On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
Catch up with MasterChef Junior Champion Che Spiotta on 88.5 FM in the Washington D.C. region or listen to the livestream at kojoshow.org at 12:30 on Monday May 18. Kid callers only please: 800-433-8850 or email questions to firstname.lastname@example.org
“It’s you on a plate. That’s the most exciting thing about everything you touch.”
That’s what legendary chef Gordon Ramsay said to MasterChef Junior competitor Che Spiotta on national television last year after taking a few bites of Spiotta’s entree for the finale: veal saltimbocca with spring pea ragout, morels and mushroom jus.
Spiotta, now 14, would not only go on to win that MasterChef Junior competition, but also to impress the audience with his down-to-earth charm and graciousness.
He joins Kojo to talk about his love of cooking, growing up gluten-free and the intense competition that crowned him America’s brightest young chef.
This show is part of the “Kojo For Kids” series, a Kojo Nnamdi Show segment featuring guests of special interest to young listeners. Though Kojo has been on WAMU 88.5 for 20 years, this is the first time he has had the opportunity to reach out to an audience of kids, most of whom until recently had been in school during our live broadcast. We’re excited to hear from our youngest listeners! Join us!
Produced by Lauren Markoe
- Che Spiotta Winner, MasterChef Junior; @MasterChefJrFOX
KOJO NNAMDIThat, of course, was the final moments of Season 7 of “MasterChef Junior,” when legendary chef Gordon Ramsay announced Che Spiotta as the champion. It was an entertaining, yet grueling contest that would have challenged even the most accomplished adult chef, but Che was only 12 when the competition began. The judges were impressed by his succulent veal saltimbocca and his ultra-moist gluten-free chocolate cake.
KOJO NNAMDIBut they also took note of Che's grace under pressure and willingness to challenge himself. Today Che will tell us more about how he was crowned the best young chef in the nation and share his tips for success in the kitchen. Adults, you are welcome to listen, because today's show is part of the Kojo for Kids series. So, we're taking kids calls only. Che Spiotta, welcome to the program.
CHE SPIOTTAHi, how are you?
NNAMDII am well, and really happy that you're joining us today. The seconds of silence before Chef Gordon Ramsay announced you as the winner of “MasterChef Junior” seems to go on and on. What was going through your head as you waited?
SPIOTTAIt was insane. I remember when we filmed it, it seemed even longer. And it just -- I mean, I don't know why he took so long, and I was just thinking, when is this going to be over with? When is he going to say a name? And it was -- I mean, everybody in the audience was just so quiet and, I mean, nobody knew why he was taking so long.
SPIOTTAAnd I could hear Louis and Ivy's and everybody's chests beating, and you could hear their -- our hearts racing, because we were so near where it was about to happen. And it just took forever for him to say anything. And when he finally did, I just collapsed to the ground, because it was like so much pressure and so much stress. And I didn't -- I was like, whoa. I couldn't even believe it, at first.
NNAMDIIt's the built-in suspense of the show, Che, but it's my understanding that somebody in that studio audience couldn't stand the tension and blurted something out. Can you fill us in on what happened behind the scenes?
SPIOTTAYeah, it was pretty funny. When Gordon was waiting for what felt like hours before he announced my name, someone in the crowd said, “Come on, already,” or something like that. And Gordon just turned around and just gave a death stare, because everybody was just like, what's going on. Why is this taking so long? And, yeah, and it was pretty funny. Definitely lightened the tension for a couple seconds.
NNAMDIHow did you feel and what did you do when you were named the winner?
SPIOTTASo, as you can see in the clip, I just fell to the ground, because I was -- and my knees just went out, because I really had no idea what was going on. I couldn't believe it. I remember having my eyes closed, and then looking up and seeing all the confetti just falling down. That's when it kind of hit me, like, whoa, like I actually just won this competition that I'd been working on for, you know, 10 weeks now. And it was all over and I was super -- I was happy that I won, but I was sad it was over and that I had to go home.
NNAMDIHere is McKenzie, 9-year-old McKenzie is in Virginia. McKenzie, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MCKENZIEMy question is, what was your favorite dish that you cooked in the MasterChef kitchen, and why?
