For some of us, the extent of our culinary prowess peaks somewhere around grilled cheese. For others, the sky's the limit. Take 8-year-old Eric Martinez, a self-described barbecue and grill master who began cooking "at 3 or 4" with his mom and has since perfected his fettuccine alfredo (with homemade pasta, mind you). Or Kate Daniel, who can balance the complicated flavors of her signature citrus pork tacos and expertly wield a knife but, at 13, is still years away from the driver's seat of a car.
These Houston kids are among 10 other tiny chefs from around the country who proved their might in the kitchen for spots on Top Chef Junior, the Emmy-nominated spinoff of the grown-up version that returns for its second season on Universal Kids at 5 p.m. on Saturday, September 7.
Amazingly, this culinary competition was not Memorial Middle School student Kate's first rodeo: At 11, she tested her skills on Food Network's Chopped Junior, though that show's format brings a new batch of kid chefs with every episode. Top Chef Junior, which filmed this past spring in L.A., was a longer commitment—and, in the two years since Chopped Junior, gave Kate more time to bone up. A good thing, since more than bragging rights are on the line with a victory: The winner leaves the kitchen with a $50,000 grand prize.
Houstonia chatted with Kate and Eric about where they like to eat in Houston, what they never want to cook with, and who were tougher judges: professional chefs or their siblings.
What was it like to compete on the show?
Kate: I was there for more than one episode, so it was just very new to me, getting into the routine of it. My favorite part of probably the whole show was meeting all the different kinds of people, meeting new friends like Eric—he’s one of my best buds now.
Eric: We met basically on the airplane. That was funny. The experience was definitely different because I’ve never been on any cooking show, so that was definitely new for me, and just having the time pressure and then just having to basically live in California for a while.
Kate: That was fun.
Eric: It’s a huge kitchen, it’s got so many different appliances, so many things in the kitchen; it’s really way different than cooking at home.
What did you think of your fellow chefs?
Kate: It was definitely a lot of fun because we all love to cook and there’s not too many kids like that, so it was kind of like, how do you braise your pork in the kitchen? It was fun to talk about that stuff with my friends. Very different than talking about soccer or volleyball or something.
Eric: I thought the other chefs—because I was the youngest one—they had the advantage of being on Earth longer than me and being able to learn from those years. That was kind of a lot of pressure, but they’re really nice and really supportive and everyone was looking out for each other. It was a really good experience because of them.
What's your favorite ingredient to cook with?
Kate: I really like making stuff with cilantro. I know it’s kind of interesting, but I just like cilantro a lot. And if I’m baking, I always use vanilla extract.
Eric: Peppers, just peppers. Fried peppers and spices and jalapeños; all kinds of peppers I love.
What’s your favorite food that you don’t cook?
Kate: I really like Caesar salad. In fact, the first time I really enjoyed it—I had a really good time—was [while filming the show] in L.A. at The Parlor when I met Travis Scott … shout out Travis Scott.
Eric: Sushi. It’s got a lot of different components, and they’re all really expensive components, so unless you’re gonna make a ton of batches of sushi, you’re gonna waste a lot of money. So I don’t make it very often—I made it once, and it took forever to make.
Where are your favorite places to eat in Houston?
Kate: I really like to eat at Carmelo’s, it’s actually where the executive chef has been training me as well. It has really great Italian food like prosciutto di parma, that’s my favorite there.
Eric: Gringo’s, it’s got really great Tex-Mex food. I really like going to Waza, it’s a sushi place and super, super good. I also like Tony’s New York Pizza ... my mom used to give me a couple bucks to go in there, and I would get one slice of cheese pizza and a cookie. I’d give the pizza to my mom and eat the cookie, and it was all super good.
Is there anything you don't like cooking?
Kate: I personally don’t like seafood but I’m fine with cooking it. I love cooking seafood, I just don’t like to eat it.
Eric: Honestly, one thing I think I don’t want to cook with is probably lobster, like live lobster. I saw it on season one [of Top Chef Junior] and that freaked me out.
What do you want to be when you grow up?
Kate: I definitely want to be in the food industry, and I hope that might entail being a food writer. I love to travel, I love writing, I definitely love food—I don’t know, I feel it would be a good job for me.
Eric: When I grow up I want to open a high-end steakhouse, because you can use a lot of different cuisines in it. I also want to become an Olympic swimmer, and I want to become an engineer.
If you could cook for anyone, who would it be?
Kate: Travis Scott. For real.
Eric: The dream person I would definitely want to cook for would be Guy Fieri.
How did cooking for the Top Chef Junior judges compare to what you’re used to at home?
Kate: I felt like I was kind of under pressure because these are very cool people and very cool chefs, and then there’s just, like, me, Kate Daniel, cooking for them. Pretty interesting.
Eric: They’re definitely tougher than my mom, but they’re absolutely not as tough as my siblings.