Fox’s hit show, “MasterChef Junior,” has taken the country by storm. Kids everywhere are proving that they have the skills to outrank some of the best of the best in the industry. Currently on it’s 6th season, six different Chicago area kids are being cheered on by their entire state.
The show is scheduled to premiere at 7 p.m. Friday. Three of the six kids live in Chicago, while the other three are from the suburbs. The lot of them got into cooking in a similar way- by being the helping hands of their parents.
Forty contestants between the ages of 8 and 13 try to impress judges Gordon Ramsay, Christina Tosi and Joe Bastianich (who returns after a two-season break) on Friday’s two-part premiere. Only 24 competitors make it past the first round. The season winner gets $100,000.
The Chicago Tribune got to know the six contestants making us all proud.
Pierce Cleveland, 12, Oak Park
Pierce is a sixth-grader at The Percy Julian Middle School. He started cooking at age 6 and auditioned for “MasterChef” because he “really wanted to share the cooking to the world.” Pierce enjoys playing competitive sports like volleyball and soccer and runs cross country, and he brought that energy to “MasterChef.” Pierce is also very into fashion, which influences how he plates his dishes.
“I felt ready for the competition. I would tell myself, ‘I’m ready, you can do it.'” I like picking out my clothes every day, and I really like to try new colors, maybe designs,” he said. “I think just making things look fancy is kind of what I do.”
Though he’s not sure what career he wants to have — actor, singer, dancer and chef come to mind — Pierce said if he won the “MasterChef” prize money, he would open a children’s cooking school in Oak Park. He also wants to raise money and awareness for the Oak Park River Forest Food Pantry.
Beni Cwiakala, 11, Pilsen
Beni was inspired to try out for “MasterChef” after watching River Forest junior chef Addison Osta Smith win Season 4. He is a fifth-grader at The Namaste Charter School fifth-grader said she was quite nervous about filming, but she got some good advice from her father, film and commercial director Mark Cwiakala.
He said to the Tribune: “Don’t be someone else, just be you and just have fun.”
Beni, who is into kickboxing and quit the swim team to tape “MasterChef,” is also a rising star on Instagram. She’s posted pictures with famous chefs, including Girl and the Goat’s Stephanie Izard, under the name “Beni and the chefs.”
If she wins “MasterChef,” she plans to donate some money to the Greater Chicago Food Depository and save some for her dream to own a food truck that she would use to teach disadvantaged children how to cook nutritious food with local ingredients.
Mikey DiTomasso, 11, Clarendon Hills
Mikey is a fifth-grader at The Prospect Elementary School, he is known as the “Italian Scallion”. He came across an ad for “MasterChef Junior” tryouts that were being held the following day and “begged and begged my mom to the fullest point to go and she just somehow let me do it.”
“I was pretty relaxed in the kitchen. I didn’t really have a lot of fear of what was going on. I was relaxed and curious and just wanted to enjoy the experience while I was there and on camera,” he said.
Mikey’s love for soccer comes from his dad who is the head men’s soccer coach at Elmhurst College. Even so Mikey has set his heart on a culinary career. Specifically, he wants to run a make-your-own pasta bar.
“It would be like you walk in and you have your instructor, and he teaches you how to make the pasta dough from scratch. It would be a full-out Italian restaurant. And then you could pick your sauces. It would be all hands on. It would be a really family-friendly activity,” he said. “I just think it would be awesome because it makes people happy and they would really enjoy it.”
Nadia Dixon, 10, Old Town
Nadia is a fifth-grader at The Catherine Cook School, she was one of the kids recruited by “MasterChef” casting agents because of the cooking videos her mom, Chicago PR maven Monika Dixon, posted on social media.
Nadia, who plays basketball and volleyball and enjoys baking cupcakes, said she eventually wants to work in the film business. She said if she won “MasterChef,” she would donate some money to organizations focused on reducing pollution.
“I honestly don’t know what I would do with the other half of the money. I guess I would try to help my family. If my friends and family were going through a hard time, I would give them some money and maybe that would help them,” she said.
Luca Fortuna, 12, Wicker Park
Luca is a sixth-grader at The Chicago Grammar School and his love for cooking comes from making breakfast with his dad. He was also one of those recruited for “MasterChef” when he attended a local cooking camp.
“At the end of the camp, a scout walked in and was asking for names. To be honest, I didn’t really want to do it, but my mom and dad pushed me,” he said. “I tried it, and I enjoyed it and I’m glad that they pushed me. It was a good experience.”
When Luca is not experimenting with Ramen dishes, you can find him playing video games. He wants to be a food critic so he can travel and write. He said he would set aside “MasterChef” prize money for college because it’s the “smartest thing to do.”
Though he was initially apprehensive about going on “MasterChef,” he recommends other budding cooks give it a shot.
“Once you’re out there, it was actually pretty fun. All the stage fright goes away,” he said.
Ben Watkins, 11, Gary, Ind.
Ben, a fifth-grader at Discovery Charter School in Chesterton, remembers as a toddler baking chocolate chip cookies with his mom and he has had a strong love for cooking ever since.
“She wouldn’t play with toys so she would say, ‘Come play in the kitchen,'” he said.
One of his mom’s friends suggested he apply for “MasterChef.” Viewers will get to see Ben compete months before tragedy struck.
In September, after filming of the season had concluded, Ben’s father shot and killed Ben’s mother before committing suicide at their home. Ben turned 11 four days later. His family’s restaurant, Big Ben’s Bodacious Barbecue and Deli, closed after his parents’ deaths.
Ben used to sell baked goods there, but he has plans to sell baked goods again when he gets access to a commercial kitchen.
Ben now lives with two of his uncles and his grandma. Community members have created an educational trust fund for his future. Ben, who wants to be an engineer, said if he won “MasterChef,” he would bank the prize money.
He is hosting a premiere party that’s open to the public at Miller Bakery Cafe, 555 S. Lake St., in Gary. He’s also posting updates about his life on his Facebook and Instagram pages.