It had nothing to do with not liking food competition reality shows: I did and do. It had nothing to do with not liking MasterChef. I did, do and had filled out my application for the show, then it occurred to me I'm in no position to quit my day job(s) for a couple of months. No. The reason I hadn't watched MasterChef Junior was that I thought the level of cooking would make for boredom: Worst Cooks in America, only cuter.
Then I found out San Diegan Nathan Odom had reached MasterChef Junior's final. I watched—and I was impressed. His appetizer and entrée were striking, sophisticated. But it was his dessert—Earl Grey tea tart with blood orange coulis—that put it and him over the top.
I figured there was one way to really get a clear picture of this kid: cook with him.
Saturday morning at Tijuana's Mercado Hidalgo is always a riot of sight and sound organized in a way only an anarchist could love. It might, on reflection, not have been the best place to meet Nathan and his parents, Rebecca and Beau (who works for CityBeat's parent company). My first impression of him—other than the rather substantial haircut he'd received since the show's filming—was a shyness I'd not expected.
That shyness went away the moment we were dealing with ingredients. Nathan's eye was drawn to the purslane in one frutería. "What is it?" he asked. "A succulent vegetable with a tart flavor," I said, "but I haven't figured out what to do with it." Nathan looked up at me, barely hiding the suggestion of a grin, and put a bunch of the purslane in my basket. "What are you going to do with it?" I asked. He shrugged and replied: "I donít know."
That really did not seem to bother him.
From the Mercado Hidalgo we headed south toward Popotla to acquire seafood for our appetizers. One of the enduring appeals of reality television is the sense it gives that we get to know the characters, get to see the real them. After all it's reality television. It's unscripted. Cynicism, that comfortable old shoe, told me that was a load. Unscripted? Sure. Reality? Not a bit.
When it comes to Nathan it became apparent the truth was somewhere in between. In many ways this was the same kid I'd seen on the show. He was, as he'd seemed, remarkably composed and well-spoken for his age. But in discussing his fellow competitors it became clear that his reading of interpersonal dynamics was sophisticated. Then again, how many 13-year-olds speak another language fluently (French) and are well on their way to a third (Japanese)? And his Spanish was better than mine.
The appetizer course was Plan A for that purslane: a lightly seared, spankingly fresh fillet of Popotla fish on a bed of puréed purslane. As we walked by table after table of vendors selling gorgeous fish—yellowtail, corvina, halibut, red snapper, sharks and more—we found a gorgeous "white sea bass" (hardly the most precise of descriptors) that looked like a good candidate.
Nathan volunteered to break down the fish, a relief considering it's one of my dodgier skills in the kitchen. It did not go well: The "white sea bass" had some odd anatomy, bones appearing where they should not be. We ended up with way too few nice filets. Was Nathan fazed? Not a bit. I've seen line cooks in high-end restaurants wilt when ingredients or circumstances did not cooperate. Nathan, in contrast, looked up at me and asked: "Do you have any fish stock?"
"No," I said. "But I have some lobster stock in the freezer." He touched his hand to his chin, thinking, and in moments the picture in his mind went from Plan A to a very French-style potage d'homard et la poisson avec la pourpier au jicama (lobster and fish soup with purslane and jicama). Nathan blanched the purslane in the lobster stock, puréed it all, added in some of the fish (finely diced) and cooked it down before enriching with a bit of milk, garnishing with batons of jicama and orange zest.
Adding fish after puréeing? Cooking down with milk (not cream) and fish? It should not have worked, but it did. The tartness of the purslane—echoed by the orange zest garnish—cut the richness of the stock. Remarkably, the milk brought it all. It was delicious, nothing short of a triumph. And a triumph born of adversity.
The following morning, Nathan and I walked out to the bluff overlooking the beach, sat and did a post mortem on the meal: what worked, what did less so, what might have been done differently. Afterward, I asked him what—if anything—he planned to do in the culinary world having won MasterChef Junior. It was a question to which I thought I already knew the answer. Again, he surprised me. "Have you heard of the Concours des Meilleurs Ouvriers de France—the MOF?" He asked. I told him I hadn't.
The MOF competition, it turns out, is a quadrennial contest to find "the best craftsmen in France." Though contested across over 100 different trades ranging from pastry to plumbing it is primarily known as a culinary competition with pâtissier (pastry chef) perhaps the most famous and grueling, requiring years of preparation. There is no financial award given the winner though winning pâtissiers tend to do quite well.
"Pastry," Nathan said, "is my favorite part of cooking." Macarons, he explained, are his specialty. Macarons—not to be confused with "macaroons" (the ground almond or coconut cookies more familiar to Americans)—are French meringue-based cookies sandwiched around a filling such as ganache, buttercream or jams. Devilishly difficult to make, they're a traditional test of a pâtissier's skill. The moment Nathan made them on MasterChef Junior may well have been the moment we all should have known he'd win.
In the MOF competition, however, there is no Junior category. It would be easy, based on his age, to doubt Nathan. Based on what I saw, though, it might well be a mistake to count this fearless young man out.