Thank heavens it's not cutesy. Children's shows tend to trigger an overdose of bubble gummy music, kindergarten sets and exasperating histrionics. These kids mean business. They're focussed, tough and talented. If watching a 12 year old coolly make restaurant-quality baklava from scratch in 45 minutes (with the added pressure of an audience, judges and TV cameras) doesn't impress you, you're made of stone.
The ‘Junior Masterchef' series premiere begins with the announcement that this is the “next generation of Master Chefs. They will change the way a nation eats”. (Clearly, an opening overdose of drama is always good for business.) Aged between eight and 12, these children were chosen from about 5,500 applicants and the show promises a range of challenges, including pressure tests, invention tests and team hurdles.
It would be natural to expect the children's version of the show to be easier. These are, after all, children.
However, in the first two heats — featuring international food and desserts — the contestants set the bar unexpectedly high, creating impressively elaborate dishes. They manipulate sharp knives, powerful blenders and leaping flames with practised ease. Work with an array of international ingredients from truffles to fish sauce. And employ techniques so professional, whether they're tempering white chocolate or testing the consistency of sugar syrup, they even excite the judges.
For ‘Master Chef' addicts, there's plenty of ingenious cooking and imaginative food, as well as non-stop drama. The first episode invites the United Nations of contestants to cook international food, and almost all of them choose to make food that reflects their cultural heritage. So there's Iranian chicken in a pomegranate-walnut sauce, Italian ricotta gnocchi with eggplant salsa and French mashed potatoes infused with truffle.
The Australian version of ‘Master Chef' has proved more popular than the American in India, because viewers prefer its kinder, more supportive format featuring sympathetic judges and an enduring spirit of sportsmanship. The show proved that addictive reality television can be dignified, instead of descending into a whorl of petty fights and sneaky one-upmanship. In ‘Junior Masterchef Australia', it's a good thing the judges — Gary Mehigan, George Calombaris, and newcomer to the table Anna Gare — are empathetic. Otherwise, it would intensely distressing entertainment.
One child, dazed by the arc lights, forgets what ingredients he needs. A little girl accidently puts plastic moulds in the oven and they melt around her cake. A boy sets his oven to ‘grill' by accident, and burns his meringue pie. It's hard enough to watch when an adult flounders in public.
Watching eight and 12 year olds panic, while their parents watch helplessly from the sidelines is much worse. Tell yourself it's shameless emotional manipulation till you're blue in the face. (And with constant shots of parents' worried and sometimes teary faces, this show is definitely manipulative.) You're still watching a child flounder. It's still uncomfortable.
Fortunately the judges step up in every case. Calombaris helps the little boy find the cherry tomatoes and peanuts he needs for his glass noodles with chicken, lime and mint. Mehigan helps remove the cake from its melted mould, to thunderous applause. Then he gamely informs the judges that he especially enjoys the texture and flavour of meringue that's overdone.
There are other subtle changes, suggesting a softer program. The kids run into the hall in a burst of light, hair ribbons and giggles. Instead of the usual fierce ball of fire, the show breaks for intervals with a splash of cream. And rather than identifying weaknesses, the format encourages the children to find and play to their strengths.
There are five sets of heats in total. The show opens with competitions on international food and dessert. Each heat will feature four winners. They make up the top 20 who will compete for the title of the first Junior Masterchef.
Are these contestants better than their adult counterparts? Calombaris says they would give the adults an “absolute run for their money”. In addition, it's fun watching their reactions: spontaneous, guileless and enthusiastic. They squeal, jump and grimace unabashedly. The cooking is equally straight-forward. Recipes are sophisticated but earthy, inspired by mothers and grandmothers. Instead of histrionics and gadgetry, there's skilful technique, focus and clarity. And, as an unexpected bonus, inspiring grace under fire.
(‘Junior Masterchef Australia' will be telecast from Monday to Friday, 9 p.m., on Star World.)