By Kaitlin Ahern and Emma Rausch

Meet the Local Contenders on MasterChef Junior Season 2

October 23, 2014   |  INTERVIEWS/PROFILES   

Season 2 of MasterChef Junior premieres on FOX on Nov. 4, featuring talented young chefs ages 8-13 from across the country. Catch up with last season's winner, go backstage with judge Joe Bastianich, and keep reading to meet the contestants who hail from the NYC area, including Josh Reisner of Forest Hills, Queens; Adaiah Stevens of Bethel, Connecticut; and Isabella Velez of Washington Heights, Manhattan.

 

josh reisner on masterchef juniorThe Role Model from Queens

Name: Josh Reisner
Age: 11
Hometown: Forest Hills, Queens, NY
Claim to Fame: At just 4 feet, 4 inches tall, Josh is a bit of a daredevil and can be found skiing the slopes of black diamond trails.

Q: How long have you been cooking?
A: I’ve probably been cooking for five years. I was inspired by my mom, and then I just picked it up from her. Basically we started out making cookies, cakes, cupcakes—simple stuff.

Q: What is your favorite type of cuisine to cook?
A: Now I like to cook a little twist between comfort foods and bistro-type foods. I make a lot of very good dishes. One of my family’s favorites is this dish that is almost a pinwheel of pork, and I make a good garlic shrimp. It sounds simple, but if you make it right it’s really a perfect dish.

Q: Where’s your favorite place to eat in the city?
A: My favorite place to eat in the city is probably this place called Jewel Bako. It has the best sushi in the country. Another of my favorite places is Gotham West Market. I usually eat in Manhattan, and I love to eat. Basically, my life is just surrounded by cooking, except for this one little bubble, which includes cars, tennis, and photography.

Q: Why did you want to be on MasterChef Junior?
A: I think that I wanted to show my talent by being on the show. I wanted kids to look up to me. I still want to look up to people, but I also want people to look up to me. I want to be an example for kids all over the country.

I think that—and not everyone thinks this—kids can cook too. Kids can cook, but they haven’t been inspired to do that. I want more kids to cook, not just for MasterChef Junior, but on a daily basis. Other than competing on MasterChef Junior, I’ve been helping out at Young Chef’s Academy, The Brooklyn Kitchen, Bite Size Kitchen, and also at the Institute of Culinary Education.

josh reisner cooking on masterchef junior

Josh zests a lemon into his sauté pan during an Elimination Challenge.
Photo courtesy of FOX 

Q: What was it like to meet Gordon Ramsay?
A: Gordon is probably my favorite chef. He was really great with us, and he wasn’t mean at all. He was really supportive. Still, it’s so intimidating to be in front of Gordon, Graham, and Joe. Gordon Ramsay is basically 5 feet away from you and you’re just so overwhelmed and you really don’t know what to do with yourself. 

Q: What was the best part about the competition?
A: I made a lot of new friends. It’s fun to make new friends that are just like you, but they shared something with me that was just so valuable. I talk with my new chef friends every day. We inspire each other and learn from each other. We’re just so connected.

Also the pantry was just so amazing. They had all these ingredients for you to use for any dish you could imagine. It was a supermarket for free.

Q: What do you want to be when you grow up?
A: I really want to be a chef when I grow up, and if not, then I want to be a food critic. I want to work in the East Village because there are a lot of nice properties over there. I want to work in a comfort food/bistro-type of restaurant.

 

Talking with Brad and Serena Reisner, Josh’s Parents

Q: When did you first realize Josh had a talent for cooking?
Serena: When he started helping me in the kitchen, he was pretty adept at noticing small details of ingredients in certain foods, and flavors, and his pallet became pretty sophisticated at a really young age. I think it was when he started taking classes at Young Chefs Academy in Forest Hills—he was standing out a lot there because he was more knowledgeable about the ingredients.

Brad: I think a lot of kids were there as an after-school activity. Josh did it for the actual cooking experience. When he was about 5 months old, he started eating sushi. He wanted to eat the grown-up food instead of baby food. I think from then on, it’s been interesting.

