In last night’s Season 3 finale of MasterChef Junior, eerily-composed Nathan of San Diego beat Andrew of West Deptford, New Jersey, for the trophy and $100,000 prize. “We’re not necessarily the richest family,” Nathan reminded us—so the prize would be welcome. Nathan’s three-course original menu included a perfectly done herb-crusted rack of lamb and an Earl Grey and Meyer lemon tart with blood-orange coulis. A shower of confetti rained down from the ceiling as his family embraced him.
MasterChef Junior, for the uninitiated, is one of the best competition shows on TV right now. The contestants, who are between ages 8 and 13, whip up dishes like alligator curry and banana-coconut macarons. Gordon Ramsay dials down his usual Ike Turner persona and is gentle and supportive. The kids say things like “I’m here to win, but I’m also here to make friends.” For most of the season they are eliminated in pairs, so no one ever feels singled out. In a TV landscape where sitcoms like Parks and Recreation (RIP) seem to have corned the market on feel-good warmth, MasterChef Junior is the rare reality show notable for its sweetness.
But there was one fly in the consommé this season: a talented child you couldn’t help but root against. Reality television often relies on villains to gin up drama, of course. But in a show about absurdly gifted kids, who could possibly play the heel? Well, Andrew.
Although his impressive and relatively subdued performance in last night’s finale redeemed him somewhat, Andrew spent most of the season acting obnoxious and over-confident (“I’m not just all talk, I AM the best here”), a New Jersey bruiser in the Chris Christie mold. In an interview with Vulture this week, he insulted his own mother’s cooking.
But Andrew’s worst crime, from a viewer’s perspective, was that he was always “on.” A lot of the kids’ testimonials feel heavily influenced, if not outright scripted, by producers. But Andrew always took this the furthest. He seems to have spent as much time honing his persona to match reality-show tropes as he has cooking. In an episode where the kids took over a real-life restaurant kitchen, he screamed at his team members in a weird imitation of Ramsay. He was constantly bragging about putting “heart’ in his cooking. “This is everything I stand for, this is Jersey, this is Italian food,” he told the camera last night. “I don’t know any 11-year-old who cooks with as much heart and soul as I do.” I don’t know any 11-year-old who talks that way.
Then again, I don’t know any 11-year-olds who cook that way, either. Anyway, who’s the real villain: An ambitious and awkward tween who makes his own ricotta, or the full-grown adult booing him while eating pre-packaged cheese ravioli on her couch? I can’t wait for Season 4.