Thursday, August 2, 2018

🍽Next Best Junior Chef Trilogy by Charise Mericle Harper, illustrated by Aurélie Blard-Quintard

It turns out that a lot of my kids are into cooking shows and really liked reading the first two books in this trilogy. Now that the last book is out, I decided it was time to read them myself after hearing what my kids said and then getting hooked on watching Master Chef Junior last spring when I was so sick. Watching that, I couldn't help but wonder how were those kids so good at cooking, creating, and competing on TV (something I can't even do in my own kitchen). Well, some of those secrets are revealed in these books and it was enlightening.
Meet the Contestants

Book One or rather, Episode one, Lights, Camera, Cook! introduces readers to the competition and the four competitors. Tate, 9, is a bundle of energy who can't stay still except when using a knife and he has some great knife skills; Caroline, 11, is half French and has grown up in her family's French bistro, where her mother is the chef. Caroline wavers between feeling nervous to feeling confident; Oliver, 12, is cool, calm and competitive. He's also the only contestant who has taken actual cooking lessons, but no one needs to know that, right?; and Rae, 11, who likes to do crafts and learned all her cooking skills from her grandmother and the people in her multicultural neighborhood. Rae isn't as confident at the other contestants but takes chances with her dishes.

And what are these four talented junior chefs competing for? The food truck of their dreams. Rae's would be called the Crafty Café, serving good food and having fun crafts to do; Oliver's would be called Bistro Revilo, serving only organic and locally sourced food that would have a twist to it; Caroline's truck would be called Diner Française, a fusion of American diner food with a French twist; and Tate's dream food truck would be called Stuff My Face, a mashup where each day would be a different culturally inspired dish.

The judges, a little more diverse than the contestants, are Chef Vera Porter, who appears to be African American and is famous for her Porter Farm Restaurant; renowned pastry Chef Aimee Copley; and Chef Gary Lee, restaurant proprietor and host of a show called Adventures in Cooking. And besides their dream food truck, the winner will get a guest spot on Chef Gary's show, to be filmed in Italy. The kids will be mentored throughout the competition by Chef Nancy Patel.

The first week of competition begins on a Friday and ends on a Thursday, when one person is eliminated in a final cook-off. During the week, there are mini cooking challenges, and winners can pick prizes from Gadget Wall, kitchen utensils they get to keep. And there are cooking lessons and field trips to learn from, and friendships and rivalries are formed. It's a rough week, and each junior chef has ups and downs, but they all so well and really surprise the judges. Readers discover how the kids learn to not look at the camera, a tough one for each of them, and how they know exactly what to get from the on-set pantry in such shorts amount of time. Yes, secrets are revealed and I loved discovering them. But in the end, one kid had to be eliminated. But who?

Episode Two, The Heat is aptly named. As week 2 begins, there are only three contestants left, and each one knows that the challenges are going to be much more difficult. But by now, the junior chefs are comfortable in front of the camera and have learned to deal well with the pressure of being judged by professional chefs on TV. Although they all miss the contestant who had to hang up their apron in week one, they are ready to begins again. This week's theme is family and tradition and advisor Chef Nancy encourages them to try to wow the judges, to tap into their creative spirits. And that's exactly what they do, although sometimes that creative spirit overwhelmed the reality of their cooking skills. Their first competition is to cook a hot dog - the catch: each could use either fire, air or water to do it. I have to admit, hot dogs never sounded so good as they did by the end of this challenge. One of the more interesting challenges that really played into the week's theme was coming up with two desserts for a young lady's quinceañera - one making traditional alfajores and one innovative- and using the family's recipe for the difficult to make dulce de leche (but will the judges discover that one of the contestants burned their dulce de leche?). Since this was a team effort, the contestant eliminated the week before returns to form a second team. As fun and interesting as the second week is for the contestants, in the end, another one had to be eliminated. With only two left, the last week of competition was shaping up to be pretty interesting.

Episode 3, The Winner is... is every bit as exciting as it promised to be. The theme is discoveries and surprises and their first challenge is to make something using the same flavors they taste in a chilled soup, a soup with the distinct flavor of cilantro. But what if you have the gene that makes cilantro taste like soup as one challenger does? Can you work around that and win the challenge? Maybe, maybe not. The second day holds a real surprise - the two eliminated challengers are back and given another chance to be the final winner of their dream food truck. Needless to say, the two remaining challengers aren't very happy to see them at first, but soon it is like old times, or at least, like week one. Ramping up the competition naturally ramps up the challenges. The junior chefs are asked to come up with innovative dishes using cranberries, which proved to be really challenging. The next challenge was equally as difficult, to make two dozen donuts, one dozen for kid judges, one for the chefs to judge. The final challenge, however, is the best - a chance to see what working in a food truck is really like by working in the food truck of their dreams. Each junior chef has to create, in 90 minutes, an entrée, a side dish, and a dessert that they would serve in their own food truck.

The Next Best Junior Chef trilogy was a lot of fun to read. The characters were believable, even their sophisticated cooking talents worked for me because while they had confidence in the kitchen, they were still just kids away from it. I thought the friendship that developed between Rae and Caroline was a nice touch and well done, considering they also had to deal with being competitors.

The format is easy to follow and the distinct personalities of everyone -  chefs and junior chef - add a lot of excitement and tension to the books, aided by some interesting behind the scenes information. The descriptions of the dishes each challenger creates are nicely described, giving the reader a good sense of what it is like, which is usually mouth-watering delicious.  And there is a lot for budding chefs and/or foodies to learn about being a professional chef. One nice touch is that there is back matter in each book for young home cooks - knife skills, essential techniques like measuring, and how to cook flavorful food.

There whimsical black and white spot illustrations throughout the book, and there are even individual sidebar comments by each junior chef throughout, just as they do on all reality shows, and yes, you learn why they don't fumble for words when individually commenting.

If you are looking for some fun middle grade books to read this summer, I can't recommend these highly enough. Who knows, maybe your young readers will be motivated to test out their own cooking skills.

These books are recommended for readers and foodies age 9+
These books were borrowed from the NYPL

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