the exact context of the questions he was being asked, but he was answering with things like, “Yeah, I’ve been on a bad run lately, hanging out with the wrong crowd, getting in trouble.” I was sitting in the living room overhearing him and thinking, what the heck is he saying? He knows better than to talk about all that kind of negative nonsense! Not to mention, none of it was really true! In any case, when the torture finally ended, I commented that we might as well just move on and look to the next opportunity as I didn’t see a callback in his future for this gig. I also took the opportunity to dispel any ideas that he was a bad kid, I assured him that one fight with a friend of his did not justify a bad run, or hanging out with the wrong crowd. Too funny that he put those things together!
It was many weeks later that I got a voice mail message that was not coming across very clearly, something about Mason auditioning for a show, and they really loved him, and then the word chopped. We had to wait until Monday to call back and get more information, and when we did, it was super cool news!
Yep! Mason was selected to compete on Season One of Chopped Junior! A new show on Food Network that was using the same model as Chopped, only for kids from 8-13. The only real difference is that on Chopped, chefs only get 20 minutes for their appetizer round and the kids got 30 minutes for all three rounds. This was in July 2015 and we were not to share this information with anyone, except we had to share it with a few people, the people who would help us mentor and train Mason. Mason spent the next five weeks doing a 30 minute chopped challenge every day, with the exception of two days. I knew I could not prepare him with ingredients, but I could absolutely prepare him to know what 30 minutes feels like and to be able to work in the timeframe seamlessly. It didn’t take long to see that Mason’s obvious weakness was dessert, in fact, it still is! Not only was he not able to be as creative with desserts, it was this dish that he didn’t finish in time (when he didn’t finish in time). Mason has made amazing crepes in the past, so many that he not only knows the recipe by heart, but he could flip them in the pan behind his back and under his leg. I told him, “If you make it to the dessert round, go with what you know, make crepes!” We had a ton of fun doing chopped challenges and a few local chefs worked with Mason to help him hone his knife skills and learn some new things along the way.
He learned to cut up a whole chicken, to shuck oysters, make fritters, what granita is, how to bake a simple cookie using basil, how to make tempura (
must use cold water!), and so much more. I purchased several kinds of seafood and after spending the day with one of our local executive chefs, I noticed they did not work with he clams. It had been a few days and as I was going to toss them, I called Mason in the kitchen instead. I showed him the clams, that they needed to be closed to be good, and he needed to rinse them off using room temp water – not hot, not cold. I showed him a simple recipe of sautéing some garlic in butter and adding in white wine and the rinsed clams. He caught on right away and as he watched them open, he wanted to make a cream sauce instead and added half and half. Before we were done, he had created a delicious linguine and clams in a white wine cream sauce that was delicious! That five weeks of practice was really awesome, Mason grew as a kid cook by leaps and bounds!
The day we were suppose to leave for NY, we had scheduled a red eye as by the time we got our dates, there was very little time to book a flight that fit in the budget that was being allowed. I thought our flight left at 8 PM and while looking over last minute details, I got a text that our flight was on time for 6:30! AHHH! Thank goodness we were all packed, but we live over 75 miles from the airport, so getting there, parking, catching a shuttle, getting checked in, and through security would be a challenge at best and a missed flight at worst. I was really stressed that we would miss our flight, but Mason was cool as could be. He kept telling me, “Mom, it’s going to be okay, we’ll get there on time, you’ll see.” I called the airline to let them know we are planning on being there, just running late. To American Airlines credit, they had an employee looking for us and waiting to check us in. They got us through security and to our gate in time. Mason said to me, “See mom, we made it. I used my Mason Intention, it’s like luck only better.” Indeed!
We got into NYC at 6:30 AM and of course, our hotel was not prepared with an early check in. We were both so tired and were falling asleep in the lobby of the hotel, the very small lobby, I might add. The producers invited us to the set where they were filming the kids bio-packs as they thought we would be more comfortable there. It was better but it was not a good feeling meeting other chopped competitors and their parents looking like death warmed over after a night of no sleep. We finally got into our room and took a long nap, in fact, I don’t think we actually had dinner, we crashed and slept through the night.
The next day, was August 10th and we didn’t have to report to do Mason’s bio-pack until 3 PM so we went to check out New York. Mason had pizza – $2.99 for two slices, chips and a soda. Who eats chips with pizza? New Yorkers, that’s who! Mason hit the Lego Store, we went to Times Square, several boutique stores and of course, the bakery supply store that I love so much. We had lots of fun buying stuff from street vendors including a couple of $5 watches, a few $10 leather purses, and we got a selfie stick for $7.
