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MasterChef Junior Champ Alexander on His Victory and the Pitfalls of Overthinking Food

In the end, culinary wunderkind Alexander Weiss was crowned the first-ever MasterChef Junior winner, vaulted to the top with a combo of gnocchi and a perfectly cooked veal chop. Vulture spoke with the 13-year-old New Yorker about the pitfalls of being the season-long front-runner and how his “disgusting” layer cake taught him a valuable lesson.

You were the front-runner for the entire season. Did you suspect you had won even before the judges called your name?
No. Not at all. It was a big shock. I had no idea who it was going to be. Dara definitely took the appetizer round, I definitely took the entree, but our desserts seemed so close. It was hard to tell. We both had one small criticism, so it was very close.

How did you decide what to make for that entree?
I make gnocchi at home. I knew that if I were to get to the finale, I wanted to make something that is my passion at home, and that would be fresh pasta. So I made gnocchi with a sage-infused butter sauce and shallots with some thyme and lemon. I knew I wanted to use some kind of protein, something that was challenging. A veal chop is hard to get at the perfect temperature because it's a little bit different than filet mignon or steak; the temperature is not necessarily medium rare or rare like steak can be. It's got to be a certain temperature. And who doesn't love gnocchi and veal chops?

Dara started feeling faint in the middle of the challenge. What happened there?
Well, the whole thing was very overwhelming. It was like the restaurant takeover all over again, except the stakes are only your future awaiting you [laughs]. It was just super hot with all these new lights in the kitchen. And this time there were over a hundred people watching, the judges are talking to us, cameras all over. It was hard to concentrate. I saw Dara’s face and she was really pale halfway through. I could tell something was not right. So we paused and drank some water and she got right back into it.

A lot of the contestants said that they were hoping to trip you up by picking simple dishes for the challenges in the hopes that you’d overthink them. Why do you think that became your rep?
It was the macarons. It was the first dish I made, and they’re hard to master. Everybody saw the impression I was trying to make and definitely took me as a threat. I wanted to make the impression that I was here to stay, but I was hoping they weren’t going to throw darts at me the whole the time. I guess that’s just how it goes.

Do you tend to overthink your dishes?
I definitely did with the layer cake I did. Even Joe said I was overcomplicating my sliders, but in the end it turned out to be a top three dish. I just have a visual in my head that I want to create on the plate and usually I can execute it. It’s funny, though: I bake a lot at home, that’s what I started out doing, and out of all the challenges I failed in, I failed with the layer cake. Sarah threw that at me and she was exactly right that I would overcomplicate it in this situation.

Well, no one wanted to do that layer cake.
In 90 minutes, it’s a lot. Usually, you’d do that in two and a half hours. It was definitely the hardest task. And with my cake, I had so many things going on. It was just not executable and I didn’t realize it. My cake looked ... disgusting [laughs]. I tried a lemon cake, for which you have to juice and zest all these lemons. My fingers were burning. Stupid choice on my part. I also made a lemon curd to go in between which didn’t have time to set. I tried making fruit drizzles as garnish. I tried making a meringue frosting, which I’d never made before. I also messed up in the beginning when I mixed up my flour with powdered sugar. I definitely overcomplicated it.

What did you think of seeing yourself on TV?
The first couple of episodes, it was very awkward. I never pictured myself being on TV. It was strange. It was also really interesting. I got to step back and look at myself cook and see what I look like in action. It was kind of entertaining.

What did your friends say?
They were thoroughly impressed. They always want me to make them food now, and if I don’t, I’m a bad a person. They always ask me, “Is this up to your standards?” It’s like that all the time in school now.

Do you like being called Big Al?
I was cool with it. The name came from this baking business I had when I was younger. I did it in my building for the neighbors. It was called Big Al’s Bakery. I would even make flyers. I never really got it going. But it was a pretty good idea. I sold things like cannolis, profiteroles, cupcakes, things like that. It’s hard having a bakery, even if it’s just for a few neighbors.

Especially at home, with just one oven.
Oh yeah. I have an oven in a standard New York City apartment. Maybe not as bad as the ones in the really teeny apartments, but my oven is pretty small.

When did you realize you wanted to cook professionally?
When I was maybe about 11 to 12. I'd been cooking much longer than that, but that’s when I knew that I wanted to have a restaurant or bakery. When I was younger, I thought I was going to have a bakery called Cake or Death inspired by Eddie Izzard. He's a comedian that I know because my school's British and he has this skit Cake or Death, which I loved. Maybe I’ll put the picture of my cake from the show on the wall. I won't sell cakes like that though, I promise.

You recently tweeted that you were looking for internships. Are you even in high school yet?
No. I’ll be a freshman next year.

But you want to start working already.
Yeah! For next summer, once I’m 14.

Any takers?
Actually, yeah, from [judges] Gordon Ramsay and Graham Elliot. Gordon told me to be there at eight. I told him I’d be there at six. And Graham asked if I wanted to just come and hang around in his kitchen in Chicago. That’s pretty awesome, and I’ll definitely try and take him up on that offer.

What are you going to do with the $100,000?
Well, there are a couple of things. I might go to culinary school and get in some advance classes now. I’m definitely going to take a little pinch of the money and get some new appliances I’ve always wanted for the kitchen.

Which appliances?
Oh man. I have a really old, like, really the first KitchenAid mixer. It’s great and all; it gets things done. But I want the professional one with the arms. It’s just so much better, and I bake a lot. I also want to get an ice-cream-maker that works, because my KitchenAid one doesn’t. Maybe a new knife, because I could use a nice Japanese knife for cutting tuna or fish for sushi. I also want to help Dara raise money for her charity. I want to donate to that. Her dad died from lung cancer. She definitely deserves it and I think it would be a really good thing to do.

Photo: Greg Gayne /Fox