Revisiting ‘Chopped Junior’

Coco in her first Chopped Junior Skype interview. Photo by Melissa O’Brien

It all started with my mom saying, “You should look on the Food Network website and see if there are any casting calls for cooking shows.” I thought about it for a little while then I decided to go for it. What harm could it do? The odds of me getting in were so slim I thought it would just be a fun experience. I thought wrong.

“Chopped Junior,” it turned out, was looking for new contestants. The first part of the process was filling out an application form and making a video about why I wanted to be on the show. Just a few days later we received a voicemail from a woman in New York City. She worked for “Chopped Junior” and she wanted to have a phone interview with me. I was beyond excited. I never even thought they would see my application let alone want to speak with me. 

When the interview day came I was very nervous. I kept thinking, “What would happen if I didn’t know the answer to a question? What if I completely messed up?” When the woman called I was ready. The interview didn’t last too long and the questions were not that hard to answer. I thought I did pretty well, but I wasn’t sure what would happen next.

The process continued when we got an email saying I had to send three pictures of dishes I made from scratch with no recipe. One of them would become my signature dish. Then came a Skype interview during which I would talk about the three dishes I made and answer more questions. My dishes were: seared tuna over a bed of mango-pineapple chutney; a pork roulade stuffed with mushrooms and arugula, on a bed of garlic mashed potatoes; and orange balsamic glazed salmon with a side of lemon broccoli. I was so proud of myself for creating these dishes and I was confident about my interview; it went well.

Time passed during which I worked hard learning techniques and training with my Auntie Margaret at her restaurant in Pawlet. We occasionally got an email offering me a chance to be on special episode, but none of them seemed to be the right fit for my personality. I was starting to lose hope as no sign of a good episode was being offered to me. Then one day we got a phone call. One of the kids on the show was sick and the producers thought they might need me, right away, to take his place. It seemed a little weird, but after all of the of waiting I thought it would be the right thing to do. So, we packed our bags as quickly as possible and we started heading to the train station to take us into New York City. I was beyond excited even if I wasn’t going to get the chance to cook. When we arrived in Saratoga, the sky was getting darker and we began to realize we might not make it to the train on time. Not long after the producer called to tell us they didn’t need me to come after all. This was a big let down, a very sad moment. 

Finally, on a cold December evening, my mom told me that I had been offered another opportunity to be on the show! The theme of the episode I would be on was Stick Food so I knew I could have fun with that. Luckily this time we had a month’s notice. I was so excited to know I was finally going to be on the show! Early January came and were ready to roll

We arrived in New York City and headed to our hotel. I had to go to the studio and film for the show. This was when they created each kid’s introduction. I got to meet the other kids, my competition. I remember them all being so nice and having such a strong passion for cooking, just like me. I had to make my signature dish and describe on camera a little bit about my life. I remember being so scared and shaky being in front of a camera, but as time passed on it got easier and easier. After a few hours we were finally done and then it was time to take a tour of the actual studio, where the show is filmed. It was so cool to see the place I’d only seen on television, to walk through the supply area, to stand at my station. It was all coming to life! It was a long day and I was exhausted when we got back to the hotel. Still, I didn’t sleep very well that night.

The next day all of us, contestants and parents and people from the show, met very early for breakfast. We were all tired and excited. It was competition day. My stomach was full of butterflies; I still couldn’t get over the fact that I was going to be on national television! At the studio I got to meet the judges: Sunny Anderson, Marcus Samuelsson, and Dale Talde. They set us up with our microphones and aprons and we were ready to go. 

We got to our cooking stations and shortly after were told to open our baskets. Inside were the four mystery ingredients: corn dogs, tortellini, shisto peppers, and mushrooms. The studio people gave us the countdown: “3, 2, 1, go!” And just like that we started cooking. My adrenaline was at an all time high as the clock was winding down. I was confident about what I was making, but in the last few seconds the girl next to me, Sannah, needed help. So I ran over to her and did what she asked me to do. By then the 30 minutes were over. Our plates were taken to the judges and we followed. When my time came to talk about my dish I describe it like this, “Today I have made for you a creamy herb tortellini with a hotdog, mushroom, and shisto pepper skewer.” I had never felt so confident. 

When everyone was done talking about their dishes, we went to what’s called the Cookie Jar. It was a room in the back where we waited and talked about how we thought it went and, of course, we got cookies. Shortly after, they called us back out. It was time to find out who had been chopped. The host said the words, “Who’s dish is on the chopping block?” We all held our breath as they lifted the plate cover. I almost burst into tears; it was my dish. All the hard work I put into this and the hours spent training to come here, were done. I had been chopped. 

After one last final interview, I rushed to see my dad (only one parent was allowed in the studio). By then I couldn’t help but cry. All I wanted to was go home and see my family. The tears kept coming. We went back to the hotel and met up with my mom, and my parents reminded me about how lucky I was to have been able to be on the show at all. I had been chosen from thousands of applicants. 

This experience taught me how to work hard at something I was passionate about, and I realized that even though I had gotten chopped, I had met incredible people and had the opportunity of a lifetime.