SPIOTTAThank you McKenzie. So, I think that my favorite dish that I cooked in the Master Junior kitchen was probably -- I made a Duck Fat Risotto. And I didn't win the challenge, and I wasn't judged, but it was really, really good and it took a lot of time and a lot of effort. And I remember tasting it, and it was really, really delicious. But also I loved making the dishes that we had for team challenges, because I really liked cooking in a group and with teams. So, I think we made lamb one time and Risotto, and that was another one of my favorite dishes I cooked.
NNAMDIChe, MasterChef Junior was filmed in Los Angeles. Then you went back home to Upstate New York, had to keep your victory a secret for a year before the final episode was aired. How were you able to do that? Did you have to keep it even from your best, closest friends?
SPIOTTAYes. Yeah, I did, and it was super, super difficult, especially in coming home, you know, the day after I'd won a cooking show, to not being able to tell anybody. Going back to school, acting like it was just a regular day. And, you know, everybody's, like, Che, why did you disappear for 10 weeks? Like, where were you? And I was, like, I can't say, you know, like, until it aired, you know, a year later. I mean, once it started airing, everybody's like, oh, that's what you were doing. But then I still had to wait the whole season to finally tell them I won. So, I mean, when -- I was so relieved not only when it aired because, you know, it was official that I had won, but because I didn't have to keep a secret anymore.
NNAMDII mean, that's -- I can just imagine trying to explain, but not be able to explain where you were gone for 10 weeks. I went to see 100 different movies, okay? I never came out of the theater.
NNAMDILet's hear a bit more about your life and how you learned to excel as a chef. You say you owe your success to your dad. Tell us about your father and how he influenced your love of cooking.
SPIOTTASo, my dad definitely influenced my love of cooking because I remember the first things that I ever made was definitely with him. He taught me how to make tomato sauce, breakfast, really everything that he knew. And a lot of my favorite dishes that I cook today are things that he's taught me. And that really got me -- one of the many things that got me into cooking was that he definitely inspired me, in a lot of ways.
NNAMDIWhen -- at what -- how old were you when your father started teaching you to cook?
SPIOTTAMaybe three or four, super-young. And it was -- at that point it was not, you know, the type of cooking I'm cooking today. It was more making eggs or helping chop things, really just helping out in the kitchen. But, yeah, three or four.
NNAMDIHelping chop things. That means at three or four years old, you were already around sharp knives?
SPIOTTA(laugh) Yeah, I guess. I mean, I didn't start off with the type of knives I use today at all, and it was definitely with adult supervision. But, yeah, one of the earliest things I remember was making breakfast or helping chop things for soup.
NNAMDITell us a little bit more about your family. Where do you live, and what's your life like there?
SPIOTTAI live in Upstate New York and life right now is pretty great. Besides not being able to see friends and going to school and stuff, it's awesome. I love hanging out in my backyard, playing soccer, being outside with my brothers, going in the river, which is right next to my house. So, yeah, life's pretty good. It's so beautiful here right now. It just started to get warm, so it's really nice to be outside.
NNAMDIHere's Sumad, in Virginia. Sumad, your turn.
SUMADHello. My question is...
NNAMDIHi, Sumad. You're...Sumad, you're 13 years old?
NNAMDIOkay. Well, go ahead and ask your question.
SUMADWhat have you been doing ever since you won “MasterChef Junior”?
SPIOTTAThank you. That's a great question. I've been having lots of fun, definitely cooking a lot and trying lots of new things. Trying to cook different things that I hadn't cooked before. I've been traveling. I went to Italy twice. I went to Mexico. I was on a couple of TV shows, and just having a lot of fun.
NNAMDIChe, a lot of people are surprised to learn that you cook and eat gluten-free. Why is that, and what kind of challenge does that present for you?
SPIOTTAYeah, so I'm gluten-free, and I was first -- I found out I was gluten-free when I was -- about the same time when I started cooking three or four. And that was another thing that really inspired me to start cooking, because back then, there wasn't as many gluten-free options and supplements as there are now. So, I was finding things that were naturally gluten-free, and my dad would help me with that. And that's what also got me into cooking because, you know, oh, I can't eat this, but let me substitute it with this, and cooking things that I could eat.
NNAMDIYeah, that makes absolute sense. The judges remarked in the show's finale that your gluten-free chocolate cake was incredibly moist. How did you achieve that?
