MasterChef Junior review: Was the mystery box challenge just too corny?


In this review of MasterChef Junior, our dwindling young cooks must elevate a typical side dish to a star, and then face their most difficult team challenge yet.

As the top eight enter the MasterChef Junior kitchen, I am struck by how quiet things are now. Instead of a flood of screaming kids, we now have just a handful left with only one “woo-hoo” from the bunch. The tables are set for a mystery box challenge but Aaron gives the secret away.

“What did the baby corn say to the Mamma corn,” he asks. “Where’s popcorn?” Gordon notes how corny the joke is, but not as corny as the flood of corn kernels that fall from the ceiling. The food waste on the show continues to distress me. The corn piles all the way to Ivy’s knees.

Finally allowed to lift their mystery boxes after getting cleaned up, the kids find all varieties of corn. They have yellow corn on the cob, fresh baby corn that is still in its husk, corn meal, huitlacoche (corn fungus that tastes like mushrooms), fresh masa (corn dough), heirloom popcorn kernels, corn flakes, freeze-dried corn, and corn husks. They have sixty minutes to make this side dish the star of their plate.

Reid decides to make a Cajun spiced steak with tomato corn relish and jalapeno corn bread with whipped honey butter. It sounds delicious, but the corn still sounds like a side dish. Jaala makes a corn pudding pie with a cornflake crust and corn infused whipped cream which sounds creative and very interesting.

Aaron is making corn succotash with corn puree and a NY strip steak. Like Reid, his dish sounds like corn remains a side dish. He is confident though, saying, “I am going to make this corn succotash the best corn that the judges have ever tasted in their life and Gordon is really old, so that means a lot.”

Malia makes a sweet corn ravioli with brown butter sage sauce which I would order on any menu. We don’t hear from Sadie, but she seems to make a crème brulee.

The first kid called up for special attention is Che. He seems to have figured out how to include protein without relegating corn to the side. His shrimp and corn sope with smoked paprika popcorn and street corn pico de gallo is a big hit. Aaron tells him, “I want to adopt a version of this on my own menus at my restaurants. I think this encapsulates all the best parts of where Mexican food is now.” High praise indeed.

MASTERCHEF JUNIOR: L-R: Contestant Che and judge Christina Tosi in the “Junior Edition: Too Corny” episode of MASTERCHEF airing Tuesday, May 14 (8:00-9:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. © FOX MEDIA LLC. CR: Greg Gayne / FOX.

Little Matthew is called up next. He is wearing a shirt covered in cars and fully looks his age of eight and yet has created blue corn crusted tuna with corn and roasted pepper salsa, avocado, and furikake (Japanese seasoning made of dried fish and seaweed as well as other ingredients) spiced baby corn. I am so impressed by his sophisticated dish.

Ivy rounds out the top three with her corn tamale with baby corn elote (grilled corn) and huitlacoche. She has never made tamales before but has pulled off a delicious version. Che’s shrimp and corn dish wins the day, but as we have so few cooks left, he does not win immunity.

Instead, his reward is to select the teams for the next challenge. The young chefs have just one hour to work in teams to complete a tapas platter. Their platter must feature beef empanadas, grilled bread with crushed tomatoes, shrimp with chorizo in a spicy sauce, cheese croquettes, octopus with Romanesco sauce, and churros with chocolate. This would be a huge challenge for any chef to complete as each item must be made from scratch.

Che selects Aaron as his teammate. He pairs Reid with Ivy, hoping their different styles will lead to arguments. He pairs Jaala with Matthew as he hopes that Matthew’s age will cause miscommunication. This leaves Malia and Sadie to work as a pair. The pairs will work as a tag team. One team member will start cooking with the other on the side helping verbally. They will switch multiple times throughout the cook, and the person who started the cooking is not who will complete the plating.

