by Terry Rogers
Jen Potocki says that her son Tyler has always dreamed of being on television. When she saw that there would be an audition for the Fox show MasterChef Junior in New York City during a time that the family would be in the area, she asked if he wanted to participate and Tyler agreed. In the show, children between the ages of 8 and 13 demonstrate their culinary talents in challenges and competitions. This season, hosts of the show were award-winning chef Gordon Ramsay, pastry chef Christina Toci and restaurateur Joe Bastianich. The winner receives a MasterChef Junior trophy and $100,000.
“The only reason we even went to the audition was that it said, ‘Your child does not need to know how to cook’,” Ms. Potocki said. “They liked him from the start. It was really crowded at the audition in NYC and there were hundreds of kids. The only thing he had to do for the initial audition was measure a cup of water, chop celery and cook an egg. I was not actually in the room with him when he did that.” After about an hour, Tyler and his family were asked if they could return to New York City in a few days where he would cook a dish of his own choosing in front of the camera.
According to his mother, the family returned to a brownstone rented by the show where they carried all the ingredients, equipment and a stepstool to the third floor where Tyler had a short interview before cooking macaroni and cheese. From that point forward, it was a whirlwind of Skype interviews, video submissions, an interview with a psychologist, as well as contracts and papers to sign before Tyler was chosen to participate in the show. Once he was chosen, Ms. Potocki said they made it a point to try to cook at every opportunity.
“I pulled a stepstool up to the stove and I would have him help me with everything we cooked,” Ms. Potocki said. “I also told him that if he cooked, I would clean the dishes. He really liked the fact that he would make a mess and not have to clean it up.”
Tyler, who was seven when the show was taped, was required to say he was eight as that is how old he would be when the show aired.
“My name is Tyler and I’ve been on this planet for eight years,” Tyler said in an on-camera interview before the competition began. “Somehow, I’m still working on a lot of things, but my parents say that I am amazing at cooking.”
During the first competition on the show, Tyler was required to cook a perfect chicken breast. After the judges tasted the chicken at each station, Tyler was not awarded a white apron which meant he had to compete in a second challenge. That challenge was to prepare a signature dish. During the competition, the judges walked around talking to the young cooks. Bastianich and Toci spoke with Tyler who explained that he was making glazed carrots and chicken nuggets. Bastianich asked to taste Tyler’s carrots and Tyler handed him the fork with a carrot he had just tasted, warning the judge that he should bite the other side to “avoid his germs.” Toci suggested it was “gutsy” to make another chicken dish after making chicken in the first competition, to which Tyler replied that it “was his signature dish.”
“You didn’t taste these carrots,” Bastianich said. “These carrots are money.” Toci pointed out that Tyler seemed pretty chill and that the MasterChef kitchen was full of pressure, asking what his strategy was. Tyler replied that he “actually didn’t have any stress or pressure,” prompting Nick, one of the chefs who had already earned an apron to respond, “I
love this kid.” Ramsay tasted Tyler’s finished dish, joking with him about his size. He tasted the dish and commented that the carrots were “quite nice” and cooked beautifully, but that the chicken was dry. He suggested that the nuggets be served with a sauce. In the end, Tyler did not earn an apron and was eliminated.
Ms. Potocki said that the taping of the show was more nerve-wracking for the parents than it was for the kids. Only one parent or guardian could be with the child at a time and they were required to sign a confidentiality form forbidding them from telling anyone until the contestants were announced by Fox, something that was extremely difficult for a then seven-year-old who was required to keep the secret for a year and a half.
“They flew us out to LA for an indeterminate length of time,” Ms. Potocki said, stating that the range was between ten days and three months. “All contestants were essentially sequestered in a hotel for the entire time. We were allowed to walk to businesses within a mile but were not allowed to use Uber or any type of transportation. When we weren’t at the hotel, most of the time was spent in the studio. They did extensive interviews with all of the kids and they had to attend school for about four hours each day they were on set. Tyler’s teacher had prepared two weeks of work for him and was willing to send more if it had been needed. Although I was at the studio with Tyler, the parents were sequestered to a “green room.” We had access to WiFi, but that was about it. I never once set foot on the MasterChef kitchen or on the set. We could see the kids on camera, but without sound.” The show was taped from October to December 2016. Tyler actually turned nine before the show actually aired.
Tyler, who attends Benjamin Banneker Elementary School, enjoyed competing on MasterChef and once again said that he didn’t feel any pressure at all. Ms. Potocki believes that the fact that Tyler was inexperienced at cooking helped him as he was not overwhelmed and simply had fun.
“It was very awesome, and it was amazing to be on a world-famous show,” Tyler said. “I couldn’t believe that they picked me. I’m just a normal kid from Delaware. There were thousands of kids who auditioned, and they chose me. Now that I watch the show, I realize how good the other chefs are. I was too busy cooking my food to pay attention to theirs.” When asked what he wished he had done differently, Tyler said he wished he had used a thermometer so that he hadn’t overcooked his chicken.
Tyler likes that cooking is a challenge but admits that his favorite part is tasting the food and that his parents clean the dishes after he is done cooking. While taping the show, he missed jumping on his trampoline at home but mostly missed his dad. There was a big age difference between Tyler and the older boys on the show, but they always included Tyler in whatever they were doing, like swimming and playing ping pong. Tyler also enjoyed working with the three judges.
“Gordon was fun, and it was cool to meet him personally,” Tyler said. “I tried to make him smile. Christina was very nice. She seemed really sad when anyone got eliminated. A lot of kids thought Joe was the meanest person in the world, but he liked my carrots.” When asked if he would try out for the show again, Tyler said that he would but that would mean he would have to cook a lot.
Ms. Potocki advises any parents whose children want to try out for shows like MasterChef Junior to “go for it,” even though there are a lot of hoops to jump through.
“I don’t think I would do it again in hindsight, only because Tyler never had a true passion for cooking,” Ms. Potocki said. “He was definitely out of his league. He was eliminated at the perfect time because the other kids are incredibly good chefs. Tyler definitely had the cute factor but did not have enough cooking experience. I would warn parents that, if selected, there is a potential for a long absence from work. If Tyler had been selected to stay longer, I had my mom available to come for awhile and then my husband and then me again. Fox would only pay for one switch of a guardian, so it also had potential to become quite expensive if we would have had to swap guardians so many times.”
Tyler does not plan to enter the culinary field but wants to be an engineer and work in the machine shop with his father. His advice to anyone who wants to try out is to practice, practice, practice and to not be afraid to “mess up because that’s how you learn and come up with new recipes.” After he was eliminated, Tyler was interviewed on the show and his comments sum up his confidence.
“Well, I am not getting a MasterChef apron,” Tyler said to the camera. “But at least I’m still a superhero.”
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