Curtis Stone and Vanessa Lachey on 'Top Chef Jr.' and Teaching Kids How to Cook
Stone and Lachey are the hosts and judges the first season of the kid-centric cooking competition premiering October 13.
We believe the children are our future, and when it comes to reality cooking competitions, the future is being showcased on the new series Top Chef Jr. The competition pits twelve young chefs, all between the ages of eleven and thirteen, in a matchup that will be familiar to any fans of the, as of now, "senior" version of the show (season 15 of which premieres in December).
Each week, the chefs will create quickfire and elimination challenge dishes, with one lucky kid taking home the grand prize of $50,000. And while most kids, you might assume, are just precocious home cooks, some have actually had experience prepping and expediting in restaurants, as evidenced in the preview clip below.
The series, which debuts tonight at 8 p.m. ET and 7 p.m. CT, is part of the inaugural lineup of original content for Universal Kids, the network taking over the place in your TV provider's lineup where Sprout once was. Check the website to find out what channel it is on your particular service.
Food & Wine sat down with co-hosts Curtis Stone and Vanessa Lachey to talk about what it's like to have some of the greatest future (and current) culinary minds serving them dinner.
What surprised you the most about these kids' skills, techniques, or demeanor in the kitchen?
Vanessa Lachey: All of the above!
Curtis Stone: What surprised me so much from a culinary perspective is that if you think about how much technology has moved into professional kitchens, like twenty years ago there were no immersion circulators and we didn't cook sous vide and we didn't use smoke guns or iSi canisters, all of this stuff that's now commonplace in restaurants. So I guess when I walked into it I thought we were going to meet a bunch of kids were like "I like baking cookies" and "I like making burgers" and pretty basic in terms of their knowledge. But what we found were the kids that not only understood how to cook under sous vide, but knew if they were cooking a six-ounce duck breast that they needed to cook it at this temperature for this long. And there were parts of me that were like "how do you know that?" And they were like "I looked it up." Oh yeah, there's this thing called the World Wide Web that didn't exist when I was learning to cook. Their knowledge just blew me away.
VS: Also, their instincts. Some of them are going "well, I thought I'd try this and season it with a little bit of this and some of that" and I'm like "have you ever made this before?" Nope. I think nine times out of ten the dishes they made they had never made before, whether it was techniques that they used or spices that they mixed together or ingredients they had never worked with. It blew my mind how confident they were to try new things and experiment, and how not afraid they were to mess up. And honestly, I don't think any of them really messed up. They would walk away and Curtis and I are still in the kitchen eating the rest of the food.
You're hosts and judges on the show, do you ever get past their age or is it always a factor when they bring you another plate that you have to critique?
CS: All the time, every single day. I'd be critiquing their food and talking to them about the intricacies of it and how they did this well, but they could have balanced this better, and blah blah blah. And then I look up and see this twelve-year-old in front of me and think "oh my god, I'm really talking to him about that dish and he created it." What's interesting from their perspective, I think, is that most of them were like "I'm not a kid, I'm a chef." When they put that white jacket on, they took it very seriously. You'd ask them to tell you about the first restaurant they want to open and they'd just go off. And Top Chef has been on for fifteen seasons, so a lot of these kids have been watching it since they were four and they're into food in a whole different way that didn't use to exist.
VL: They weren't really here to do a television show, they were here to compete. And part of me wondered if they can really be foodies at this age, and the answer is absolutely yes. I think they have an advantage in that they have this big ideas and hope and dreams, but there's no specificity yet so they're willing to try everything and they're doing it in such an amazing environment and with inspiring mentors. I'd ask "do you realize you have Emeril Lagasse standing right in front of you telling you how to cook this pasta?" And they're like "yes, and it's absolutely blowing my mind."
CS: Tiffany Derry or Josiah Citrin from Melisse would walk in and they'd go wild.
VL: It's their Justin Bieber.
How did these young contestants handle the competitive aspect?
