How I Got Radicalized

‘MasterChef Junior’ Is a Cooking Show About Generational Wealth

Only a certain class of kid can make the best matcha macarons

Welcome to “How I Got Radicalized,” which tells the story of a cultural moment that made you drastically rethink how society works.

I’ve loved shitty TV since I was in elementary school. As a kid growing up in the 2000s, my attention was split between live broadcast TV, early-era Netflix, and Friends in syndication. The only way to feel a part of something bigger was through reality TV like America’s Next Top Model and American Idol, a buzz that happened when a whole generation came together for an hour every week to revel in their competitive entertainment.

As monthly streaming subscriptions overtook our home antenna use, the excitement of event TV became harder to chase. The only way I could catch that high was watching Big Brother’s live feeds, available 24/7, and read updates from its ravenous superfans. As exciting as this was, it felt like work, and I wasn’t a kid anymore. Trump had just been elected and I had a full-time career; I wanted to spend the precious hours escaping the doldrums of adulthood. I wanted easily digestible drama, served up on an hour-long platter. That’s when I found MasterChef Junior.

MasterChef and its spin-off MasterChef Junior are hosted by celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay. On Ramsay’s iconic insult-show, Hell’s Kitchen’s, veteran chefs compete for bragging rights and the position of head chef at one of Gordon’s restaurants. On MasterChef, the contestants are ordinary home cooks fighting for the life-changing prize of a quarter-million dollars. Ramsay shouts toned-down insults into home cooks’ uncalloused ears, hot pans are flung across courtyards, chicken fillets (pronounced fill-its) arrive “fucking raw,” and contestants are kept on edge for fear of being crowned America’s next “idiot sandwich.”

MasterChef Junior is a gentler test for its home cooks, ages eight to 13. Ramsay is still a storm cloud, but he’s just passing through. Without betraying too much of the hot-headed persona he has developed for American audiences, Ramsay pushes the young home cooks to their greatest potential. He’s gentler and more understanding, tough but loving, and it’s clear he is invested in the kids, encouraging them as they stumble. A rainbow of encouragement follows every stern remark. MasterChef Junior’s hot pans are tossed into nearby trash cans, chicken fillets could’ve used a bit more time in the oven, and Ramsay dresses up as a little old grandma. The casting team sifts through the young hopefuls with challenges like “measure some water or cook an egg or chop something.” The kids showcase their personalities in colorful sound bites: “I wanna show ’em I’m not just a grill boy, but I can actually bake some fancy stuff.” In the finale, when Gordon and co-host Christina Tosi graduate the last few standing from “home cook” to “chef,” they do so with a twinkle of pride and tears in their eyes.

Watching this show brought back memories of my own childhood in the kitchen, eager to learn and master new techniques. I remember getting a holiday issue of a food magazine at eight years old and begging my mom to please take me to the supermarket for ingredients to make my first lasagna. As a child of divorce, I grew up firmly middle class, swinging from the lower to mid-upper echelons depending on the year. As we checked out, the cost of ricotta and dried seasonings added up with every beep of the scanner. Growing up with a strictly Asian pantry, branching out meant acquiring a lot of “standard” ingredients. Any time I wanted to make box-mix brownies, I’d have to factor in eggs and vegetable oil; cake from scratch meant buying AP flour and confectioner’s sugar.

I thought of these grocery trips while watching season 6 of MasterChef Junior. Among the competitors are Manhattan-bred sisters Remy and Olivia Bond, aged 12 and 10, who dominated the early stages of the competition. While others struggled to cook and plate halibut with Gordon-approved finesse, the Bond sisters were calm, collected, and most importantly, practiced. The duo excelled with ease, and producers take advantage of their storyline by imploring them to boldly lean into their confidence in confessionals.

The Bond sisters succeeded on MasterChef Junior because they had the privilege to make mistakes and grow.

I know it’s not their fault Remy and Olivia are privileged — to hold this against children, especially ones who were thrust into the public eye as they were still learning and growing, is misguided — but it was frustrating to see their evident advantages as they competed on the same level as kids who spent their hard-earned chore money on cake decor.

In their last episode together, the Bond sisters had one hour to make 12 perfect macarons — a three-way battle for a single spot in the semifinals. The drama of this episode cannot be understated: Remy advanced with her green tea matcha buttercream macarons with a strawberry coulis and walked her sister out the door. Cut back to Christina Tosi, noting that “dessert… is a science that you have to get just right,” as she asked the younger Bond sister “how much experience do you have with macarons?” Olivia’s response: “I have a lot of experience with macarons because I go to a lot of French pastry places. And I make them a lot at home.” She’s 10 years old.

A rough calculation of Remy Bond’s matcha macarons, using non-organic ingredients from my local mid-tier grocer, comes out to over $50, with the cheapest matcha powder that I could find blowing out the budget at $19 for an ounce and a half. All this is for a macaron — not a meal of substance, a luxury by any definition. The bill for my first lasagna came close to $40, and although it meant she’d have to reallocate money to supplement our grocery budget, my mom paid for it. To no one’s surprise, the lasagna was ultimately disappointing — after all, I was an eight-year-old attempting Bolognese and bechamel for the first time.

Although Ramsay and Tosi lead rigorous behind-the-scenes training to ensure the competitors are all up to speed on technique, the Bond sisters’ economic advantages were still apparent. These matcha macarons were a sum of their ingredients: Atop that $50, we can add the cost of a KitchenAid mixer ($379), a Silpat baking mat dotted with uniform circles ($28), and the privilege of parents who aren’t worried about their basic survival needs, like job security and making rent. When the average net worth of a white family in America is $171,000, nearly ten times that of a black family (with other families of color falling in between), the advantages of white junior-chefs goes beyond merely wealth, but to their parents’ emotional and financial capability to allow them to experiment, and fail, in the kitchen.

This isn’t to say that the Bond sisters didn’t deserve their growth and success in the competition. From the beginning, they were forces to be reckoned with — two confident, talented, and resilient chefs. But confidence and experience come at a price, and throughout American history, systemic inequality influences who gets to benefit from generational wealth. Black families were unfairly denied mortgage loans until the passing of the 1968 Fair Housing Act, and continue to receive undervalued home appraisals due to racism inherent to the system. Native communities were refused self-governance of their property and continue to fight for recognition of their land rights. Immigrants with accented English struggle to find jobs, despite their bilingualism. And refugees, including those from El Salvador, Vietnam, and Syria, understand that the cost of freedom from persecution is leaving everything behind.

Yes, a part of me is jealous of two rich tweens, but it is truly enraging to reckon with how the effects of discrimination trickle down to our most formative years, shaping our self-confidence and deciding whether we get to go through trial and error to find out who we are and what we love. The frustration lies not just in race or class, but at the intersection of the two. The Bond sisters succeeded because they had the privilege to make mistakes and grow. I wish every child, myself included, had been afforded the opportunity to churn out a flat macaron with disheveled footing and encouraged to try again.

Chinese-American comedian, journalist, screenwriter, and actor in Austin, Texas. Unpublishable thoughts at @notminda.

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