12 year old Auburn, California resident Mason Partak was so excited to share details with me about his appearance on Chopped Junior. Not only did this E.V. Cain Middle School 7th grader compete, but he won the prizes of $10,000 and a highly coveted Chopped Junior chef’s coat and was honored to received the title of Chopped Junior Champion.
When he’s not cooking, he makes movies, does live TV, plays video games, paints, and rides his BMX bike.
“I had to make a cooking video to send in, and then we did several Skype interviews, and then my mom got the call in June that they wanted me to compete on the first season of Chopped Junior,” he told me about the audition process.
“Winning. No, just kidding, sort of. I love competitions, and the idea that we had to make a meal in just 30 minutes is pretty incredible, but I really liked seeing how good a cook I am compared to other kids,” he said when I asked him what his favorite part about competing was.
“…in our little town, I am one of the only kids who cooks at live cooking demos and on live TV programs. On CJ, all these kids are like me in their hometowns. It was fun to cook against kids who are good cooks like me.”
He loved being on camera. “I loved it! I love to be on TV. In fact, I am the first person ever, not just kid, to look at and talk to the camera in the sequester room (the room where we have to wait while they decide who gets chopped). Hannah did, too, after me, but I’ve never seen anyone else do it before or again.”
He wasn’t nervous knowing that people were watching; he loved it.
“I was in NY with my mom in August of 2015, the 9-13, and my episode aired on December 15, 2015,” he said.
This is what Mason told me about the being on the show. “So, my mom and I were scrambling to get to the airport to go to New York, and we had to take a Red Eye, and the flight took off at 11:00 PM. So, then once we finally got there, it was about 6:30 in the morning, and we were really tired. Once we got to the hotel, we had to sit for, like, an hour and a half. So, once we waited at the hotel for an hour and a half, we went to where the other kids were shooting their bio packs. The thing is, mine was the next day, so my mom and I walked around New York. So, the next day was when I shot my bio pack, and when I shot my bio pack, a bunch of fun things happened. So, the first thing was, before we started shooting, I had to comb my hair with a fork because there was no comb there. The reason I had to do that was because I had to keep changing shirts because my hair kept on getting messed up after I took my shirt on and off. So, after I did that, of course, I had to do my show dish. So, my show dish is basically my signature dish. This is for the bio pack. And, then another funny thing that was in the bio pack that wasn’t actually put in the bio pack was I got a whipped cream pie thrown at my face. They had all this extra whipped cream and these pie shells, and the producers said that they wanted to pie me. And, after we did all of that stuff, my mom and I went back to the room and went to sleep to get a good night sleep before the actual competition. So, in the morning, we ate breakfast, and I ate breakfast with all my competitors. So, I believe in karma and believing in yourself, so at breakfast, I said, ‘Hey everybody. I just want to let you guys know that the Chopped Junior champion is sitting at this table.’ So, then everybody was like, ‘Yeah, yeah, we all know there’s going to be one Chopped Champion, and everybody else is gonna go home.’ And, then I said, ‘No, not at that table. At this table.’ So, after breakfast, we went to the studio, and we got our Chopped Junior aprons. Then, we went to the sequester room for an hour and half. And, then we practiced our entrances into the kitchen, and on each of our third practices, this was the real one. So, on our third entry, to my surprise, I saw the judges sitting at the chopping block, and then I went to my station, Ted told us the rules, and then we started our first round. It was pretty easy at the start, but then my sauce started to burn, but I recovered. After I burnt my sauce, there was only a couple seconds left in the round, and then the round was over. What I did was I took my left over tabasco jellybeans, and I ended up just having to throw them into the bowl because I had to get all my things on the plate. So, after the first round, we went to sequester, and the nerves were very high, and then when we came out, we went to the chopping block, and we got our feedback, and then after that, Janie ended up getting “chopped”. So, after Janie got “chopped”, we moved on to the entrée round. It started off pretty smooth, and through the whole thing, all of us did pretty good, but towards the end of the round, when Hannah was cutting the meat, she got cut, and then she recovered, and she ended up finishing her dish. And, then we went back to sequester, and then we came back out and got our feedback again. And, then after we got our feedback, Dylan ended up getting “chopped” because he put too much jalapeño in his gazpacho. So, then it was just me and Hannah. We went back to sequester, and then we got called back to do our third and final round. Everything started out well, but then towards the end of the round, I went to check my ice cream, and it didn’t fully set. Because it didn’t set, it came out very wet, so instead of calling it an ice cream, I decided to call it a crème anglaise. So, the final round was over, and I was kind of mad at myself because I didn’t think I worked to my full potential. And, then we went to sequester, and then we got called back to the chopping block. So, after we got called back to the chopping block, this is where the tension got really high. Then, Ted pulled the tray up, and, to my surprise, I saw Hannah’s dish. I was kind of sad because we had become such good friends at that point, and then I was also a little bit happy because, you know, I just won Chopped Junior, and that’s so cool. And, then the last thing that they wanted me to do was they wanted me to put on the prop chef’s coat, and what they wanted me to do was something like an outro. So, there’s an intro, and then, there’s an outro. What I did for the outro was the ‘make it rain’ thing.”
