Top Chef has entertained adults and children for 12 seasons on Bravo, but, this fall, a new member of the Top Chef family is bravely going where no season has gone before: to the kiddy table. Top Chef Jr, which premiered earlier this month on Universal Kids, mirrors the familiar elements of the cooking show including quickfire and elimination rounds, guest judges, and difficult challenges. The contestants, however, are all just a little bit younger than we’re used to.
Helming the ship of the newest cooking competition show are hosts Curtis Stone and Vanessa Lachey. Refinery29 got the chance to visit the set of Top Chef Jr and chat with Stone and Lachey about what it’s like carrying on the show’s legacy, how being parents has affected their experience (and visa-versa), and why they don’t like to call the contestants “kids.”
“These Are Chefs”
The show features 12 contestants, all under the age of 14, duking it out to become the first-ever Top Chef Jr. But no one on the show – especially not Lachey and Stone — refers to them as "kids."
“These are just younger chefs,” Lachey says. And that starts with the clothes they wear – Lachey recounts how, when Top Chef winner Richard Blais judged the first episode, he gasped when he saw the “mini chefs” in junior chef coats, “hair up, apron, towel, ready to go.” Skill-wise, they’re also attempting food that would make fully-grown chefs sweat, like sous vide duck and perfectly medium-rare steaks. While they may look (and cook) like the real deal on a smaller scale not everything is shrunken to size – the kitchen equipment is all regular-sized, since, after all, they all learned to cook with full-size equipment and tools.
There are times, however, when working with younger chefs can be hard. Like with other cooking competitions that feature kids, there can be tears, and they point to the first day (and first elimination) as the hardest. After an initial gut check, however, they reminded themselves that all the kids get a “happy ending” from being involved, both through getting a once-in-a-lifetime experience and how much they learned even before first episode. (All chefs participated in a bootcamp in the week leading up to the competition.)
Besides, there’s an advantage to working with young chefs as well.
“In grownup land we’re jaded,” says Stone. Whereas adult chefs might show resistance to advice or challenges thrown at them on the show, the kids are receptive (and excited) about everything. “You give them advice and they don’t have an ego and they just soak it up,” he says. That energy permeates the set, which Lachey calls “magical,” creating that elusive sense of wonder that cooking shows like Great British Bake-Off have managed to tap into.
Growing Up Top Chef
When Curtis Stone became a chef at 18, it wasn’t cool — he remembers donning his chef’s toque and neckerchief and feeling “ridiculous.” These days, however, thanks in large part to shows like Top Chef, food and cooking has never been so hot. And, with the oldest contestants just 14, none of them really remember the world as it was before. That means, for many of the young chefs, seeing former Top Chefs like Richard Blais come through is akin to meeting a megastar, whereas celebrities outside the culinary world may only get a polite greeting.
But growing up with fine dining as a hobby can also be isolating. While the kids can ramble off culinary influences like Thomas Keller and French Laundry, at home, they may be the only person, regardless of age, with a working repertoire of French sauces. The parents, who are on set during filming, marvel both on- and off-camera at the opportunity for the kids to be around peers who are interested in the same things they are.
That camaraderie made the show more than just a competition, but something like the coolest culinary summer camp imaginable. Not only are they leaving with new skills under their belt from the bootcamp and challenges but also from talking with and learning from each other.
“They were literally making sauces, and they were so proud!” says Lachey, describing how they are just as eager to share their creations with each other as with the judges, “Their fellow competitor is like, ‘That’s incredible, what’d you do?’ and they’re like, ‘Brown sugar!’ or ‘Coconut curry!!’”
Taking Work Home
Lachey and Stone are both parents, something they say definitely influences how they approach the show. Stone’s role as a father informs the way he mentors and guides the chefs. Lachey, one of the few adults on the show without a culinary background, helps the kids feel less intimidated on set, even saying to them at times, “I relate more to you guys than I relate to [Stone].”
Just as their roles as parents has impacted their role as judges, the reverse is also true. Stone says that the enthusiasm of the chefs has been a reminder to him to “drop [his] ego at the door and come alive.” Lachey, on the other hand, has found that it’s pushed her to cook more for her own family.
“I can always use the excuse, ‘Well, I’m tired,’ or ‘They don’t want to eat this,’ but I’m watching these kids do it everyday so I can do it,” she says. Judging food has opened up her own palate a bit, too. One challenge had her eat a runny egg, a food she normally doesn't enjoy. But after eating it for the show, she went home and made it herself.
“They’ve also opened my eyes to things that, when they are cooked properly and seasoned well, are amazing,” she says.