Masterchef Junior, a kid version of the famed cooking competition for adults, is beloved by audiences the world over. It's two scoops of adorable with a side of cuteness au gratin as the children, ages 8 -13 compete in front of Gordon Ramsay and other select judges. But, unlike Ramsay's other shows in which he chews out contestants like he's auditioning to be the drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket, Ramsay turns into Mister Rogers for Masterchef Junior.
The show is nuclear grade levels of wholesome, or at least, it would appear to be. Because with Masterchef Junior, much like Gordon Ramsay dissecting some kid's failed attempt at a Beef Wellington, when you cut through all of the delectable layers of puff pastry, you find something deeply disturbing. In the case of the Beef Wellington, it's a raw slab of uncooked meat with maybe a booger on it. In the case of Masterchef Junior, it's these three things:
There's a $100,000 Prize
Masterchef Junior comes with a $100,000 winner-take-all prize, and for the American viewing public this might not seem like too big a deal. We don't get out of bed for anything less than $100,000 on a reality show, but to offer a cash prize of that magnitude to children carries all sorts of implications.
For starters, have you seen Honey Boy? Shia LaBeouf's parents aren't the only ones willing to exploit their kids for cash and notoriety. It happens all over, and you better believe that if some eight-year-old got on TV for the ability to make Coq au Vin that there were hundreds of hours back home where a helicopter parent stood behind her yelling, "chop faster!"
But even in the most loving, supportive families, there is still a tremendous amount of pressure with that type of cash and being on TV. When I was nine, I had a panic attack during the school spelling bee. The prize was a ribbon and a high-five from my teacher and no one was watching. I couldn't imagine what would have happened if I were on TV competing for 100 grand, but I would guess it would result in some very wet pants.
And that pressure is multiplied by a billion if you come from a low-income family. Imagine if winning this dumb cooking competition might literally be the only way to pull your loved ones out of poverty or to get into college. Maybe the rich kids are able to laugh as a vat of hot fudge is dumped on Gordon Ramsay like he's on Slime Time Live, but for poor kids, this isn't a cooking show. It's The Hunger Games. It's just instead of jamming that knife into each others' eyes they're using it to score pastry.
There's a reason that Jeopardy! Teen Tournament gives prizes to everyone who participates. It's so you're not permanently haunted by the moment you thought Ben Franklin invented the light bulb. Yes, the next morning, you might shoot up from your bed and yell, "Alexander Graham Bell ... no, wait, that's not right," but at least afterward, you're not sobbing because that one wrong answer means you have to drop out of school to start robbing light bulb factories like the lamest Batman villain imaginable.
Gordon Ramsay Is Still A Sociopath
I know up top I said that Gordon Ramsay is super sweet on this show, and he is. The producers have made sure to cultivate that image. But they also need to uphold the standards of an American cooking show. So, because Gordon is no longer allowed to call the kids donkeys or throw pans at them like he would the contestants of his other shows, he gets out his urge for sadism by attacking the children with psychological warfare.
First, he takes comically long, dramatic pauses as he announces the losers of a round. It's standard fare for reality TV, I know, but it still must be emotionally scarring for someone who just learned to tie his own shoes last week. Yes, I'm sure those pauses are elongated in the editing room, but Gordon Ramsay has been doing this so long that his reality show cadence of "the winner is ... (deep breath)" is now woven into his DNA.
Despite being toned-down for the kids, Ramsay is also still plenty an asshole when it comes to chastising the children for improperly made food. In one episode, for example, during a pop-up kitchen challenge, a contestant named Cydney is behind on her cooking assignment. Gordon tells Cydney to put down the pan, then takes that pan throws it on the beach. She begins to cry, but there's no room for tears when you've got some salmon to make, so Gordon ignores her and tells another contestant to take over.
This is presented as some tough love by the show's narrative, as too is the time when Gordon mocks another contestant's undercooked fish as "sushi" and throws it into the sea. Perhaps it is explained to these children that these outbursts aren't personal and are merely part of creating a "real-kitchen-environment." But even if you're able to convey that nuance, think about the lesson they just learned. Part of being a great chef like their hero Gordon Ramsay is belittling those around them.
It's All Bullshit Anyway
I already mentioned earlier how, if you're on Masterchef Junior, it's likely because you had some sort of parent pushing you into unhealthy levels of obsession with foie gras. But there are definitely exceptions, and plenty of kids naturally gravitate towards a particular subject out of pure love and then practice until they reach prodigious levels.
But winning Masterchef Junior doesn't mean you're a cooking prodigy or that you're even the best home cook on the show. It means you were the best at following a recipe, and the producers liked you because (surprise!), the reality is not reality. The kids might gasp and ham it up to the camera when a new challenge is revealed, but according to the father of one contestant, the kids are told what they will be cooking before they cook it. He said:
"The kids act all surprised, but they have had the recipes for weeks. While everything looks spontaneous, the reality is these kids have cooked the dishes 50 times. It's not reality. It's all staged."
A spokesperson for the production company also admitted that, "in certain challenges, not all dishes tasted because of time and that not all dishes were hot when judged." You probably could have expected that going into this, but it's still disheartening to hear.
Even if you were one of the kids who had a genuine love of cooking, the world is telling you that your proudest moment should be succeeding on Masterchef Junior, and that moment is a completely manufactured experience. Gordon Ramsay then tells you something isn't salted quite right, despite the fact that it's been sitting on a podium for two hours. Then a psychologist is brought in by the showrunners to "pump up" morale, and if that's not a sign your show is involved in some dubious practices, then I don't know what is. Well, at least they give you a free apron.
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Top Image: Masterchef Junior