SPIOTTASo, that cake was -- I used olive oil in there instead of butter, which really made it retain its moisture. And that was such a fun cake to cook. I remember I had a minute or two at the end of the finale, and I did an extra one, and I ate the whole thing. And I laughed, and I was, like, this is a really, really, really good cake. (laugh) It was, yeah, a really fun one to cook.
NNAMDII guess in order to love to cook, you have to love to eat what you cook. You clearly enjoy eating what you cook. Alexander -- five-year-old Alexander from Arlington wants to know: What is the MasterChef kitchen like and is your home kitchen like that?
SPIOTTAOh, my home kitchen is nowhere near as large or as grand as the MasterChef kitchen. But the MasterChef kitchen is crazy. It's really, really big. They have everything you can think of, all the appliances, all the ingredients, and it's really fun. I loved the challenges where there wasn't as many rules and regulations, where you could kind of just go wild and find whatever you wanted to cook with. But I'm definitely -- I'm working on my kitchen, getting new things all the time and, yeah, so I can make some crazy things.
NNAMDISo one day he'll have a kitchen that looks at least a little bit like the MasterChef kitchen.
SPIOTTAOh, yeah. (laugh)
NNAMDIChe, in addition to your dad you had other influences. Which chefs do you look up to, and why?
SPIOTTADefinitely Gordon Ramsay, which is kind of, you know, I think people would definitely think that. But he's just -- he's super-cool and he's such a nice guy. Also, Anthony Bourdain because I loved how his shows were also him adventuring and finding different cuisines and cooking with them. And that was one of my favorite shows to watch, "Parts Unknown.” And, definitely, Anthony Bourdain inspired me a lot.
NNAMDIChe, the prize for winning “MasterChef Junior” is $100,000. Apart from giving me a huge loan, what are you going to do with that money? (laugh)
SPIOTTA(laugh) So, I have it saved, because I'm not really sure what I want to do with it yet. And I feel that, you know, when I get to use it when I'm older, it's going to be a great gift from my 12-year-old self. And so I don't have many plans for it yet, which I know is kind of boring, but I'm saving it until I'm a little bit older.
NNAMDIWell, it's not boring at all. If you have questions for Che Spiotta, give us a call at 800-433-8850. Che, you also got a trophy, and after you won it, you said on national television that you wish you could slice it in three so you could share it with the other finalists. Talk about the friendship that grew between you, Ivy and Malia. Did you hang out with them between tapings?
SPIOTTADefinitely. We had a great friendship, and we would hang out all the time when we weren't filming. We'd go have dinner together. And I really meant what I said when I said in the interview after winning, that I felt that it was such a tight finale, and that it was really -- could have went either way. And, yeah, they're still friends of mine to this day.
NNAMDIAs a matter of fact, Adam was asking, who are you still friends with from the show?
SPIOTTAI'm friends with almost all of the kids from show, especially Ivy, Malia and Kyle and Jaala and Reid. I can name -- I could keep going on and naming a bunch of kids I'm friends with. And when we get to see each other, it's really great, and we definitely bonded.
NNAMDISo, that's what you could tell your friends at home, finally, now, after a year. Those 10 weeks, I made some new friends, but you're still my friends, because you're my old friends, right. (laugh)
NNAMDIFor the show's finale, you made an entree the judges described as particularly difficult. Why did you choose veal saltimbocca, and how did you make it your own?
SPIOTTAWell, I've always loved veal saltimbocca. I mean, I've eaten it for a while. So, when I was coming up with my finale dish, that's something that I definitely thought of was, oh, what are the things that I like to cook, classic Italian dishes, classic Italian dishes I love to eat, and how can I make them better or make them my own?
SPIOTTASo, for the veal saltimbocca dish, I had sides of fiddlehead ferns and morels and peas and things that grow around where I live, because it's a lot of things that I cook with. I added cheese to it because, you know, who doesn't love cheese? And I added a couple other things that really made it my own, and I think that's one of the reasons I stood out in the finale.
NNAMDIYou tried something similarly challenging on the show with a shrimp, cuttlefish and polenta appetizer. Chef Ramsay asked, why were you setting the bar so high? What was your thinking behind that appetizer?
