NEW YORK, NY — In a special holiday edition of Food Network’s hit show, “Chopped Junior,” an 11-year-old West Orange resident recently went head to head with a 10-year-old South Orange resident for a chance to win $10,000 and the highly coveted “Chopped Junior” chef’s coat.
Leonardo McCormick of West Orange and Arden Burns of South Orange outshone their competitors from Michigan and Texas to advance to the final round of the competition, where Burns emerged victorious. Burns, who said she has been dreaming about competing on “Chopped Junior” for her entire life, announced that she intends to use some of her winnings to purchase an ice cream machine and continue to enhance her cooking skills.
McCormick, who intended to use the cash prize to put together a cookbook in honor of his grandfather, said that despite falling short of the title, the competition “has brought [him] from being a good cook to being an excellent cook.”
Judges Chris Santos, Tiffani Faison and Corey Fogelmanis agreed that “these two little chefs” both amazed them throughout the day and that they are both “powerhouses” in the kitchen.
Also agreeing that Burns won the appetizer round and McCormick won the entrée round in the three-round competition, the judges felt that Burns won the dessert tiebreaker by a hair.
In traditional “Chopped” fashion, each round included a basket of four surprise ingredients that the chefs were required to use in their dish. For the holiday episode, entitled “Holiday Baskets,” a special gift-wrapped box contained the fourth ingredient that went along with the holiday theme while also posing a specific challenge for each round.
The first challenge ingredient was mitten-shaped cookies to go along with the appetizer basket items of Peking duck, Yukon gold potatoes and scallions.
McCormick was feeling confident about the Peking duck and immediately decided to make a “pulled Peking duck with scallion hash and cookie crumble sauce.” He worried briefly when he saw another competitor making a similar hash, but knew that his bold flavors would stand out to the judges. In fact, the judges pointed out that he used spices that are often seen during the holiday seasons and that he was the only chef to successfully get some heat in the dish.
Despite her love for decorating cookies around the holidays, Burns was worried about the mitten cookies, stating that it would be a challenge to balance out the sweetness enough for her dish to taste like an appetizer. Ultimately, her “crispy duck salad with roasted potatoes and ‘mitten’ vinaigrette” impressed the judges, who were surprised at the 10 year old’s skill level. Although they felt the dish could use a little fat, they said that roasting the potatoes along with the duck skin was “a pro move.”
Advancing to the entrée round, the remaining three chefs pulled out salmon filets, salsa, spinach and the special gift ingredient of a “winter hat” bowtie cake.
Noting that the basket “screams tacos,” McCormick announced that he would “try to do something different,” which ultimately worked in his favor when both of his opponents made tacos.
The Edison Middle School student examined the hat-shaped cake before deciding to use the fondant as a glaze, melting it down with maple syrup, cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg to make a “grilled and glazed salmon with spinach and salsa pesto pasta.”
McCormick was proud of his final product, which was especially unique in that the green pasta and red salmon created Christmas colors on the plate to go along with the holiday theme. The judges enjoyed the blend of textures in his dish and said that the pesto “was a nice contrast to the sweet salmon glaze.”
Burns, whose signature dish at home is Tilapia tacos, was also excited about the spinach, noting that it’s high in iron and a healthy vegetable. Reminiscing on last Christmas, when she and her cousins got together and made tacos for 50 people, Burns opted to use her entrée ingredients to make “glazed salmon tacos with spinach and black bean salsa.
Burns turned to McCormick for help in this round when she wasn’t sure whether her salmon had cooked through. The judges were concerned when she put her already perfectly cooked salmon in the oven, but found that it was “a really delicious bite” in the end.
Using the cake for a salmon glaze and chipotle peppers to balance out the sweetness ultimately worked in her favor, as the judges preferred her tacos to her competitor’s despite pointing out Burns’ heavy hand with the sour cream.
In the final basket, the two survivors found Santa Claus melons—named for their tendency to be at the height of ripeness in December—a cream puff Christmas tree, honey and “earmuff” vanilla cake, which consisted of two marshmallow-covered vanilla cake balls linked together with sour candies to appear like earmuffs and decorated with other candies to create a snowman’s face.
Burns explained that because everyone in her family loves her homemade tarts, the pie-like dessert was the first thing that came to mind. Feeling like the mystery melon tasted like a cross between honeydew and cantaloupe, Burns used the fruit as the filling for her “No-Bake melon tart with cherries and graham cracker crust.”
McCormick had a similar idea, stating that tarts are “one of the fastest desserts” and something that he learned from his mom. He ultimately presented a “Santa Claus melon and cherry tart with ‘earmuff’ whipped cream using all spice, cinnamon and ginger.
Although both contestants made a tart with graham cracker crust, the judges found it interesting that the two New Jersey residents went about the dessert “completely differently.”
In the end, McCormick ran out of time to fix an error when he forgot to add flour to his crust. The judges applauded him for the ingredients that he used outside of the basket items, but felt that the crust was mushy and that the way he cooked the melon created a strange consistency.
The judges were impressed by the flavor of Burns’ “no-bake” method as well as her purposing of the sour candy to cut some of the sweetness.
Looking back on the competition as a whole, the judges said McCormick stood out because his use of the spice rack throughout the day was “reminiscent of the holiday season,” but remembered the sophistication of Burns’ mitten vinaigrette in the appetizer round and decided that her dessert ultimately edged out her opponent’s.
As the judges announced their decision, they told McCormick that he created “so many delicious bites today and should be really proud.” The pre-teen looked at this opportunity as a was to “finally prove that [he has] an expertise in something that really matters in life.”
Burns was thrilled to receive her new chef’s coat and return home to South Orange ready to make “pounds of ice cream.”