MASTERCHEF JUNIOR: Contestant Aaron in the “Junior Edition: Too Corny” episode of MASTERCHEF airing Tuesday, May 14 (8:00-9:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. © FOX MEDIA LLC. CR: Greg Gayne / FOX.

As the kids start cooking, the judges comment on how communication, delegation, time management and organizational skills are key. All I see is a lot of yelling. The kids on the sidelines vary from yelling encouragement to mildly freaking out about the cook not moving fast enough.

The judges privately recommend that the kids start with the empanadas, then move to the croquettes. From there, they recommend working on the octopus, followed by churros so the batter can rest, then the grilled bread, and finally the shrimp. For whatever reason, Sadie and Malia decide to cook their shrimp right away.

Gordon approaches them to ask if they have even started their croquettes. They have not, having been focused on the shrimp which cooks quickly and will be cold and rubbery by the time the challenge ends. He tells them they are cooking like they have given up. They quickly change gears, but they struggle for the remainder of the challenge. A number of times, we see Sadie go in circles, trying to figure out what to do next.

Aaron and Che seem to have a lot of mutual respect for each other, which does not actually work in their favor in this challenge. This leads to no one taking control and the person on the sideline doing little more than saying, “you got this.” They seem to be moving without urgency at first, perhaps because they are not pushing each other from the sidelines.

On Jaala and Matthew’s team, Che’s prediction proves true as Jaala becomes frustrated and Matthew gets flustered. At one point, things have gotten chaotic on their station and Matthew begins to cry. He needs a pep talk to keep going. Even though he pushes through, there seems to be a lot of yelling from the sidelines for this team, with the cook paying no attention to what is being yelled. This leads to mistakes and forgotten ingredients.

MASTERCHEF JUNIOR: Contestant Matthew in the “Junior Edition: Too Corny” episode of MASTERCHEF airing Tuesday, May 14 (8:00-9:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. © FOX MEDIA LLC. CR: Greg Gayne / FOX.

Time is called and I am impressed that every team has completed all the components. Che and Aaron are up for judging first. Their croquettes are deemed to be an inelegant size and shape, their empanadas need more color, and their churros are too short, but they put forth a strong platter.

Jaala and Matthew are up next. Their empanadas are missing tomato. Their shrimp are burned, their churros too dark, their Romanesco sauce missing vinegar. Little Matthew begins to cry as each dish gets critiqued. Their lack of faith in each other has led to a mistake on almost every dish.

Reid and Ivy are up next. Unlike the other teams, they seemed to communicate well throughout the challenge, giving equal amounts encouragement and direction to each other. Their platter is nearly flawless. The only comment the judges make is that the empanada is a little under seasoned.

Finally, Malia and Sadie approach the judges’ table. Their platter has many mistakes, most of which Malia accepts as her own. The croquettes are misshapen and under seasoned. The churros are drowning in sugar. The empanadas have too much filling and the filling is lumpy. The octopus is dry and the bread needs more seasoning.

MASTERCHEF JUNIOR: L-R: Contestant Malia and host/judge Gordon Ramsay in the “Junior Edition: Too Corny” episode of MASTERCHEF airing Tuesday, May 14 (8:00-9:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. © FOX MEDIA LLC. CR: Greg Gayne / FOX.

Unsurprisingly, Reid and Ivy are the winners of the challenge. Che and Aaron are safe. After the critique of Malia and Sadie and Matthew’s top dish in the mystery box challenge, I am thinking that Sadie and Malia will go home, but the judges eliminate Jaala and Matthew.

Poor little Matthew sobs his heart out, but they both have great outlooks as they leave. Jaala tells us, “It’s not really about winning. It’s about the experience and having fun and meeting new people.” Matthew says, “for the eight years that I have been on this planet, this has been the best time in my life. I have so many memories to take with me so kids, if you ever want to be a part of something, follow your dreams ‘cuz it’s gonna happen.”

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So, were you surprised by the elimination, and who are you calling to win it all? We have just six amazing young cooks left so the end is near!