'Top Chef Jr.' Team Talk Preteen Prodigy Contestants and Helping Relaunch a Network
"These kids at 13 are good enough to theoretically be a sous-chef at a restaurant."
The team behind Top Chef Jr. say that the preteen chefs taking part in the new competition series are as good as — if not better — than their adult counterparts.
The Top Chef spinoff is set to premiere Oct. 13 on Universal Kids, NBCUniversal's newly relaunched kids cable channel previously known as Sprout.
With Vanessa Lachey as host and Curtis Stone as head judge, along with celebrity guest judges from the food and restaurant world, the spinoff of the hit Bravo show will feature 12 preteen chefs as they face elimination and battle for cooking supremacy.
As with the flagship series Top Chef, in each episode, the junior chefs are required to create a unique dish specific to the given challenge that week and are then judged on taste and presentation.
"There aren't any terrible dishes here, which makes it hard for us [to judge]," host Vanessa Lachey told The Hollywood Reporter during a recent visit to a taping near Los Angeles. "I'm constantly impressed that after every challenge I ask them, 'Have you made this before?' and nine times out of 10 the answer is no."
Stone, celebrity chef and restaurant owner, said producers have "taken a bit of a different approach than other shows." In addition to the taped competitions, the junior chefs participate in cooking master classes from seasoned chefs such as the Voltaggio brothers and cake master Joshua John Russell.
"It feels like you're being a mentor more than a critic," Stone told THR.
Despite their young age, the chefs-in-training are able to create high-end dishes and use complex equipment.
"These kids at 13 are good enough to theoretically be a sous-chef at a restaurant," guest judge Graham Elliot said.
The Michelin star restaurant owner and celebrity chef is no stranger to competition food shows as he has competed on both Iron Chef and Top Chef Masters.
"We know these kids are going to do something in a few years," said Elliot.
Lachey, veteran host and mom of three, admits these tiny chefs-in-training are not the only ones learning from this experience.
"I am inspired every day," she said. "Day one, one of our contestant sous-vide a duck and I was like 'Curtis, what does "sous-vide" mean?'"
Not only do the contestants boast a sophisticated palate, the judges agree they are beyond their years when it comes to their professionalism.
"We have stopped calling them kids because they don’t behave like it," said Stone.
Top Chef Jr. comes as part of a network rebranding that launched Sept. 9. The channel Sprout, which targeted preschool-age kids and their families, was renamed in September as part of an expanding focus on a broader demo incorporating 2- to 11-year-olds. Earlier this week, ahead of the show's premiere, the network announced it was renewing the show for a second season, with Lachey and Stone on board.
"This is the perfect home and the perfect time for [Top Chef Jr.]," Lachey said. "Universal Kids has everything from animated series to scripted shows to unscripted reality shows, and it’s a new home for kids to have an option of programming."
Lachey said she feels she is the bridge between the audience and the professional chefs in the kitchen.
"I think I am the catalyst to the mom at home who has a foodie kid but maybe doesn't know how to get into it," she said. "I think it will inspire people to go home and cook together. If it brings families back into the kitchen together, then that's awesome."
Both Lachey and Stone, having children of their own, discussed the importance of having family programming that kids and adults alike can watch and enjoy.
"As someone who has been involved in cooking shows for a decade or so, what I often hear from families is that the one show that kids will watch with their parents are cooking shows," Stone said.
Added Lachey: "Think back to nostalgic times [when you would] sit down for dinner and everyone talks about their day. Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t do that now. Kids in our generation watch a lot of television, so this is a great way to bring family time and family programming to parents and kids."