For many, the thought of kids and food conjures up visions of chicken nuggets and grilled cheese—staples in most 11-year-olds’ diets.
But, give Center Moriches pre-teen Kayla Mitchell time near the oven, and she just may whip up some bœuf bourguignon, a dish she currently refers to as her signature, much like her role model Julia Child did. At an age when most kids simply eat what is put in front of them, Kayla is thinking that the bœuf bourguignon might taste nice with some Long Island wine, served with a seasonal side of local corn.
It was that kind of thinking that earned Kayla one of 19 spots on MasterChef Junior, a pint-sized version of MasterChef that is now in its third season. Just because the contestants are small in stature doesn’t mean that they have any less ability to conceive and execute complicated recipes.
“Adults think that kids can’t handle being in the kitchen, like cutting a piece of bread with a butter knife [is a big deal],” says Kayla. “But kids are a lot more capable of doing things [than people think]. Parents get nervous because they don’t want us to get hurt, but we’re very capable.”
Incidentally, Kayla cut her fingers on the first episode of the show and had to stop cooking to get help from an on-site medic. Kayla continued the time-sensitive cooking challenge, however, and was one of three kids who won the task. Like the adult version of the show, MasterChef Junior is hosted by Gordon Ramsey, Joe Bastianich and Graham Elliot. Ramsey, best known for reaming out contestants on MasterChef and Hell’s Kitchen, puts on the kid gloves for MasterChef Junior. He consoled Kayla through her injury, encouraging her to keep going.
Kayla recounts how she first started cooking, remembering watching cooking shows on television when she stayed home sick from school. Intrigued by the format, she asked her mom to help her in the kitchen, and, from there, a passion was born.
Raised in Center Moriches, Kayla comes out east frequently, especially in the summer, and she names Westhampton Beach’s Margarita Grill among her favorite restaurants. “I usually get a lot of different things, because every time I go, there’s a new special on the board,” Kayla says. “But one of my favorites is the filet mignon quesadilla.”
Cookies rank among her favorite things to make. She enjoys experimenting with different types, as well as with different dishes altogether.
“I use cookbooks or I use recipes from cooking shows, and then I add an ingredient or do something different to make it my own,” Kayla says of her process. When at home, Kayla enjoys cooking for her parents and younger sister. “Sometimes, my mom will say something like, ‘we’re having pork tonight, so you can make anything you want with that,’ and I’ll make the side dishes with one of my own recipes.”
She often cooks with other family members. “My cousin likes to cook. She doesn’t want to be a chef, she wants to be a gymnast,” says Kayla. “We take her iPhone and tape ourselves like we’re on a cooking show. And then my sister comes in and taste tests.”
Though Kayla isn’t sure what she wants to do when she grows up, she’s considering hosting her own cooking show like Rachel Ray, another of her inspirations, owning her own restaurant or, naturally, becoming a chef.
Tune in to MasterChef Junior Tuesdays on Fox at 8 p.m.