CM . . . . Volume XXIV Number 25 . . . . March 2, 2018
If you were to guess which the two most popular varieties of television programs were, you might well nominate cooking programs and week by week elimination contests. In Britain, where I am at the moment, that means something like The Great British Bake Off! In YA literature, it seems to mean this series of books of which I have the first two in hand.
In the "Next Best Junior Chef" series, readers meet four kids, two boys and two girls, who have qualified for this cookery competition which purports to determine, of course, the next Best Junior Chef. Selected bits of the process are to be filmed for television. One of the competitors will be eliminated each week, until only the champion remains. Readers see behind the scenes, both the cooking and the interpersonal interactions among these people the competitors themselves, their mentor (Chef Nancy), the judges, and the television producer. These grown ups all have slightly different agendas for the series/competition. Chef Nancy wants everyone to get along and have a good time with as few hurt feelings as possible; the judges want to discover a superlative cook; and the TV man wants some drama. The children, naturally, just want to win. Not all these goals are mutually compatible, obviously, but, on the whole, the mentor wins out.
Of course, being eliminated is no fun for the one eliminated and no fun for anyone else either actually, including the reader. The kids do all get to like each other, though some more than others, and the reader certainly enjoys all of them. There's Oliver, the King of Calm, who never gets flustered and has had lessons from all the best people. Then there's Tate, the youngest, whose knife skills are amazing at an age (nine!) when most mothers are saying to their offspring, "No dear. Not until you're older." Caroline, whose mother is a chef, has lived and breathed cooking all her life, and there's Rae whose Italian grandmother and neighbours of various other ethnicities have inspired the way she relates to food. Different people, different backgrounds, great cooks, and they should all win and all get prizes.
With the set up as arranged here, in fact they all do do just that. There are mini challenges throughout the weeks also captured on film that allow all the young chefs to show off their strengths and earn prizes of their choice from a "gadget wall" covered with wonderful cooking tools. I was particularly impressed by the way some of the challenges were set up, creativity in concept leading to creativity in the kitchen. How can choosing the name for a cute little puppy tie in with inventing a new dish? (Spoiler alert: those inventive recipes were not for doggy treats!) Does all fast food sold at country fairs have to be deep fried just because it is served on a stick? No indeed! Oliver's "steak bites with a topping of blue cheese butter and a sprinkling of crushed walnuts" and Caroline's skewers of three crepe dumplings each with a different cheesy filling had never seen a deep fryer, but just the descriptions had me salivating all over the pages.
The books do have their flaws. Character development doesn't really happen; the kids keep the traits they started with, with very little depth added. However the plots are great, the action swift, and the mistakes funny. And while the details of some of the dishes may be over the heads of some of the younger, or even older, readers, I can see some horizons being expanded by mentions of aioli, curry mint ice cream, and Korean Gochujang chili paste. It's a great series so far; I hope the third book finishes things off with a bang.
Mary Thomas is a librarian and a home cook in Winnnipeg, MB,, but she doesn't think her julienned turnip would be up to Tate's standards.