“We got maybe 30 seconds before we started cooking. On my episode, we had squash blossoms in the entree round, and I told Ted they had bugs in them. Ted said (that rhymes, that’s funny!), ‘You know what that means Mason, don’t you? It means that they are organic and don’t have pesticides on them.’ As he was talking, Hannah and Dylan noticed theirs were full of bugs, too! They had to stop the shot to have people pick all the bugs out of the blossoms because if they washed them and got them wet, they wouldn’t have been usable. Because of those few minutes to take care of the bugs, we had a little more time to think about what to make.”
In the competition, there are three rounds: appetizer, entrée, and dessert. Each round has its own basket of mystery ingredients. Every ingredient must be used in each competitor’s dish in some way. Each round is timed. Dishes are judged on taste, presentation, and creativity. If someone’s dish isn’t good enough to have them move on to the next round, they’ll be “chopped”, or eliminated.
In the appetizer round, the basket contained mussels, coconut milk, hot pepper jellybeans, and squid jerky. Mason made a boiled white wine broth mussel stew with a hot pepper-jellybean sauce. After burning his sauce, he managed to persevere and just put some of the leftover beans he had in the bowls with his mussels. In the entrée round, this junior chef found cereal with milk in the basket accompanied by green strawberries and squash blossoms and was excited to see Wagyu skirt steak. He had no trouble thinking on his feet when he whipped up a killer spicy street taco with hot sauce and stuffed squash blossoms. In the dessert round, his blood orange crepes stuffed with spiced chocolate rum cake filling and coffee-cookie ice cream that ended up becoming a cookie crumble anglaise all made from microwave cupcakes, Greek yogurt, blood oranges, and cookie straws got him the win.
“The appetizer and entrée baskets were the easiest, and the dessert was the hardest for sure. I practiced A LOT before the show; I had 5 weeks, and I did a chopped challenge every single day except for two days. I learned how to make clams, and the appetizer basket had mussels. I also decided that if the entree basket had things I could make tacos with, that’s what I was going to make. It had steak in it, so that was perfect! I struggled with desserts in practice at home, and I struggled with dessert on the show!”
“That is called the bio pack, and we shot that the day before the competition,” said Mason about shooting the introduction and interviews. “We got to go to Food Network Studios after we all filmed those, so we could get a tour of the kitchen, and they told us all what to expect the next day. The studio is in Chelsea Market, and it’s super cool.”
The parts where he was cooking in the introduction weren’t shot at his house. “…that is a set in NY,” he said. “We shot so much stuff that never got used. I ended my bio pack shoot with getting a pie in the face. My mom filmed it with her phone and will have it posted on my website, www.masonpartak.com,” said Mason.
“We shot on August 11, and I won. We couldn’t tell that I even competed until after my show aired on December 15. I didn’t have a hard time not telling, but my mom really had a hard time.”
