Local ‘MasterChef Junior’ hopeful crafts cuisine

Shown above, Che Spiotta poses with a colorful array of vegetables. Spiotta is very familiar with fruits and greens; he grew up picking, gardening and canning his own produce. The 13-year-old values using local, fresh ingredients in his cooking at home. Courtesy of Nigel Barker

Apart from its scenic highways and liberal arts colleges, the Hudson Valley has a new claim to fame as the home of Che Spiotta, a contestant on Season 7 of the popular Fox show “MasterChef Junior.” Thirteen-year-old Che hails from Boiceville, New York, just 45 miles northwest of Vassar College.
Che’s cooking journey started at the young age of four. After being diagnosed with a gluten intolerance, Che learned to cook from his family. In our phone interview, Che spoke openly about his gluten-free experience. “Eating the same thing all the time is kind of boring,” he confessed. But rather than limiting Che, the restrictions of a gluten-free diet prompted his entry into culinary adventures.

Although being gluten free is often seen as a culinary disadvantage, Che feels it is beneficial to his cooking. He proudly asserted, “It really helps me be more creative.” Che is incredibly positive about his gluten intolerance despite the challenges it poses. He admits it is difficult to accommodate for certain food items, such as bread, but Che has learned to take advantage of naturally gluten-free ingredients, sometimes elevating dishes that are traditionally sides into the the main course.

Aside from being gluten free, Che’s food is also characterized by his Italian heritage. From an early age, Che learned recipes and cooking styles from his father, including tomato sauce, polenta and his self-professed favorite: risotto. His formative experiences with food also draw from the agriculture of the Hudson Valley. Che and his mother, Elizabethanne, fondly recounted memories of apple and blueberry picking, gardening, canning vegetables and using local produce from a community-supported agriculture farm in New Paltz. From our conversation, it was clear that Che’s inspiration to cook is rooted in his upbringing.

As a contestant on “MasterChef Junior,” Che has had the opportunity to travel far from home and gain new culinary experiences. When I asked about his time on the program, he enthusiastically replied, “It’s been pretty awesome.”

“MasterChef Junior” is a televised cooking competition in which children ages 8 to 13 compete in a variety of challenges designed to test their cooking skills. The show airs on Fox and is based upon “MasterChef,” the original competition show featuring adults rather than children. As a viewer of both “MasterChef” and “MasterChef Junior,” I can strongly attest that the latter is far superior: The child chefs are far more kind, entertaining and culinarily impressive.

Che’s tales of “MasterChef Junior” confirm that participating in the show is a singular experience. “The biggest lesson from the show I’ve learned is to take the judges’ criticism and make yourself better from that,” he shared. “The judges are really great.”

The current judges of “MasterChef Junior” are culinary icons Gordon Ramsay, Christina Tosi and Aarón Sanchez. Che’s understanding of the opportunity for growth that the show provides speaks to his respect for these experts and his desire to pursue a culinary journey. Although Ramsay is often known for his fiery language and fickle temper, he tends to be more mellow with the junior cooks, and Che assured he felt nothing but support in the MasterChef Junior kitchen.

Beyond the elements of competition and personal growth, Che has also found the show to be an exciting space for collaboration. “I love meeting other young cooks,” he said. When asked what culinary creation from the show he was most proud of, he recalled the cupcakes from a recent team challenge. Che and his partner created a set of apple-pie cupcakes topped with spice and maple-cinnamon buttercream. The apples play homage to Che’s native state of New York, and Chef Aarón Sanchez described the blend of flavors and textures as “brilliant.”

Che’s performance on the show demonstrates his talent for cooking, but his great passion for food came through even more in our conversation. “MasterChef Junior” is an impressive accomplishment at the start of a cooking journey, and I was curious to learn more about Che’s future food endeavors. I asked Che about any possible intentions to attend the nearby Culinary Institute of America. He expressed interest in its strong reputation and convenient location. He stated, “It’d be really, really cool to go there.”


Pictured here, Che Spiotta discusses the details of a dish with fellow MasterChef Junior contestant Mateo. While competition is certainly a critical component of the show, the young cooks often collaborate to complete their culinary challenges. Courtesy of Fox

Che is uncertain about his long-term future with food, but he does have some dreams. He shared his aspirations to perhaps one day have a restaurant, food truck or food talk show, all while continuing to highlight gluten-free cooking in his endeavors. Regardless of which dream actually becomes Che’s reality, food is definitely going to be part of his life for a long time; Che stated, “It will definitely be in my career and [will] 100 percent be a hobby.”

Che generously shared one of his recipes with us: eggnog crème brulée. I was excited to hear the story behind this creation. Che happily recalled the first time he made the dish around New Year’s of 2017. He had long been a fan of crème brulée, and spotting a stray container of eggnog in the fridge sparked his creative genius to create one of his own. “I decided to substitute heavy cream with eggnog, and it came out really good,” Che reminisced. The dish has since become a holiday favorite in his household.

Che’s eggnog crème brulée represents just one ingredient of his culinary repertoire and story—a story grounded by family traditions and enhanced by his experience with “MasterChef Junior.” Che’s narrative is only just beginning, and I’m excited to see what his future has in store. For now, all we can do is wait and search the supermarket aisles for some eggnog.

Eggnog Crème Brulée
Recipe courtesy of Che Spiotta

Ingredients
• 2 cups eggnog
• 4 egg yolks
• 1 /4 cup sugar
• 3 ounces mascarpone
• cheese, softened
• 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
• dash of nutmeg
• dash of cinnamon

Instructions

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
  2. In a shallow baking dish, place 4 ramekins and fill the dish with water halfway up the side of the ramekins.
  3. Pour the eggnog in a pan and cook, stirring occasionally over medium heat. Bring the eggnog to a simmer, about 10 minutes.
  4. In a mixing bowl, combine the egg yolks and sugar. Beat until frothy and light in color. Blend in the mascarpone cheese and stir until smooth and incorporated.
  5. Whisk 1/4 cup of the heated eggnog into the egg mixture and then gradually mix in the remaining egg mixture.
  6. Pour this mixture through a fine sieve to remove any egg solids.
  7. Stir in the vanilla extract, nutmeg and cinnamon.
  8. Pour the mixture evenly into the four ramekins.
  9. Bake until the custard has set, about 30-40 minutes. The crème brulée should jiggle slightly when shaken but should not be watery.
  10. Remove and let cool for 30 minutes and then refrigerate for at least 3 hours before serving.

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