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When 50 kids enter the kitchen

Ponytails swing like pendulums, kitchen counters are no higher than two feet, and the apron size has shrunk. Welcome to Junior MasterChef Australia, which will change the way Australia eats, and the way we will watch the show. This time, Australian musician and television personality Ana Gare joins judges Gary Mehigan, restaurateur and chef, George Calombaris, chef and Matt Preston, food critic, in the quest to find a winner among 50 children aged between eight and 12.

The first episode begins with the same invigorating background score, the ‘m’ in a jalebi-style logo and the large MasterChef kitchen with counters and a drool-inducing pantry. The kids swarm in, flaunting purple berets, pink bows and yellow vests, as if at a school picnic. But they also bring confidence, a spirit of healthy competition, pink cheeks and big smiles. The participants are clear in their introduction interviews — while some want to cut a ribbon to their restaurant by the age of 18, some want to impress the judges and prove to Australia that they can cook.

The format is simple — 50 children are divided into five groups of 10 kids each. Each group is given a theme, such as international cuisine and desserts. From each heat, four winners graduate to the  top 20.  On the bench are 50 pairs of parents (almost), beaming with pride and shedding an occasional tear. While watching the show, I could almost imagine a desi version, where parents would thank Ganpati Bappa for the child’s victory.

The cutest thing by far, is when Mehigan shouts, ‘On your marks’ (the children poise into the running position), ‘get set’, (their backs bend forward, and they raise the heel of their back leg) and ‘go’(they dash to the theme-decorated pantry).
In the pantry, a little girl aged eight, asks her friend, “But how much to take?” And the reply goes. “Just take as much as you can.” Brilliant.

Performance pressure
Then there are kids who go blank as they ‘can’t recollect the rhyme their mother taught them to remember the ingredients of chicken salad’. The judges get to taste Gnnochi, Bakalava, Thai salads and hand-tossed pastas.

There are many touching moments, which include a boy turning to his mother to show her the evenly-cut pasta, and a girl winking at her mother when she gets a great review for her strawberry cake.

Fingers fidget with the apron to hide the nervous tension, as the judges dole out judgments. One Nick begins to cry when he is selected into the top 20. When asked why was he crying, he innocently replies, “This happens to me a lot.”
I wanted to jump into the screen and hug him for real.

The energy on the show is contagious. The show format maintains a happy tone, and tears are kept to a minimum. After the anger and bad humour on display on MasterChef USA, it’s heartening to find that here, the judges are in a great mood, and encouraging in their comments. When Mehigan licks a dessert plate clean and announces that he has the best job in the world, Calombaris has the perfect reply.

“Your personal trainer, unfortunately, has the worst job in the world.” We suggest that on Friday, 9 pm, keep your phone off the hook, cancel appointments, and settle in to watch possibly the most entertaining cookery show in the world.

Junior MasterChef Australia premieres on Friday, May 18,  9 pm, on Star World  

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