How MasterChef Junior’s kids changed the show

“MasterChef Junior”'s TCA panel started earlier, during the executive session, when Dana Walden pointed out that the series is “one of only eight shows that has grown season to season.”

Its growth and growing popularity may be due to its truly aspirational format and formula of subjecting super-adorable and super-talented kids to the rigors of a professional cooking competition. But don't underestimate power of the cute kids.

Seven of those young contestants were on hand to answer questions, perform a song they'd written (“The Box,” referring to one of the show's elements) and choreographed. They later helped critics make cake balls, which mostly meant being super-nice and gracious about our inability to crumble cake and reform it into balls. (They also graciously ignored all the giggling about the double entendre.)

The prevailing theme during the press conference seemed to be the innocence and wholesomeness that pervades “MasterChef Junior,” and how that contrasts with the more competitive adult version of “MasterChef.” Even that show, however, doesn't get anywhere close to the downright awful “Hell's Kitchen.” Fox's earlier cooking competition didn't come up; it's mostly just a string of expletives amid the bad cooking one might expect from placing cannon fodder contestants on the line in a soundstage restaurant.

“MasterChef” is five days in to taping its fifth season, and Gordon Ramsay said “the juniors have helped kick butt with the senior version.” The lines between the shows are blurring, though, as there's an 18 year old competing.

Judge Graham Elliot said “the adults that are on the show are clearly watching the past seasons, as well as watching Junior, and understanding that you can get just as far without to having to find ways to trip up your competition and play that way. In time, you continue to see the adults get inspired and molded into that Junior way.”

Discussing the competitiveness, Ramsay said, “I'm not a fan of all the bitchiness and the cutthroat attitude.” Yes, Gordon Ramsay said that!

Graham suggested the show itself was in part responsible. “It's about leading by example, so whether it's with Junior or with the adult version, you see us three as judges and what we do,” he said. “There's not a lot of backstabbing, there's obviously a lot of support. And with Junior, you're seeing these kids come in cooking and just living with a certain innocence and wanting to support each other.”

The show is not without criticism from the judges or tears from the contestants over that criticism, their own failure, or their dismissal from the competition. “MasterChef”'s brand-new judge Christina Tosi said that “learning how to be okay with, 'I'm doing a good job but I can do a better job' … [is] such an important life skill.”

Ramsay told critics, “I think crying's important. Not crying, not showing that emotion,” he said, “could lead to more dangerous things. … I think crying's healthy.” The show doesn't show things like the kids reuniting with their parents or being upset that they were eliminated. In addition, kids are eliminated at least two at a time, so there's someone to bond with.

“We're not callous,” he said. Again, that's Gordon Ramsay. Not the one who can laugh about burning his non-cake ball but the one who'd scream and yell and break things regularly.

Executive producer Robin Ashbrook said the judges are actually “the greatest teachers I never had” and the show is the “greatest classroom they've ever been in in their life.” The kids confirmed they'd learned a lot. Ayla said her knife skills improved, while Jimmy said “one of the biggest things you  is how to cook under pressure.” At home, he said, they don't face the same pressure. “They're your family; they're not going to not like you if you make a bad dish.”

While casting the fourth season of “MasterChef Junior,” producers found kids who started cooking because they watched “MasterChef Junior. “We've actually encouraged a generation to start cooking,” Ashbrook said. “I think in these days of TV, it's something we can all celebrate.”