When it comes to TV, keeping this secret was one of those things Mason had to do. “It’s like that on TV; Food Network doesn’t want other channels to know what they are doing. Also, if you tell, it’s a spoiler. People want to watch and live it with you. In the contract, it says if you break the confidential part, it’s a fine of $750,000. My mom reads all that stuff.”
“I guess just to make the punishment bad, so people wouldn’t blab, and be the spoiler,” is what he said about why he would get fined if he told.
I also asked Mason about which of his competitors he became closest with. “We went out for dinner with Dylan and his mom the night before, so I would say Dylan. My mom is friends with his mom and also with Janie’s mom, too. Hannah is not really on social media, so it’s not as easy to keep in touch, but all the kids are great.”
“Total shock,” he said about his win. “I was stunned and so happy and so tired.”
“My mom let me have $2000 to spend and the rest is in a trust for when I’m older. My dad is a soldier and veteran who fought in Iraq. Because of his service, I get to go to college in California for free, so I don’t have to save for college. I bought a drift trike, some cool clothes and shoes, some video games, and a couple of toys,” said Mason about the prize money.
When he’s older, he wants to entertain people. “…I love being on TV, teaching people things, and making people laugh. I would love to be an actor and plan to go to UCLA for college. Of course, I will always cook and would love to keep competing in cooking shows.”
His life really changed after his victory. “Lots more people know who I am. I get invited to be a judge in cooking competitions and to give motivational speeches – I love that, too! A local restaurant asked me to recreate my spicy street taco for their menu. It was suppose to be for a limited time, but people liked it so much, they put it on their permanent menu.”
“I’ve been in the kitchen with my mom and dad all my life. I started helping my mom bake when I was 2, and she taught me how to use a knife when I was 4. When I was 8, I was invited to my first live cooking demo, and I loved it. I got invited back to another festival, and now those festivals not only ask me to cook, but they pay me to emcee the cooking stage for the whole event for all the chefs cooking.”
His favorite part about cooking is, of course, eating! “Isn’t that everyones favorite part? I also love the creative part of it, mixing flavor profiles, understanding the science of food and heat, and seeing people really enjoy what I cook.”
“This is always the hardest question,” he said when I asked him about his cooking style. “I love to cook comfort food; I like to twist recipes up with my creativity, and I love fusion, especially adding the Asian flavors to other kinds of food. I love my Asian twist on spaghetti. We also do lots of everyday cooking, which is working with what we have in the pantry to put a healthy meal on the table for dinner.”
His favorite cuisine is Asian. “I love the bold flavors of soy, sesame, mandarin, and peppers served with noodles or rice. This answer is making my mouth water!”
“I love to fry!! My fried chicken is off the hook! I use crazy things in my breading, things like potato chips and dry marinade seasoning packets in my flour. I also love to make pizza. I make it in a cast iron skillet or on the grill. There isn’t a food alive that doesn’t taste good fried.”
I asked Mason what the best dish was that he could prepare. “There’s not just one. I make killer fried chicken, I have a twice award winning beef mandarin slider, and I make a rib eye with homemade herb butter that’s to die for.”
He doesn’t really have a favorite food to make. “It depends on what we have in the house. Again, I love fried chicken.”
When it comes to cooking, his biggest inspiration is his mom. “…My mom is not only a good cook, she’s my biggest fan. She doesn’t say if, she says when, and even more importantly, she says yes. When I asked to help, she said yes. When I asked to use a knife, she said yes. When I asked if we could raise $25,000 to improve my school kitchen (I was in the 3rd grade), she said yes. It took me 18 months, but I raised $26,052, and my school not only got the cafeteria improved, we got a culinary sciences lab where the kids in grades K-5 now get to learn to cook at Alta Vista Community Charter School. If parents say yes to their kid, they empower them to do great things.”
Mason, thank you so much for those inspiring words and this great oppourtinity!!!!! It’s been really nice to get to know you, and please don’t stop cooking. You’re amazing at what you do!!!!!