In its second season, the show started getting predictable, as could be expected; reality competitions tend to settle into a repetitive groove when they find a format that works. The problem with MasterChef Junior, though, was that the same kinds of kids kept getting the same kinds of comments. As a dedicated viewer, I felt uneasy about this in a way I couldn’t explain—at least not until the end of the second season, when the show had the closest thing it’s had to a scandal. Judges Ramsay, Graham Elliot, and Joe Bastianich had to cut two children from a losing team after they had struggled with a pop-up restaurant challenge. There was Oona, a fierce 9-year old girl who had a meltdown while manning the deep fryer, and Sean, a 12-year-old Asian-American boy whose steak blew the other team’s out of the water. Their team leader was Samuel, a 12-year-old white boy who'd been pegged as the gourmand frontrunner, and yet had both botched his fish and failed to bring his team together. Elliot sighed, took a pause big enough to hold a commercial break, and finally announced that the one to stay would be … Samuel. “Crucially,” Elliot said to a visibly surprised Samuel, “you were the one that looked the most comfortable in that environment.” Emphasis his.
My jaw dropped. First of all, since when should the veneer of confidence matter for a cooking challenge? You can’t eat confidence. Second of all, and most devastating: Of course Samuel looked the most at home in that environment. Unlike the others on his team, Samuel was a self-assured white boy. In other words, he was what most people visualize when they imagine a head chef.
The discomfort I’d been feeling snapped into place: MasterChef Junior bills itself as an inclusive show that encourages creativity and hard work, but it can still be a microcosm of the same old exhausting gender and race biases ingrained in daily life. That these biases can be less overt doesn’t make them less dangerous. If anything, coded sexism, racism, and favoritism is far more damaging than if it's blatant, because it becomes so much harder to change—or even to call out at all. The feeling that something’s fallen prey to bias is uniquely frustrating; without concrete proof, it’s easy to dismiss unease as over-sensitivity. The evidence that MasterChef had more sympathy for its white male contestants came in the form of Elliot saying outright that Samuel “looks” the part. With the implicit made explicit, it was easier to look at MasterChef Junior's two-and-a-half season run through a sharper and much less flattering light.
Ramsay, Elliott, and Bastianich are all very successful chefs, restaurateurs, and white men. And on screen, they have a history of favoring children who look like them, whether they mean to or not. Throughout the series, these judges encourage all the children, but reserve more heartfelt sentiments like “I see a lot of myself in you” for the boys who do indeed look like they do. It was clear season two champion and adorable blond Tennessee native Logan was marked for success once he was pulled aside for several one-on-one talks with an unusually earnest Ramsay. Logan seemed startled, but I wasn’t; Ramsay had said only a couple episodes earlier that Logan reminded him of his own son. There’s comfort in the familiar.