21CF Chats: Milk Bar founder and ‘MasterChef Junior’ judge Christina Tosi on Season 5, personal takeaways, underestimating kids

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When viewers tune in to the fifth season of “MasterChef Junior” (premiering Thursday, Feb. 9, at 8 p.m. ET/PT on FOX), they’ll be treated to a firsthand look at just how resilient, able and talented kids are, according to pioneering pastry chef and founder and owner of Milk Bar Christina Tosi, who hosts and acts as a judge on the show alongside award-winning chef Gordon Ramsay.

This season, 40 of the nation’s best junior home cooks between the ages of 8 and 13 will compete for the “MasterChef Junior” trophy and $100,000 grand prize. The young cooks will encounter exhilarating challenges and prepare dishes for a long list of illustrious guests along the way. They’ll also give Christina and Gordon some ideas to take back to their own professional kitchens.

I spoke with Christina about the upcoming season of “MasterChef Junior,” including what she takes from the show back to Milk Bar, what viewers can expect this season – the best ever, according to her – and what she hopes viewers will take away.

How did you get involved with “MasterChef Junior”? What made you want to join as a judge?

Even after spending decades in the professional kitchen, one of my guilty pleasures after a long day at work was to tune into “MasterChef” and “MasterChef Junior.” The excitement and passion of amateur home cooks always inspired me. One day, completely out of the blue, “MasterChef Junior” phoned me and the rest, as they say, is history!

What has been the biggest surprise for you since being a judge on “MasterChef Junior”?

The skill level of these young guns never ceases to surprise and amaze me. Their drive, and their level of learning and execution is incredible. Week to week, season to season, it never, ever gets old.

Is it difficult going from running a team of more than 200 adults to judging 40 junior cooks, then back again?

Ha! You’d be surprised how many similarities there are! Juggling many personalities, perspectives, hair-brained ideas and unbridled enthusiasm keeps me on my toes both in the “MasterChef Junior” kitchen and back in the Milk Bar kitchens. My team at Milk Bar always wants to know about the juniors and the juniors always want to know about my team!

How does your full-time job at Milk Bar help you in your role as judge on “MasterChef Junior”?

Being a strong, innovative, passionate leader is important to me no matter what role I’m playing in life. That’s something that I found out early on when I opened Milk Bar and bring into the “MasterChef Junior” kitchen with me weekly. I love to lead, I love to mentor and I love to form bonds and relationships with the cooks I get to help develop. That keeps me invested and inspired bouncing in and out of all the kitchens!

Gordon Ramsay and Christina Tosi

Have you learned anything during your time as judge on “MasterChef Junior” that has helped you when you’re back in the bakery?

Remembering to keep an open mind about ingredients, technique, dish ideas and sources of inspiration is something I always take back with me. Time spent on “MasterChef Junior” always feels refreshing, rejuvenating. Those young home cooks warm my heart with their drive, determination, personalities and quirky approaches to food. They are so young but so focused, so certain of who they are and what they want to do. I bring that with me into Milk Bar and every nook and cranny of life. “MasterChef Junior” always reminds me that the future is bright.

In the “First Look” video, you say Season 5 of “MasterChef Junior” is by far the best ever. What makes you think that?

Oh, ho ho! In Season 5, we turn up the volume like never before with incredible guest judges – both chefs and celebrities – Julie Bowen, Mayim Bialik, Michelle Obama, Aaron Sanchez, Martha Stewart, Wolfgang Puck and even The Muppets! – all passionate about food and mentoring these young home cooks. The challenges – be they ingredients, dish replications, team challenges and beyond – are out of control this season. One week, a young home cook is up; the next week, they’re down. The trajectory of talent this season is greater than I’ve ever seen before. And boy, did Gordon and I get some really great dish ideas we’re taking back to our professional kitchens from these youngsters this season!

What about the hidden process of making the show, episode to episode, do you wish audiences could see or know about?

Honestly, I wish audiences could see how we make the show. There are no hidden secrets! It’s just these amazingly talented and untiring 8-to-13-year-olds cooking their hearts out. I wish folks had the opportunity to see the bonds these kids form amongst themselves, how they put themselves on the line and how they support one another in the process. It’s an incredibly beautiful thing.

What do you hope adults and kids watching this season of “MasterChef Junior” will take away from the show?

I think oftentimes generationally we underestimate those younger than us. They are so capable and so ready and willing to take risks, to be challenged. They are less delicate than we understand – they are so much more resilient than we think. We typically have an approach that is one of protecting younger generations from danger, fear, doubt, mistakes and ranking. But these kids are so ready for the ride, and they grow into the most incredible individuals in the process because they are given the long runway to experience it all.

Gordon and I often remark about the most important promise we make to the junior home cooks: We stand by treating them as peers, as professionals. They learn the most, they take the most home with them when we are firm, fair and refuse to underestimate the ability simply based on age.