Q: Who does more cooking in your household, you or Josh?
Serena: I think these days it's Josh. I tend to do a lot of baking, but he tries to cook four nights a week, especially when he doesn’t have a lot of homework. It’s his kitchen now pretty much.

Q: Who did Josh inherit his cooking talent from?
Brad: I would say either Serena or Serena’s father. He’s 93 now and still 30 people come over for a celebration and he’s in the kitchen, cooking away. Josh is already planning for holiday dinner with two different choices for entrées and expecting to have like 12 people over.

Q: How did you hear about the auditions for MasterChef Junior?
Brad: We were contacted by the folks at Young Chefs Academy, and they said, “Hey, there’s this thing that’s going on in the city. It might be something that you guys want to check out.” I think when we first heard about the auditions, Josh was nervous because of all the shows with Gordon on and he was like, “Oh my gosh. He yells at everyone.” And I said, “Well, he has children. So he’s not going to be that way. So let’s just go to the casting call and see what happens.”

 

adaiah stevens on masterchef juniorThe Contender from Connecticut

Name: Adaiah Stevens
Age: 12
Hometown: Bethel, CT
Claim to Fame: In addition to cooking, Adaiah is a talented singer who writes her own songs and has performed at The Apollo Theater.

Q: What is your signature dish?
A: Salmon with lemon butter sauce on a bed of kale and sweet potato stir-fry.

Q: How long have you been cooking?
A: I’ve been interested in cooking ever since I was about 5 years old. My family cooks a lot. I grew up cooking with my mother and grandmother, who have a Southern and Caribbean background. I started out baking lots of cookies and cakes with my grandmother, and then I started cooking with my older sister—I was always her sous chef. We’re really interested in other cultures, so we try lots of different recipes together.

Q: What’s your favorite type of cuisine to cook?
A: Right now I’m really interested in French cooking. I recently found a Julia Child book in my great-grandmother’s house and have been trying those recipes. The macaroons are my signature dish right now. I lean toward baking, but I love to cook dinner for my four siblings. My mother’s side is from the Bahamas, so we cook a lot of seafood and I use a lot of those spices, like saffron, curry, and garam masala.

Q: How do you balance cooking and schoolwork?
A: I’m in eighth grade and I’m homeschooled with my siblings. I get to cook every day. Early in the morning I’ll make granola bars for my siblings, and I’ll usually make lunch and snacks with my sister.

Q: Where is your favorite place to eat in your hometown?
A: It’s very limited here—there are a lot of pizza and Italian restaurants, but we have a different diet. Our restaurant is our home. But we do like to go into New York City to eat. Serendipity is the best ice cream place in the world! 

Q: Why did you want to be on MasterChef?
A: When I first saw the commercial for Season 1, I said ‘Let’s do that!’ I knew my skills could definitely match up.

Q: Were you nervous to compete on the show?
A: I’m not really a nervous person, so I wasn’t nervous about being on TV or anything. But I was a little nervous about what they would say about my food, because it’s something I’m so passionate about. I didn’t want someone to criticize it, but I’ve gotten better with that. 

Q: Who’s your favorite chef?
A: I love Ina Garten from Food Network. I love the way she cooks homestyle gourmet food and that she’s always cooking for family and friends—it reminds me of my family.

Q: What do you like to do other than cooking?
A: My real goal is to be a singer with my sister—I love to sing. My other hobby is photography. I was about 11 years old when I got my first camera, and I fell in love with photography.

adaiah stevens and joe bastianich on masterchef junior

Adaiah gets feedback on a dish from judge Joe Bastianich.
Photo courtesy of FOX 

 

Talking with Keila Stevens, Adaiah’s Mom

Q: When did you first realize Adaiah had a talent for cooking?
A: It came so naturally for Adaiah and my older daughter. She was probably around 7 when she started baking on her own and putting together recipes for different cookies and cakes. That’s when other family members and friends started commenting on her skills.

Q: What have you done to encourage her culinary skills?
A: I’ve definitely encouraged Adaiah to be creative in the kitchen—sometimes you have to think outside of the box! I encourage her to stay within healthy boundaries but make her food delicious at the same time. I just let her go at it in the kitchen. We eat dinner every night at the table, and she and her older sister usually make it.

