Are you one of those old fuddy-duddies who complain about how "the kids today" are lazy and unmotivated? Here's what "MasterChef Junior" finalist Dara Yu does when she's not cooking. "I'm a dancer. I dance four days a week, four hours on Saturday. If there's something that I love... I was a competitive swimmer; I was swimming five days a week, waking up at 6 o'clock in the morning to go to swim meets. If I'm ever determined to do something, I go all the way; I go big or go home. I don't really stop for anyone to tell me no. I want to do my best at what I'm doing. I've done art, I've been acting, I've done everything. I found cooking and I love it. No one can tell me no!"
Dara, 12, and Alexander Weiss, 13, will face off against each other for a chance to win the "MasterChef Junior" trophy and a $100,000 prize this Friday night on Fox. They may be the last two chefs standing in the kids' version of the cooking competition show run by Gordon Ramsay, but their cooking is anything but childlike as Yahoo TV found out while chatting with the finalists by phone. When we asked Alexander for a birthday menu, he suggested a vanilla-bean-rubbed chicken with creamy, luxurious truffled potatoes, a carrot-ginger purée, and roasted vegetables.
Part of the reason both of them have become so skilled is that they're not cooking just for themselves: They want others to follow their lead. Dara says, "A big part for me of cooking is inspiring others. That was one of the reasons why I went on the show — I wanted to inspire younger kids and also adults to show that if we can do it, you can do it." Alexander echoes the sentiment saying, "It's really important to educate others on cooking and to share your passion with the world." He saw that nobody at his school could make or was even willing to try sophisticated food, and he set out to change that.
Watch last week's episode:
Both chefs watch a lot of cooking shows and cite Ramsay as an influence (Dara thinks he's "a softie," and Alexander says, "He's not the real jerk that he's made out to be on TV"), but Alexander's first influence was "definitely my parents... I just watched them and I was really interested." At this point, he starts to crack up as his mother, who is listening, starts giggling. He continues, "One day I decided to help, and then every other day I wanted to cook and bake with my mom." Dara had her eyes opened by George Mendes of Aldea in New York. The liquid mozzarella, poached pears, foie gras, and amazing duck "inspired me to start cooking and turn my mind on what I thought about food and elevated restaurant-quality food."
The competition was intense, but unlike what usually happens with the adult version of the show, working together only made the contestants better friends. They bonded offscreen over the terrible hotel food. "The food was salty," says Alexander. "So salty!" agrees Dara. "The best thing was the cereal!" And they bonded in mutual fear — of the restaurant-takeover challenge (which teamed Dara, Alexander, and Jack Hoffman, another semifinalist) in particular. Dara says she was "overwhelmed by being in a restaurant kitchen for the first time and having Gordon Ramsay expedite us. You know, it was a little stressful! I was scared that if I did one little thing wrong, he would start yelling at us. And actually being brought out of the kitchen and talked to — that was scary."
In the end, though, the camaraderie overshadowed the competitive element. "I tell people I have 12 new brothers and sisters and 12 new moms and dads," gushes Dara, "and it really is like that. You could say, 'Oh, she just says that,' but it really is like that. I talk to Jules and I talk to Molly almost every single day." She also has been tweeting Alexander while the show is airing on TV, though because of the three-hour time difference, his mother understandably doesn't approve. "They're always going to be in my life. These 12 amazing kids are always going to be in my life."
If you haven't watched the show, be sure to catch the finale to see two amazingly accomplished human beings who just happen to not yet be high school aged. If you have been following, post your guess about the winner in the comments below.
Get a sneak peek of the finale:
The finale of Season 1 of "MasterChef Junior" airs Friday, Nov. 8 at 8 p.m. on Fox.