Sunday, July 16, 2017

Chef Challenge! Lights, Camera, COOK! (Next Best Junior Chef) by Charise Mericle Harper

While the judges got themselves seated, Chef Nancy whispered last-minute instructions to the junior chefs.

"Cameras are on. Remember:
Don't look at the cameras. Look at the judges."

Then comes The Question:

If you become the Next Best Junior Chef, what will your food truck be?"

Artsy Rae calls her truck the Crafty Cafe'. The supremely self-confident Oliver titles his truck Bistro Revilo (Oliver spelled backwards, of course.) Creative Caroline names hers Diner Francaise, an amalgam of the lowly diner Americaine with a French twist, and little Tate, the youngest at only eight years old, declares his truck the Stuff My Face, with daily-changing multi-ethnic menus.

Chef Gary called Tate's truck "clever" Chef Aimee said it was "funny."

"It's fine," said Chef Porter, looking like she'd just eaten a super-sour pickle. Tate withered like spinach in a pan.

It looks like the Next Best Junior Chef Contest is going to be a dog-eat-dog competition!

Let the best chef win is the motto, and in Charise Mericle Harper's Episode One of her new series, readers are plunged into that timely trope, the reality TV cooking contest. Rae, Oliver, and Caroline are already accomplished in cookery, and even little Tate wields a mean chef's knife, and the four 'tweeners are thrown into an intense four-day rivalry. The kids are all skilled cooks, masters of umami, with sophisticated palettes, contending with each other to concoct unusual combinations way beyond just sweet and savory and to master presentation skills, "plating," that shows off the dish.

Finally it comes down to the last cook-off. Each junior chef is first asked to choose a vegetable and use it as the base for a dessert. Caroline works her baby eggplants into a caramelized apple-eggplant filling, layered in puff pastry, garnished with caramel sauce and ground pistachios. Oliver opts for sweet potato fritters, with lavender-honey sauce, and a slice of trigger melon filled with sweet potato-cream cheese ice cream, with yam crisps on the side. Rae serves up a simple spiced lime and mango tart with spicy poblano brittle on the side, and Tate concocts a molten chocolate beet pudding cake with chocolate web crust, set off by candied yellow and red beets.

But there are some slips 'twixt cup and lip in the final face-off. Tate forgets to taste his pudding and it's not sweet enough to please Chef Porter. Caroline's puff pastry is a bit soggy on bottom, while Rea worries over how much poblano is too much for brittle and Oliver frets over whether his fritters will be fluffy enough.

They all know that after this round, one of them will be asked to turn in his or her apron!

It's high stakes cuisine in Harper's first in her planned trilogy, Lights, Camera, Cook! (Next Best Junior Chef) (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017), as the production crew rushes the young chefs through training and tasting trials and pushes competition to a fever pitch for the final showdown. But along the way noted author Harper manages to portray strong friendships, develop mutual understanding, and learn grace under the pressure of reality television. Harper also provides plenty of cooking lore for any budding foodies among her readers, even an appendix on "Essential Knife Techniques." This one is an appetite-teasing, tasty treat for summer reading, which just may, perchance, induce some forays into the kitchen along the way.

Harper even offers an excerpt from the next book in the series, forthcoming in February of 2018, in which the challenge continues to heat up among the three remaining contestants, The Heat Is On (Next Best Junior Chef).

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