Q: How did you hear about the auditions for MasterChef Junior?
A: I think I saw it online. I check Backstage.com sometimes—the girls write and perform music, so I check out opportunities for them to do that. At first I thought Sharaiah would make a great contestant, but she aged out. She told Adaiah, ‘I have to pass you the torch,’ and Adaiah ran with it. She did so well.

 

isabella velez on masterchef juniorThe Honorary Italian from Manhattan

Name: Isabella Velez
Age: 12
Hometown: Washington Heights, NY
Claim to Fame: Isabella is a self-proclaimed “nutty girl” who loves to collect and wear tutus and takes pride in being her own person.

Q: How long have you been cooking for?
A: I have been cooking since I was probably 5 or 6. My mom taught me to cook when I was really little. I started out helping her make pancakes. It was mostly helping with little things, like I would measure the water for her.

Q: What is your favorite type of cuisine to cook?
A: I usually cook Italian food a lot. My parents are both Hispanic, but I kind of see myself as an honorary Italian because of how much I love to cook Italian food. I kind of idolize their food.

Q: Where is your favorite place to eat in the city?
A: About a block away from my house, there’s a little Italian restaurant called Saggio, and I go there all the time. I’m friends with the owner, Pierre. He’s a really great guy. Before I went to Los Angeles, I told him that I was going to be on the show and he was really excited for me. He congratulated me and, for one day, I went to the kitchen and he taught me a little bit. Most of the stuff I already knew, but I learned more about safety things. It’s actually kind of funny, because the space of the kitchen is kind of small, so it was kind of a challenge to cook in. So I can safely say that I can cook in any size kitchen now.

Q: Were you nervous to meet Gordon Ramsay?
A: Gordon Ramsay is my favorite TV show chef, so the first time I saw him on set was so crazy. It was kind of awkward at first because I didn’t think it was him—I thought he might have been a wax figure or something. It was just so crazy. I was like, ‘Is it really him?!’ My hands started sweating. I started freaking out because it was kind of terrifying to be there cooking for him.

isabella velez with gordon ramsay

Isabella chats with judge Gordon Ramsay during a Mystery Box Challenge.
Photo courtesy of FOX 

Q: What was the best part of being on MasterChef Junior?

A: The experience itself was the best part. I watched MasterChef Junior religiously and, going to the studio, I felt like a huge fan girl. I was like, ‘Oh my God! I’m actually here!’ I wish I could have taken photos so I could put them on my bedroom wall and stare at them all the time.

Also, the other best part was all the friends I made there. All the contestants from the show—we all still stay in contact even though filming is over. I still talk to all of them. You know, it is a competition and you would think we would hate each others’ guts and that we’d just focus on the prize, but no. We became really close friends really fast. We’re like one big family now.

Q: What do you like best about cooking?
A: The thing I like best about cooking is that I can just express myself in so many ways. Some of the things you have to follow the cookbook and do whatever everyone else does, but I think this can apply to life too. You have to get out of your comfort zone and do things you’re not used to. That’s what cooking is all about. As long as you’re improving your cooking and you’re having fun, that’s all that matters. I learned that through the competition.

Q: What do you want to be when you grow up?
A: When I grow up, I want to be a food critic, a chef, or an actress. If I were to become a food critic, which is my main goal, I would want to work for The New York Times. I read their dining section all the time.


Talking with Fatima Velez, Isabella’s Mom

Q: When did you first realize Isabella had a talent for cooking?
A: As a child, my mom encouraged me to cook. Being a woman, you need to know how to feed your family. So growing up in New York with my mom teaching me all these recipes, I didn’t pay too much attention to what is the meaning of that. When I had Isabella, I realized that she found it interesting because of the smell and she wanted to immediately try it. She wanted to know how to cook, and she started asking me questions, so I said, ‘Come, come, and we’ll do it together.’ I think from that she started falling in love with cooking.

Q: What have you done to encourage Isabella’s culinary skills?
A: Living in New York, we have all this opportunity to experience all this amazing cultural food, so both of my kids try different, new foods three or four times a week. We try to go out a few times a week to try different things. I also have friends who are chefs at three or four restaurants, and some chefs have taken her aside to teach her some things.