________________ CM . . . . Volume XXIV Number 33 . . . . April 27, 2018


The Winner Is… (Next Best Junior Chef, Episode 3).

Charise Mericle Harper. Illustrated by Aurélie Blard-Quintard.
New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (Distributed in Canada by Raincoast Books), July 2018.
178 pp., hardcover & e-book, $17.99 (hc.).
ISBN 978-0-54499144-6 (hc.), ISBN 978-1-32847675-3 (e-book).

Grades 4-8 / Ages 9-13.

Review by Mary Thomas.

*** /4

Reviewed from Advance Reading Copy.



Chef Gary got started as soon as the cameras were rolling. "Welcome, junior chefs. As you can see, we're here at a cranberry farm. I'm excited for you to learn about one of America's most interestig fruits, but …" He held up a finger. "Before we begin, we have a little surprise that –"

"Big surprise," interrupted Chef Aimee. She was smiling at something in the distance, behind the junior chefs.

Rae shuddered. What was it? A something, or a someone? Could she turn and look?

"Eyes on me," instructed Chef Gary. "We'll show you in a moment, but first I want you to know that we have given this a lot of thought, and were this you, in a different pair of shoes you'd be happy for the opportunity. Remember, the best chef is going to win this competition, no matter what. Can you win this?"


Surprises and more surprises abound in The Winner Is, the third volume in the "Next Best Junior Chef" series, with the two previous volumes being Lights, Camera, Cook! and The Heat is On. The surprise referred to in the excerpt was the second, coming after Rae's and Caroline's having to create an appetizer incorporating all the flavours that the two girls individually could detect in a perfectly prepared pale green soup whose primary taste was cilantro. Poor Caroline – since she's one of those people for whom cilantro tastes like soap, she was at a disadvantage! Not surprisingly, she did not create a splendid appetizer, although she did manage to identify five of the eight ingredients in the soup. (Rae got eight.) Now this next surprise: Oliver and Tate re-appear for a special challenge which, if one of them wins, will allow him back into the competition! The two girls had come to terms with competing against each other, and now it seemed it might be the two of them against a third. Life is sometimes just not fair.

      Naturally one of the boys does win the ensuing competition – his cranberry glazed pork balls sound wonderful! – so we have a three-way race again. No gadget wall this time for intermediate rewards either, but instead the challenges award the winner with a special pin for his or her apron and the one with the most pins at the end of the week gets a golden envelope containing "an advantage" for the final challenge. That's another surprise which I am not going to tell you about, along with who actually wins.

      Because basically it doesn't matter all that much … to the reader that is. We have gotten to like all of the contestants, but we don't feel particularly partisan about any of them. This could perhaps be considered a weakness in the book, that one character is not fundamentally more sympathetic than another, or obviously the one who, for some reason, we feel "should" win. In fact, the two girls in particular are not very different! We're happy to let the judges decide, and they do, and we don't care all that much. We're just as philosophical about it as the other contestants who, when the result is announced, kind of shrug and figure it was worth it.

      It had been a great learning experience for them, and for the reader as well. We have learned a lot about what goes on behind the scenes in a restaurant and the pressures that chefs experience. It's in some ways "not fair" that one be penalized by the judges because one's crepes stuck to the pan, or one's tart needed more time to set properly – but if a customer has paid top dollar for her/his meal, s/he has a right to expect not to have to make allowances. These kids will be better chefs for their competition experience, and the reader gets some feeling for just how much effort is required to reach for the top. Good lessons and an interesting story as well.

      The series as a whole certainly cooks up a storm, and kids will love it (judging from my 10-year-old granddaughter's reaction). I could wish that there was a less liberal scattering of CAPITAL LETTERS shouting off the pages, but that is a minor point.


Winnipeg, MB's Mary Thomas is generally regarded as being a pretty good cook, but this series has taught her that she definitely needs to pay more attention to her "plating", that is, the appearance of the meal on a plate.

To comment on this title or this review, contact cm@umanitoba.ca.

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