SPIOTTAWell, I thought that if I was going to win Master Junior, I'm going to have to go crazy big. So, I decided to do two proteins for my appetizer, to set me apart from the other finalists. And it was definitely difficult, but I pulled it off, and it was so much fun to cook. And a lot of people, I feel, think when I'm, you know, cooking, when I see those kids cooking, that it's so stressful and they're not having any fun at all, and it's, you know, so much drama and stuff. But I remember the finale being so much fun and not very stressful, until those last moments. But I had so much fun cooking it.
NNAMDIHere Ty in Maryland. Ty, your turn. Ty is 12 years old. Go ahead, Ty.
TYWhy did you choose to make a gluten-free chocolate cake instead of a regular chocolate cake?
SPIOTTAWell, since I'm gluten-free, I wanted to make my whole finale gluten-free to show that that can still be good, and it can be amazing, and that sometimes, when you cook gluten-free, you don't have to make things worse than how they originally were meant to be. You can actually make it better. So, I used the almond flour, which added a great flavor. And, yeah, so what -- yeah, the reason I decided to make my cake gluten-free is because I'm gluten-free, and I wanted to show that you can make gluten-free things taste good.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Ty. Now, here is eight-year-old Elliott in Washington, D.C. Elliott, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ELLIOTTHi. My question is, how long did it take you to figure out how to bake and cook perfectly?
NNAMDIPerfection, Che. How long did it take you to get there?
SPIOTTAI don't think I've reached perfection just yet, but I think hopefully I'll get there or near there. But it took me a while. I started off cooking super-simple things and I try to cook on the weekends a lot, when I don't have school. And really just practicing as much as I can, finding things to do that I like to do and having fun, I think, made me successful.
NNAMDIDuring the competition, you had some ups and downs. Can you describe one thing that didn't go well, and how you bounced back?
SPIOTTAI definitely had ups and downs in the show, like all kids. And there was one time where I was on the bottom three. You know, I could've possibly gotten taken off the show. And I really used that to motivate me to do better. You know, like, you don't want that to happen again and, oh, let's take that and bring it up. And I think that having ups and downs really helped me, you know. And it really showed me different parts of cooking in the MasterChef Junior kitchen.
NNAMDIDid it also help you learning to cook at home, or when you were cooking at home or learning to cook, did you ever have what you consider absolute disasters and had to bounce back from them, anyway?
SPIOTTAOh, all the time. Definitely. I can name a million times where I've messed up in the kitchen, and I definitely try to use them to make me better. And especially baking, because it's such science, that I'll cook things sometimes and, you know, it won't rise at all. Or, you know, things will happen with that, or I overcooked something. And I just use those things, oh, okay, let's not do it like that. Let's not do this next time. What'll I do that I can do differently next time?
NNAMDIWhat's your best...
SPIOTTASo, I definitely use my mistakes to make me better.
NNAMDIWhat's your best advice for young chefs?
SPIOTTADefinitely have fun in the kitchen, because that's how I started. And I think that if you're not having fun in the kitchen, you shouldn't be cooking. And that you should just find the things that you like to cook and work off those and to keep trying. And if you like cooking, to keep doing it and keep going through, even when you have those mistakes.
NNAMDIChe, some parents may be nervous about letting kids cook. After all, as I mentioned earlier, there's knives and fire in the kitchen. How would you reassure those parents that cooking is a really good activity even for young kids?
SPIOTTAI think that if kids want to cook in the kitchen, they should be able to. And I'm not saying that you should, you know, let your four-year-old go in the kitchen without any supervision. But I feel that, definitely, if you're watching your kids and, you know, making sure they're doing things right and really use as a teaching moment, you know, this is how you hold a knife, this is how you -- so you don't cut your finger. This is the right way to chop. You know, this is -- oh, don't have your pan this high, and things like that, then you can definitely teach your kids from it. And that if you're being safe, being in the kitchen can be a super-creative and super-helpful thing.
NNAMDIYou've got a restaurant that's open in your head all the time. But, at some point in the future, it probably will be open in reality. What will the restaurant you open up be like? What will it serve?
SPIOTTASo, the restaurant, you know, that I imagine myself having always changes. You know, I'm always thinking of new ideas, but I want it to be based Italian, because that's the thing I love to eat and the thing I love to cook. So, that's one thing that stays pretty much the same. I also want it to be outdoors and really, you know, nice so that you can have, you know, the food that you can grow in your garden or from a local farmers market incorporated into the food that we cook at the restaurant.