We got to the set to film the bio-pack and they did all kinds of things, I wasn’t allowed to watch for the most part, but they did let me watch the “pie in the face” filming. It was fun listening to Mason be a star, to hear the producers ask for his opinion and input and to hear him having so much fun being on set. He really was born to be an entertainer. At one point, he needed to fix his hair and the comb I had with me was a wide tooth comb, not at all what he needed. I told him, “Sorry Charlie” and as I turned around, he was combing his hair with a fork! No duh! Kid cook needs to do his hair, no comb? He grabs a fork! Mason made his Mason Made Fried Chicken with coleslaw and it was good, it was so good the staff ate it all. As we wrapped up filming the bio-packs, we were suppose to be at the Food Network studios in Chelsea Market and we were running late. All the kids and moms were to meet there at 5:30 to get a tour of the Chopped kitchen set and for us moms to get prepped for what to expect the next day. We waited in a cab so long, we finally decided to hoof it, bags and all. As we ran to not be later than we were, Mason started to smell like sour milk, I mean literally, the cream from the pies in the face was souring on his scalp and in his hair. In the end, it took more than 4 days for that smell to all the way go away, mostly.
We got to Chelsea Market and went right in to the tour. They separated the kids and moms at the start and us moms got the talk from one of the parent wranglers, “Welcome to Food Network and Chopped Junior! I know you all think you are going to bring books or computers while your kids are competing, but let me tell you, don’t waste your energy. You will see your kids do things you can’t imagine, they will say things you didn’t know they even knew the words for, and no matter where they end up in the competition, you will see them differently at the end of the day and be more proud than you can imagine you could ever feel.” I thought to myself, No way, I’ve seen Mason on TV, he’s done cooking demos, he is not going to do anything to surprise me. WRONG!! But more on that later. We went back to our hotel room and tried like the dickens to get the sour our of Mason’s hair. After a shower and two long hair washings, we met Tara and Dylan for sushi for dinner and then back to the hotel to get a good nights sleep.
It’s the day, August 11, 2015! Mason, Janie, Hannah, and Dylan were having breakfast and then on their way to the Food Network studio to compete on Chopped Junior. I think my most favorite memory from this whole experience was earlier in the morning while Mason and I were getting ready to walk out the door to go down to breakfast, I said to him, “So really listen to me. I’m so proud of you, and I know you have the skills to win this competition. With that said, I want you to know you have already won by just being here and more than anything, I want you to have fun today. Take it all in and enjoy the journey. No matter what happens, set your intention to have fun.” Mason replied, “Winning is fun.”
We went down to breakfast and we were all sitting at a long table and at the end was a smaller table just for two pushed up against the longer one. Mason was sitting there with Hannah’s mom across from him. The kids were all nervous and really not eating or talking much when Mason piped up with, “Do you all realize that the next Chopped Junior champion is sitting at this table?” They all chimed in, “Yeah!” and Mason said, “No, THIS (as he placed both of his hands on the smaller table edges only he was sitting at) table.” The room had an odd quiet for just a second and I got chills as I realized, he just really set his intention, like really!
Mason can do anything he sets his mind to, be it win a cooking competition, or improve a school lunch program. He’s a kid with a bright future as long as he can stay out of his own way.
We got to the studio and as soon as we walked in the door at street level, we took some photos and the kids were whisked off and us parents were taken to the room where we would spend the whole day, or until our child was chopped. Here is what I wrote that day while we were in our room watching the competition on production monitors. I was permitted to write and record as long as I agreed to not post any of it until after the episode aired.
Totally intense in the waiting area. All moms are on pins and needles. The kids have a little time from the time they see their ingredients to the time Ted says, “And your time starts now!” When I say a little time, I mean less than a minute. There is lots of help with what things are and how you might traditionally use an ingredient. Interestingly, when asked if they have questions, the kids don’t ask any. The judges and Ted are very supportive. The judges are Michelle Bernstein, Scott Conant, and Camilla Alves. Mason cut his finger in the appetizer round, but they didn’t air it.
1st basket: coconut milk, mussels, pepper jelly beans, and squid jerky. Mason made a mussel stew with white wine and coconut milk, he fried the squid jerky like bacon and when he burned his pepper jelly bean sauce, he just tossed a few in each of his bowls of mussels. He was not happy when he burned the sauce and Ted rushed over to make sure he was okay. Ted assured Mason that he did not leave an ingredient off his plate, he will be just fine.
The judges are giving the kids a lot of feedback, way more than we see in a Chopped episode. After they present their dishes and get the judges feedback, the monitors are turned off in our viewing area and while we were waiting for who got chopped and round two, Ted came up to say hello. He walked in and asked, “Who is Mason’s mom?” I let him know it was me and he said, “Mason is quite the young man.” I agreed and yes, I asked for a photo. He graciously took a selfie with me and I said, “If you have a chance, tell Mason I said, turn it around, you can turn this around.” Ted asked if Mason would know what that meant and I assured him he would. It didn’t air, but he told him and I saw Mason’s face go from anxious to the big smile I know and love. Oh, and the clock is real!!
