They ought to give the kid a trophy — and I don’t mean for winning “Chopped Junior.”
She was 9 last November when Food Network flew her and her sister to New York City to compete on their favorite television cooking show. She cooked against her sister, Amelia, and two other kids as part of an all-sibling episode and won $10,000 to be named the “Chopped Junior” champion.
And they asked her to keep it all a secret for nearly a year. From her friends. From her step sister and step brother. From her grandparents. She never slipped. Not once.
Give the kid a medal.
If only the rest of us could have kept as calm.
A week after the taping last year, by coincidence, I was to interview two of the “Chopped Junior” judges, Bryan and Michael Voltaggio, about their upcoming Miami restaurant, Monger, their first project together. The chef brothers who judged my little chef daughters hopped out of their seats the second we saw each other.
“Can we just talk about your daughters for a second?” Michael Voltaggio said more like an exclamation than a question.
The three of us hijacked the interview for a solid half hour. They told me they recognized themselves immediately in the girls. Bryan, the older, more buttoned-down and soft-spoken of the two, identified with my thoughtful Amelia, now 12. The wild and tattooed Michael saw himself in my spitfire, Catalina, now 10.
Before we were done they’d offer to let both of them apprentice at Monger if they’re interested in cooking as a career when they grew up.
But talking about it, even knowing the results, was still not the same as watching it play out on national television on Tuesday night — knowing only one child could be named the winner.
More than 50 of us, their family and friends, gathered to watch the show, where, in each episode, four contestants are given a basket with four mystery ingredients they must incorporate into an appetizer dish. One of the four competitors is “chopped” before moving on to an entree round and then the decisive dessert round.
My eyes flicked from the television to Amelia, sitting on the couch, huddled with her friends. Only we knew that she would be the first to go.
When the host, Ted Allen, uncovered the appetizer dish that had been chopped, everyone turned to her and my stomach balled into a knot. She shrugged her shoulders and everyone piled on her for a big family hug.
But just as she did in the green room in New York City, she turned back to supporting her sister. Catalina made a seared, spice-rubbed lamb — an ingredient she had never even tasted but that the judges loved to move her into the dessert round.
And there, she knew what she was going to do. No matter what was in that mystery basket, she knew she was going to make ice cream. Forget that she’d never used that contraption — that she’d never made ice cream in her life. The ice cream machine on “Chopped” is like the big wheel on “The Price is Right.” It’s the Daily Double “Jeopardy!” When they asked her what she’d do with $10,000 if she won, she said she’d buy an ice cream maker.
The Voltaggios confided later that they whispered to one another and decided right on set that if Catalina didn’t win the whole thing, they were going to give her an ice cream maker of her own. (When I told Catalina this later, she looked at me like maybe she would have been better off coming in second than having money for college.)
Catalina opened her basket and saw the ingredients were a tower of doughnuts, rambutans (a tropical fruit covered in soft barbs that tastes like a lychee) and ricotta cheese; she doubled down.
She made up her own wacky ice cream base with eggs and the rambutans, cooked it and poured it into the gelato machine.
A note here about the reaction — from the judges, from our watch party, from me — when she opened the gelato maker too soon and the liquid came pouring into her bowl: panic. Go online and watch it just for the judge’s reactions. I looked around the room. People were broken.
Catalina? Unfazed. Back on the show, she poured the base back into the machine and let it work as she went to her mixer and whipped sugar into the ricotta.
As time wound down, she went back to the ice cream. The consistency was perfect. She folded in the ricotta and chunks of doughnuts like she’d seen them do at Cold Stone Creamery. She dusted them with sprinkles with a flourish, like Salt Bae.
“Technically, there are a lot of things wrong with it,” the third judge, Marcus Samuelsson, said as he dug into his ice cream. “But it’s just so delicious.”
There are two moments I’ll always remember after that.
One, when host Ted Allen uncovered the final dish that had been chopped — and it wasn’t Catalina’s. Our watch party erupted into a stadium-loud cheer. Catalina beamed, dressed for the occasion in a glittery tiara.
And the second was watching Amelia run out from the corner of the screen and tackle her sister with a bear hug as she celebrated. They’d decided before the show that if either of them won, they’d split the loot. And they did.
I had worried about the competition, the spotlight, and what it could do to deepen natural sibling rivalry. But watching them cheer each other, razz each other, and ultimately celebrate together, makes me wonder if there wasn’t another secret ingredient in that “Chopped” basket.