Will West Stockbridge teen make the cut on Food Network's "Chopped Junior?"
LENOX DALE — Thirteen-year-old Cecelia Clary loves food, travel and a good challenge. So it's no wonder the Food Network casting folks selected this confident young cook to be a contender in season 9 of "Chopped Junior."
The new season of the reality television youth cooking competition began on Nov. 12, and Clary of West Stockbridge will appear in it at 8 p.m. Tuesday. "Thanksgiving Leftovers" is the second episode in the series and features guest judge Alanna Masterson (Tara Chambler in AMC's "The Walking Dead").
Sporting her signature purple hairdo and a can-do attitude, the seventh grader sat down with The Eagle just outside of her classroom at Montessori School of the Berkshires on Monday morning to talk about her experiences filming on sets in New York City.
Influenced by her mother and grandmothers especially, Clary said she's always enjoyed cooking, baking and being around food. "I love making up recipes," she said.
Asked to list three of her favorite ingredients to experiment with, Clary included avocado, cereal ("Because it can be used to make savory or sweet things. I've made a cereal-fried chicken"); and bacon ("I've used it in cupcakes and for breakfast things").
Clary first applied to enter the "Chopped Junior" contest when she was 9 years old, but then filming for the program was put on pause. This spring, Cecelia's mother, Sheela Clary, got a surprise call from a casting company, asking if Cecelia would still like to audition.
"I was kind of shocked because I had completely forgot about it. I remember thinking this opportunity is a dream come true, and now it's come back to me," Cecelia said.
The cook then got her first look into how the reality show sausage is made. It began with about six-weeks' worth of FaceTime video interviews, auditioning through making and photographing a three-course meal, and, as with anything involving a major network, the signing of lots of papers and contracts. No one in their family could talk about the filming or the show's outcomes.
"That in itself was almost like a part-time job," said Sheela, who eventually got to chaperone Cecelia's trip to New York City for filming the episode. Cecelia, who has always been interested by watching other kids on TV, said she was looking forward to the whole process.
"I would watch the show amazed. I never really understood how they do it. So to see all filming and tricks of making 'Chopped Junior' with the music and the countdowns had me interested and intrigued," Cecelia said.
While filming takes place over the course of the day, to ensure that everything from the lighting to the banter between contestants and judges is just right, the whole affair is edited down to a one-hour episode, during which the junior chefs utilize surprise ingredients from their "mystery baskets" over the course of three rounds to prepare an appetizer, entree and dessert under a time limit. The winner doesn't get a chicken dinner, it's even better — they take home the coveted "Chopped Junior" chef coat and a $10,000 grand prize.
For her episode, Cecelia was cast alongside three other talented youths: Massimo Randazzo of New Jersey, Owen Roloson of New York and Ryleigh Longaker of California. During the filming, the junior chefs were encouraged to be "friendpetitors," friendly but fierce about winning the competition.
"It's all so much different in person, but actually a fun experience," Cecelia said.
She said that while the judges may seem stern, they're "really supportive," and she characterized host Ted Allen ("Chopped" host, contributor to "Esquire") as being "super funny and really nice." Each junior chef was allowed one adult chaperone, but the family members were cordoned off of the set itself during filming, instead watching via livestream in a separate lounge.
"It was very intense," said Sheela. She said she watched her daughter compete, "in awe of all her confidence."
"I'm really impressed with how she and all three other kids dealt with the pressure of all that."
Stewing together through all the fun and drama of the competition brought the kids and their families so close together that they remain in touch, and are even planning a reunion this Saturday at the Culinary Institute of America in New York this Saturday.
As for Tuesday night, the Clary family and a large group of supporters will gather in Great Barrington for the screening of the episode.
Cecelia said the whole experience only reinforced her pursuit of the culinary arts, perhaps not as a trade, but as a lifelong passion.
"I still like cooking with time limits, and now I'm more aware of my stress levels," she said, noting she calmed herself throughout the challenges with positive thoughts and deep breaths.
She credits Montessori School of the Berkshires and also Flying Deer Nature Center in East Chatham, N.Y., for fostering her love of nature, sparking her curiosity in life and encouragement to put her skills to the test.
She said she's particularly inspired by the work her school does with area food pantries and their micro-economy program through which students grow and sell their own food and "take and bake" meals as a fundraiser for class trips.
"Learning about [the] food pantry, food shortage, and different cultures — food is a much bigger picture than people realize," Cecelia said.
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