NNAMDIIs there anything, Che, that you don't like to cook or eat?
SPIOTTAHum. I mean, there's -- I would try every -- I like to try everything and, you know, there's nothing I'm not going to ever try, but there's things that I don't particularly like. I don't like raw peppers. I think that's the number one thing I don't like, raw peppers, like, in a salad. But besides that, I'll try anything, yeah.
NNAMDIWhy don't you like raw peppers? I love raw peppers. (laugh)
SPIOTTAI don't know. I mean, I've had people ask me that before, you now, why red peppers, Che, and I have no idea. You know, orange peppers, I'll eat yellow peppers or eat anything. Just not red raw peppers.
NNAMDIJust not red peppers. What are you cooking during these times when we have to stay at home and socially distance? Are you cooking your comfort foods? And, if so, what are they?
SPIOTTAI'm definitely cooking comfort foods. Cooking lots of pasta for my brothers and, you know, things that they request, because I have so much time now to cook. Usually, when I had school, I could only cook on the weekends but now I can cook every day because we don't have as much school, and it's online. But it's definitely more difficult to find ingredients than it was before all this, but things are definitely getting better. Lots of pasta dishes, steak. I made burgers yesterday. Lots of just fun things that my brothers and my mom request.
NNAMDIHow much cooking do you do at home?
SPIOTTAIt definitely depends on the day. On a good day, maybe two meals. I'll make breakfast for my brothers, and hopefully dinner. But there's some days where I only get to make one meal, if I'm super-busy. But I try to, you know, make it so I can make dinner and give my mom a break.
NNAMDIDo either of your brothers have any cooking skills?
SPIOTTADefinitely. I mean, I try to teach them as much as I can. There's some things where I'm, like, oh my gosh, you're my brother, but I help them out a lot. And they do have some really, you know, good skills in the kitchen. You know, I have them help me out a lot. You know, can you cut this for me? You know, do this, do that. And it works out, because then I feed them at the end. You know, I give them the dish that we make. But they're not horrible, and they're definitely getting better.
NNAMDI(laugh) Well, that's a credit. They're not horrible. Who washes the dishes?
SPIOTTA(laugh) Well, that's a great question. If you ask my mom, she'd say she washes dishes. If you ask me, I say I wash the dishes. I don't like washing dishes, at all. I like every part of cooking besides cleaning up. But definitely, my mom tries to have me wash the dishes. And sometimes I can pressure my brothers into doing it. You know, I'll give you this piece of cake if you go wash the dishes, and sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. But I definitely don't like doing it, and sometimes it has to be me.
NNAMDII'll let you score in soccer if you wash the dishes. (laugh) How has being on the show changed your life, Che?
SPIOTTAIt changed my life in so many ways, and it's given me a lot of confidence and really made my cooking career, I feel, it definitely helped it a lot. And it's really inspired me to cook more and try different things. It changed my life in, you know, a countless number of ways.
NNAMDIYou said you decided that you would ask yourself a question every day of the contest: am I having fun? Why did you start that ritual, and how did you usually answer that question?
SPIOTTASo, every time I answer that question, yes, that I'm having fun. And I started that, because when I first tried out for the show, I was contemplating if I wanted to do it or not. And after the first tryout, the one thing mom would ask me every time was, are you having fun? So, we continued to do that throughout the competition because really we only wanted to be doing this if we were having fun. So, that's -- yeah, I answered yes...
SPIOTTA...all the time which was great, yeah.
NNAMDIAlmost time to go, but before we go, we wanted to thank you, Che, for sharing your recipe for...
NNAMDI...you also shared your recipe for blueberry thumbprint cookies with us. You can find that recipe on kojoshow.org. And, yes, they are gluten-free. Che Spiotta, thank you so much for joining us, and good luck to you.
NNAMDIOur Kojo for Kids segment with Che Spiotta was produced by Lauren Markoe, and our conversation about contact tracer was produced by Kurt Gardinier. Coming up tomorrow, air quality in the region is improving. What role has the pandemic played, and what are the benefits of cleaner air? Plus the crabbing industry on Maryland's eastern shore has relied on seasonal migrant workers for decades. What could the visa shortage and coronavirus pandemic mean for the industry? That all starts tomorrow, at noon. Until then, thank you for listening and stay safe. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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