When Che Spiotta was eleven years old, his mom found an announcement on her email feed about tryouts for the cooking show MasterChef Junior. “My mom asked me, ‘Do you want to do this?’” he says. “We debated for a week or so. I thought it would be awesome but, like, I’d be missing school, and what happens if this goes further? Then we were just like, why not? Why not do it and see what happens. If it’s fun, we’ll keep doing it. If it’s not…? Then when I was on the show, it was fun.”
Che is now a 13-year-old seventh grader at Onteora Middle School. The season he auditioned for is now airing on Tuesday evenings on the Fox channel. I asked him about how he competed for the opportunity to fly out to L.A. to be filmed for the show.
“That was probably one of the best things I’ve done. We flew out a year ago. My first tryout was in December of 2017. The day before the first tryouts, my grandma told me I should study, go over measurements and get them into my head. So we did that and practiced some things. One of the things in the tryout was: measure half a cup of water. But they didn’t give us one cup, or half a cup. They did it in ounces. You had to know that 4 ounces is half a cup. I knew that because we’d studied earlier. I think a lot of kids messed up on that one.”
“It was simple things that they asked you to do to weed out [contestants],” says his mom, Elizabethanne. “He had to measure water, cut celery, and cook an egg. They don’t tell you how long you’ll be there. They say, pack for 15 weeks but know you might be leaving in a week. After many interviews here, you finally get a call to come to L.A.”
Che has been in a few episodes so far. “Right now, I’ve made it to the top 18, so I’m still in the show. So far, I’ve had to cook breakfast and a school lunch, like meat loaf, chicken tenders, or quesadilla. Then they did this banana split challenge. You had 15 minutes. Everyone was tied together at the ankles, so you had to move as a group. Next was a lobster dinner.”
Lobster dinner? Never mind attempting a banana split while you’re attached to a bunch of friends. That sounds like fun. But few of us who have been cooking daily for decades are excited about tackling lobster. So many things can go wrong. And it’s not exactly normal for such a passion for cooking to take over an adolescent. I asked Che to talk about how he got started. Turns out he’s an old hand.
CHE: I got into cooking super young, I’ve been cooking forever. I probably started on the stove when I was 3 or 4. I think that’s because I’m gluten free, and at first I didn’t know what I had; there were just lots of foods I couldn’t eat. So I’d experiment with what I could eat, because I didn’t want to eat the same thing over and over again. When I realized I was gluten free, I just kept on cooking. I realized how much fun it is. I love the creativity about it.
AH: Did you ever take any lessons or go on Youtube or watch cooking shows on television?
CHE: I watched Master Chef Junior and a couple shows, but really, my dad and my mom taught me how to cook. I remember being super young and making tomato sauce on the stove with my dad. Then eggs and omelets. I just learned from there.
AH: Any other dietary restrictions?
CHE: No. And I love meat.
AH: Have you been to those meat vending machines in Stone Ridge?
CHE: Applestone Meats! I love that place. I think it’s so cool, how it has a beef vending machine, and you can see everything.
AH: Have you ever had a total disaster in the kitchen?
CHE: I have! I’ve had a total disaster only a couple of times, but there have been lots of failures. One time my dad and I were trying to make doughnuts. I’d never had doughnuts before. We made our batter; we had our oil on the stove. We put it in, and it completely falls apart and changes into funnel cakes! Okay, I guess we’re making funnel cakes. And then the oil was too hot and started to catch on fire! We put it out really quickly, but Mom was out in the garden and didn’t even know it was happening. It’s really funny now. The funnel cakes weren’t burnt tasting, so it wasn’t a complete, total disaster.
AH: With gluten free batters there are so many variables. Do you make your own gluten free flour?
CHE: I use a couple of different mixes, like a mix of rice flour, almond flour, tapioca flour and a couple other ones. I think that works the best. Sometimes with only almond flour — you taste that nuttiness and it’s not right. But if it’s a combination, it really works. Experimenting with gluten free batters is super difficult. My mom loves to make sour dough bread, and I’ve done it before with gluten flour and it was fun. I thought, hey I should try to do this with gluten free flour. It wouldn’t rise because the weight is different, and I didn’t account for that. It didn’t work as well, it just got really dense.
ELIZABETHANNE: We bought a gluten free starter online for $40 dollars!
CHE: Oh yeah, it was so bad.
ELIZABETHANNE: That was the biggest fail emotionally, because it’s bread, right? You fall in love with this animal you’re making, and then…
CHE: I let it rise for a day. But it didn’t rise, but I thought maybe it’s okay. It comes out of the oven and I’m like, whatever. It was dense.
ELIZABETHANNE: You couldn’t even slice it to make crackers.
CHE: It was a rough one.
AH: So what else? You’ve had at least one or two disasters. Do you look at a disaster as a failure, or do you try to learn from it, or do you just want to go outside and kick a ball around?
CHE: All three. I think of it as a failure when it happens. I’m bummed afterwards, expecting something and then it doesn’t turn out the way I want it to. And then now I know: that recipe or that brand of starter for the bread does not work. It doesn’t rise enough. I need to use more yeast or a lighter flour. But when I’m done with that, I just gotta go kick the soccer ball around outside.
AH: Do you always follow recipes?
CHE: Not always. A couple things, when I’m new to them, I definitely follow recipes. There’s a lot I don’t — I make risotto and don’t use a recipe for that. Or for tomato sauce, broccoli soup, chicken soup. Most of the things I used to make with my dad are the ones I don’t use a recipe for anymore, because I’ve been making them for six years.
AH: Do you vary them?
CHE: I do. Like broccoli soup for example. Sometimes it’s too thick or too thin. I’ve done seafood risotto, mushroom risotto, duck risotto.
AH: Do you do your own duck?
CHE: I do.
AH: Tell me about that. How would you say roasting a chicken is different than roasting a duck?
CHE: There’s a lot more fat on the duck. That’s one of the issues because it doesn’t cook off as much. They’re slightly different sizes as well.
AH: How about the science of cooking?
CHE: There’s definitely a science to it, but for me it’s just fun. That’s why I do it. It’s awesome. With the family, it’s fun when everybody is in the kitchen. I’m in the middle; I have a 15-year- old brother and a ten-year-old brother. I think they all have an interest in cooking, but they’re into other things as well. Like, Cosmo is into drawing and making things with leather. Jackson is really into soccer. I think we all like food and cooking and enjoy being in the kitchen. There’re plenty of times when I’ll be cooking, and Jackson will come in and help me, and Cosmo will be doing this and mom with be doing that — and we’re all in the kitchen.
AH: What is your favorite, if you had one favorite thing to cook and eat? And I know that might change tomorrow…
CHE: There’re so many, it’s so hard for me to answer. There’re desserts and meats and salad and fish. I’d say it has to be risotto. It tastes really good, but also it’s so much fun to cook. You’re stirring it and standing there. It takes forever and your arm gets tired. But it’s fun and you’re constantly tasting it. And it has butter and Cheese.
Anything with butter and Cheese sounds good to me. Che jumps up to make breakfast for his brother Cosmo, who has just shown us a knife sheath he made by cutting and sewing a piece of leather the size of a big kitchen knife. An iron skillet comes down off a hanging rack. Che mashes an avocado for Cosmo’s toast. He expertly cracks an egg into the hot skillet. Just another day in the Spiotta kitchen.