SOMERS, N.Y. - From baking cookies with her grandma, Nanna, to serving up salmon ceviche as part of a three-course meal on a Food Network television show, Somers eighth grader Tatiana Cicciarella has grown up in the kitchen.
At just 13 years old, Tatiana, the oldest of four children, is an aspiring chef.
“I’ve done it ever since I could remember with my grandma,” she said, adding they would often bake cookies and other desserts. “She’s the one who taught me everything.”
While on her mom’s side she had her “Nanna,” on her dad’s side she had her “Nonna,” Concetta.
“It started out as baking, and then she went to her Nonna’s house on the weekend, that’s the Sicilian side,” said Michelle Ann, Tatiana’s mother, admitting the cooking gene skipped a generation. “She was making fresh ravioli and all of those things. So, she kind of learned both of it and all of sudden, boom, she tied it all together.”
Mixing the flour-packed hands-on experience with Tatiana’s devotion to Food Network programming, the precocious pre-teen learned more than just recipes.
“It’s important to me to make sure that people get the same reaction as they do with junk food to healthy food,” Tatiana said, a belief she picked up from her mom, “because we were put on this earth to eat what was from the ground and not eat all these chemicals and man made stuff.”
Outside of the kitchen, Tatiana is an honor roll student. Her seventh grade science teacher, Tim Wilbert, said she always came to class with enthusiasm, a big smile and, of course, talk of her latest culinary creation.
“She was just always telling me about the incredible things that she was coming up with in the kitchen and she would always make me hungry,” he said.
So, when Wilbert watched an episode of “Chopped Junior,” a kids edition of the popular Food Network program, he immediately thought of his student.
“And it was just as if God popped the idea in my head and said: ‘Alright, we’ve got to encourage Tatiana to do this’ and there she is, doing it,” he said.
The cultural cuisine specialist took her teacher’s advice. After first auditioning for Rachael Ray’s “Kids Cook-Off,” she eventually landed a spot on “Chopped Junior.” She came in second place on a December 2015 episode, appropriately titled “Adorably Ambitious.” Michelle Ann said she was impressed that her daughter “just goes for it” and would think to shoot so high at her young age.
“I was digging in the dirt at that age,” she said, calling Tatiana an old soul. “It’s amazing.”
On the show, which taped in June 2015, Tatiana competed against four other young chefs to come up with creative dishes under limited time and with limited, sometimes bizarre ingredients. There are three rounds and a panel of three judges, which included celebrity judge Mila Kunis, eliminates one contestant after each round.
“It wasn’t as stressful as I thought it would be,” she said, adding the producers “glamor” it up to build drama for the show. “It was just really hard to process what was going on because it went on so fast.”
During the two days of filming, Tatiana and her mother stayed in a New York City hotel. Behind the scenes, Michelle Ann watched along with the other parents.
“I’m in the back going: ‘Get it on the plate! Get it on the plate!’” She recalled. “I was like: ‘This must be what it’s like to watch football for a guy’...I was sitting there screaming at the television, and I was shocked, because I’m normally quiet.”
On stage, Tatiana was calmly creating an appetizer, entrée and dessert for the respective rounds. Kicking off with the appetizer, she created “a take on ratatouille,” using trombone zucchini and duck bacon. For the entrée, she cooked a salmon ceviche with cut-up avocado and pear. At one point, the contestants were given a jawbreaker candy to incorporate into their food. Tatiana used the candy by breaking it apart and drizzling it onto a pasta dish.
“One thing I wanted to make sure of in my dishes was I had fresh ingredients and I had at least one fruit or vegetable on it,” she said, hearkening back to what she learned from her mother.
For dessert, Tatiana used Kool-Aid to make a cherry-flavored cheesecake with layered caramel on the bottom, incorporating a carrot jam and unsalted pistachios. She also made ice cream. Although the contestants are shown how to use the kitchen before filming, Tatiana said using the ice cream machine was challenging.
“I always say that I want my own cooking show, so it’s just the beginning,” she said, taking a deep breath as she reflected on her experience. “And it’s just another advantage to help me become a better chef and learn and grow.”
After being eliminated in the final round, Michelle Ann said Tatiana didn’t talk with her about it for nearly a month. She did, however, have a lot to say to her mom.
“She was like: ‘I want to own a restaurant; can you home-school me, Ma?” Michelle Ann said. “’I want to quit school. I want to be a chef. I want to go to a culinary institute now.’ “I was like: ‘Oh, I better get three-to-four more jobs before that happens.”
Mom can breathe easy at least for now, with finals, graduation and the move to high school all taking up Tatiana’s attention. But, when the day comes that she opens her own restaurant, the line to get in will be headed by her seventh grade science teacher.
“I’m going to be the first in line at that restaurant whenever that opens,” Wilbert said.