CS: I think it's really positive for kids to live in the real world, but they also share this incredible childlike nature with one another so when one of them gets eliminated, they really don't want them to go home. They're genuinely sad, whereas as adults, when someone gets cut we're secretly like "yes!" But they rise to the challenge, they know the consequence of winning and losing, and they also take criticism really well. As chefs, and I'm guilty of this myself, when you read a review of your restaurant you're like "come on, that's not right, that's not accurate," but kids are used to listening to their teachers and their parents and they absorb this feedback and improve from it. We saw this crazy arc of learning that's probably the most impressive part of all.
VL: I think it was harder for me to send them home, I'm like "What are we doing?" But they're resilient. And before the season we sent them to boot camp and everything you see is as it happens. If we give them thirty minutes, that's all they get. They get no help or guidance, there are no smoke and mirrors. It genuinely is them doing this for the first time.
You both have kids, are you getting them started on their culinary journey yet?
CS: Yes, we certainly are. It just happened naturally for us, I think, especially Hudson, my oldest, because I'm in the kitchen so much so that's just where we'd spend a lot of time. I'd sit him up on the island or put him the sink and give him ingredients to play with and mess around with. I'd throw down some flour and tell him to draw in the flour, at that age he just naturally wants to be involved in the process, and he still does, he's nearly six now. My three-year-old too, they love being in the kitchen and making things from juice to cookies. Once they understand that process, they take real pride in it. I'll make juice with them in the morning and we'll put carrot and ginger and celery and tomatoes in there and they stir it around. And when [my wife] Linds comes down for breakfast, they'll tell her with such pride what they did while we drink it.
VL: Like Curtis is saying, I can put my daughter on the island and give her flour to play with. Somebody said "well, you're going to make such a mess." Well, of course, you're going to make a mess, he's got a three-year-old and six-year-old, I've got a five-year-old, two-year-old, and eight-month-old, you're going to be cleaning up some kind of mess. Either you're in the living room cleaning up toys and Legos or you're in the kitchen having this learning experience and you're going to clean up the food.
What advice do you have for parents who might be hesitant to give their kids knives and fire to play with?
VL: Well, don't give your kids knives and fire to play with [laughs]. I think introducing them to a kitchen early on—like this is different, but I'm a mom and I have white chairs in the kitchen, but they're accustomed to it. They know not to put their feet up on them or to eat over the table to not mess up mommy's nice white chairs. I've exposed them to that. Same goes for the kitchen—if you expose them to everything and show them what everything is and get them comfortable in that environment, they're going to handle it well. At some point, they're going to come into the kitchen on their own.
CL: There's a time when you introduce your kids to a knife. My six-year-old can use a knife pretty well, but, you know, he doesn't do it without me watching him and he doesn't have his other hand near it yet, it's my hand because I'd rather he cut me than himself. But they grow in that skill and, again, with the heat, I'll bring a hot pan over and explain that it's hot and they get used to it. Kids hurt themselves everywhere, and the kitchen isn't immune to that. They'll hurt themselves without the knives or the heat anyway. They hurt themselves on the trampoline or running around with the dog in the backyard. But eventually, you can give them some responsibility.
How do you think you would have fared on Top Chef Jr. at the same age?
CL: Terribly! There's no way I could have competed with these kids at that age. Some of the stuff they do, I go back to the restaurant with photos of food these kids have made and show it to my chefs and say "this was done by a twelve-year-old" and they're like "bullshit" [laughs].
VL: I think that there's a whole new turn in the culinary world and I love to be a part of that. Top Chef is the OG cooking show after fifteen seasons, and we had a couple chefs from the first couple seasons come in and these kids didn't know them because they literally weren't around to see it, but Top Chef has been there their whole lives so they grew up with it. And it's great to see another generation that might inspire the next generation. I probably wouldn't have even had access to what these kids have had. But Curtis might have done better, and I might have been his pen pal, writing him letters.
Season one of Top Chef Jr. airs Friday nights on Universal Kids at 8 p.m. ET/7 p.m. CT.