Turn it around is what I tell Mason when we hit a bump in the road and it’s to remind him he is in control of how he feels and how things go from this point forward. He can truly go from, “this sucks!” to “I got this!” and that is exactly what he did. He made it to the entree round and Ted asked the kids if they could have their dream ingredient in the basket, what would it be. Dylan said broccoli, Hannah said kale, and Mason said steak. Ted informed the kids that one of them was about to get their wish. The entree basket included green strawberries, cereal with milk, squash blossoms, and Wagyu skirt steak. As the were getting ready to start, Mason told Ted that the squash blossoms had bugs in them, lots of bugs. Ted advised the kids that that meant they were not sprayed with chemicals and insecticides. They had to stop production and production assistants had to hand pick the bugs out of each blossom.
I don’t get nervous but this is like NO experience that I’ve ever had! I’m sure Mason will agree. Mason made spicy street tacos, salsa, stuffed and fried squash blossoms and put them in his tacos. He made his own tortilla chips and a colorful salsa of tomatoes and the green strawberries.
While Ted was talking with the kids, Scott made a comment and Ted said, “And you were saying?” Scott replied, “What’s the point if I’m not $%^&# on camera?” Oh my!! Really? The point is the kids can hear you.
Don’t get me wrong, all the judges were awesome and I don’t think the kids heard that, they were in their own little worlds cooking. This just spoke to the celebrity and egos that come to the table when people are on TV.
Mason made it to the dessert round! He and Hannah are competing and Hannah is a baker. It turns out that her mom thought she was applying for the kids baking championship and in fact, she was applying for Chopped Junior. Mason is not a good baker, he didn’t do well in practice and I’m hoping he pulls off a miracle today.
The dessert basket includes, microwave chocolate cup cake, Greek yogurt, blood oranges, and cookie straws. Mason says he is making a crepe’ and he’s struggling. The crepes are not coming together, he is using the wrong pan and a metal fish spatula? WTH? He knows better than this. Mason also wanted to make coffee and though there was a coffee maker on set, it wasn’t working. Mason called Ted over to help and Ted couldn’t get it to work. Ted noted that this must just be a prop and called, “Hey, someone being Mason some coffee!” Mason found a double shot of espresso at his station in less than a minute. While he was struggling with the crepe’s, Scott Conant called to production to bring Mason the right tools to get this done. Mason said on the show that he went to get the right pan. When Mason got one good crepe’, made with the blood oranges he added the coffee and spices to the cake filling and made the coffee and greek yogurt into an ice cream base that he put in the ice cream maker with just 2:02 minutes on the clock! Trying to get the ice cream out of the maker and on the plate, Hannah asked if she could help. She did and they got the food on the plate literally in the final second.
I can’t imagine how our kids did this today – this was an immense pressure cooker, the likes of which no 10, 11, 12, or 13 year old would understand unless they competed in the Chopped kitchen. I wonder if this was too much? Should I have not agreed to put Mason in this position? Will he ever want to do a cooking demo or competition again? That’s how intense this is, I’m asking myself if I’m a bad mom for agreeing to let Mason compete.
The judges were awesome. Ted Allen was incredible, all in all, I’m amazed at what Mason did today. His first two rounds were A+ and dessert a C-, he could win as Hannah struggled in the first two and aced dessert. With that, Mason would be the Chopped Junior Champion. Now let’s see…
Michelle Bernstein said, “I hope my son grows up like you guys.”
I cried and when Mason finally came back to where us moms were, I asked someone to film us and I screamed and hugged him like never before. A couple of Chopped firsts, Season One of Chopped Junior was the first time Chopped gave away aprons and chef coats. The winner got a chef coat and the other kids got their aprons, these were shipped to the kids along with a thank you letter and a photo of their group. Food Network was a class act with our kids. The other thing that was cool was how Mason and Hannah looked right at the camera in the sequester room. I’ve never seen any contestants, adult or child do that before Mason did or after. Leave it to Mason!
We finished the day after 6 PM and by the time we got back to the hotel thinking we would shower and go out for dinner, we were so tired, we ended up in TIG Fridays’s so tired we couldn’t even talk. We went right back to our room and while I showered, I came out to find Mason sound asleep in his bed. Chopped Junior Championing is hard work.
The next day we went to Dylans Candy Store and Central Park. Mason shopped and we rode the carousel. We had a picnic in the park, Mason played and I interviewed him about his experience and asked him if he would do this again and he said, “Heck yes!!” You see, Mason had been contemplating not cooking anymore, he didn’t like being pegged only as a kid cook. He told me that this has renewed his vigor for cooking and performing on a cooking stage. I will do my best to get some of the video footage edited this week and up for you all to see.
As much fun as this was, it was massively painful to not be able to tell anyone that Mason won Chopped Junior, in fact, I did tell a few key people and Mason and his dad did the stellar job of keeping the secret. We had a viewing party at Pistol Pete’s where family friend and mentor to Mason, Gary Gilligan paid to have Moe’s cater the party. It was fun to have so many friends watch Mason win, although we had a hard time hearing the TVs it was still fun to all be together for the big win.
This was the experience of a lifetime and Mason is hopeful he will have more opportunities to cook on Food Network, do some motivational speaking about parents empowering their kids, television appearances, and more. Stay tuned, I suspect he’s not done inspiring and surprising all of us.