SOUTH ORANGE / WEST ORANGE, NJ — The Oranges were well represented on the Dec. 10 episode of “Chopped Junior,” when West Orange’s Leonardo McCormick and South Orange’s Arden Burns bested their opponents from Texas and Michigan to make it to the final round of the Food Network cooking show, where Arden took home the coveted Chopped Junior chef jacket. The show is a spinoff of the original “Chopped,” and contestants have 30 minutes to incorporate four mystery ingredients into a dish. Both Arden and Leo, at only 10 and 11 years old respectively, showed judges Chris Santos, Tiffani Faison and Corey Fogelmanis what they can do in the kitchen.
Both junior chefs auditioned to be on “Chopped Junior” by sending in a video of themselves cooking and then trying out in person. But that wasn’t their first time picking up a spatula. Leo has been in the kitchen with his parents and grandparents his whole life.
“I wasn’t really doing the baking; I was just mixing things,” he said in a phone interview on Dec. 30. “Then I thought, ‘If I could do this by myself, I would very much like that.’”
The Edison Middle School sixth grader is also an artist and sees cooking and baking as another form of art.
“It’s like drawing on a plate,” Leo said. “I like to use color and make art. The different colors give different flavors. The more color a dish has, the more flavor there is. Then you’re going to want to eat it more.”
Arden has been cooking since her second birthday, when she got a toy kitchen set and started imitating what was happening in the real kitchen. She practiced in the lead-up to filming her episode of “Chopped Junior,” knowing she would probably make the salmon tacos she presented to the judges in the entree round. She also prepared for the dessert round of the competition, testing different types of tarts in the kitchen at home.
“I had a couple ideas of what I wanted to make,” Arden said in a phone interview on Jan. 3. “I practiced the tacos before and the tart a ton. I practiced how to debone a chicken. But it was very different in the Chopped kitchen.”
She made crispy duck salad with roasted potatoes in the appetizer round, using the icing from Christmas cookies to make vinaigrette. And the Far Brook School student did end up making a tart for the dessert round, incorporating into her dish vanilla cake, honey, a cream puff Christmas tree and Santa Claus melons, which reach their peak in December.
Leo also made a dessert tart. Using the Santa Claus melons and cherries, he put whipped cream, ginger, allspice and cinnamon on top of a graham cracker crust. For his entree, he grilled the salmon and laid it over pasta made with spinach and salsa pesto, and in the first appetizer round made pulled Peking duck with scallion hash and cookie crumble sauce.
On the show, each contestant works separately, but Arden and Leo helped each other out in the second round when Arden needed some advice about cooking the salmon. On Leo’s advice, Arden cooked the fish for a little bit longer. But other than that, it was each contestant for themselves.
“I didn’t watch what they were doing,” Arden said of her fellow competitors. “But I saw what they were making and how they made it. Another boy made salmon, and it was interesting to see how he glazed it.”
Leo also said he learned new things from being on the show.
“I learned that different things happen if you combine different flavors,” he said. “It’s like a science project.”
Arden, who likes baking more than she likes cooking, said something similar.
“Baking is more fun,” she explained. “If you add a little more of one thing it could mess it up.”
Dessert is something that Arden is making more of now, as a result of her $10,000 prize. With her winnings, she got an ice cream maker; prior to having the machine, Arden’s ice cream had to spend a lot of time in the freezer during the creation process.
“Before, I had to let it sit in the freezer for a long time because we didn’t have one,” Arden said. “I’ve made cookies and cream and salted caramel.”
That’s not all she’s doing with her prize money. Some of it is going to be donated, too, to the Chromosome 18 Registry and Research Society. The nonprofit organization helps people with chromosome abnormalities and advances research about the health issue, which affects Arden’s younger sister.
“She wanted to donate it,” Katy Burns, Arden’s mother, said in a phone interview on Jan. 3. “They’ve been important to our family, and she and her sister are close.”
Leo didn’t win, but he’s not about to retire his apron. He’s been working on the photography and illustrations for a cookbook in honor of his grandfather, who was one of the people who taught him how to cook. He spends a lot of time in the kitchen with his family — he and his 16-year-old brother, Nicco, took third place in the West Orange Farmers Market Chili Cook-off and first place in the Pie Bake-off this past fall.
“My brother helps with the mixing because his arms don’t get tired,” Leo said. “He’s really nice to me.”
Leo has his sights set on owning a food truck, and right now the plan is for his mom to be a co-owner, since he’s still a few years away from getting his driver’s license. He also wants to be an agricultural scientist.
“It was a great experience,” Leo said about being on “Chopped Junior.” “It inspired me for what I could do in the future.”
Arden also wants to continue cooking, but there are other things she wants to do, too.
“I want to be a chef or a teacher,” she said. “I’ve wanted to be a teacher for a really long time, so maybe I can teach cooking.”
Photos Courtesy of Food Network