MasterChef Junior’s Top Two on Seeing Themselves on TV and What They Do When They’re Not Cooking

Photo: Greg Gayne/FOX

Though the season-three finale of Fox’s MasterChef Junior doesn’t air until tonight, filming has long since ended and life has largely returned to normal for its remaining two contestants. Twelve-year-old Andrew Zappley and 13-year-old Nathan Odom took time out of their busy school schedules to talk to Vulture about what they’ve learned about life and what they do on the internet.

When you’re home in your kitchen, are you following a lot of recipes or are you doing more creation? More experimentation?
Nathan O
dom: I’ve been doing a lot of experimentation since I went on the show and learned a bit more. Before the show, I used to think, If I don’t follow a recipe, it won’t turn out nice. I was really surprised to learn that sometimes it does turn out okay, and that the best way to find something that works is through experimenting with it.

Andrew Zappley: I never use a recipe. I don’t like recipes. I don’t like the small print on recipes. I don’t like the old cookbooks that fall apart and you have to go find the pages, which is the next part of the recipe. I don’t like recipes at all. I most likely know the recipe in my head, and if I don’t, then I’ll experiment with it. About a week and a half ago I made homemade empanada dough, and I didn’t have a recipe for that. I just did cold butter, really cold butter, it has to be cold or [the empanada] wouldn’t be flaky, and flour, and I used the pastry cutter and a little bit of cold water and I made my own dough.

Where do you get your inspiration from? How do you decide, “Oh, I really want to learn how to make this, let’s figure it out”?
: I would say the internet is definitely a pretty big part of what I want to make at home. But I feel like my family’s historical background definitely adds a little bit of, What should I make?

Can you tell me more about your family’s background?
: My mom is Mexican and my dad’s Italian, and it’s a pretty interesting combination, but it also provides a lot of experience in serving interesting cuisine combinations.

Fantastic. How about you, Andrew? Where are you pulling that inspiration from?
: Well, my family’s heritage is Italian, it comes from my dad’s side of the family, but my mom is Irish and German, although I don’t cook too much cuisine other than Italian-American. My dad is a pretty good cook. I wouldn’t say he’s MasterChef–worthy, but he’s definitely not Worst Cooks in America–worthy. He’s the average dad who’s a cook. But not my mom. She used to make chicken nuggets and they were like breaded rocks. What she would do is she would bread them, put them in the oven, go watch an episode or two of, like, Desperate Housewives or Long Island Medium (that show is terrible), then come back and they were dry, and just serve it to us. I really didn’t like that. Even my signature dish is based off of that dish, but totally elevated to, like, ten notches ahead of that. But my inspiration comes from being Italian. If you’re Italian and you don’t know how to cook, then you’re not Italian.

When you were both on the show, you had to spend some time away from your families. What are your families like, and what did you miss most about them?
: I was up there [Los Angeles] filming with my mom, so it was nice to have at least part of my family there, but I really missed being able to talk to my grandma and hanging out with my dad, who’s the jokester of the family. It was definitely less lively than it usually is at home, but it was still really fun.

AZ: Well, I was in California with my dad, and at some point we got to Skype an “old” family member for advice on cooking. I Skyped my aunt. She has no culinary knowledge whatsoever, but she’s still my aunt. I talked to my mom on the phone every day because I was with my dad, but there was really nothing about home that I missed except for my cat. I love my cat.

That’s actually really interesting. Do you both have pets?
: Well, I like to say my brother’s a dog, but he’s not.

I’m sure he appreciates that.
: He’s like a big wolf. But my cat is a year and a half old and she’s crazy. At 1 a.m. she’s running around, hopping up, scratching the walls. She’s crazy but I still love her.

Nathan, do you have any pets?
: I have a dachshund named Hedwig, but that’s pretty much it.

I would assume that as you get older, the plan is to pursue a culinary career. But if you decided to keep food as just a hobby, what could you see yourself doing for the rest of your life?
: I could definitely see myself being a race-car driver. I like racing. But being a chef is most likely, I’m almost 100 percent sure that I’m going to be a chef because after this whole experience I just love cooking. I come home from school, I cook every day. This is what I like to do, so it’s most likely going to be cooking, but if it’s not, I’ll be a race-car driver.

NO: Well, cooking is definitely one of my No. 1 hobbies, and if I wanted to pursue that, I’d probably want to be a pastry chef. But outside of that, I really do like playing music, and I feel like I’d be able to pursue a career in that.

I know that you’re from New Jersey [Andrew] and California [Nathan], respectively. What is your favorite thing about your hometown?
: I would say my favorite thing about my hometown is definitely how relaxed it is. People often say that in San Diego it’s hard to get stuff done because everyone’s really lazy and chill about it. So I’d say it’s definitely really interesting to have that kind of environment when you’re doing artwork and things like that.

AZ: West Deptford is a good hometown, not that many people know [of it]. I think I put West Deptford on the map. There’s nothing big about it because it’s a really small town, but there are major cities nearby, like Philadelphia, and the Delaware River. There are sites that were part of the Revolutionary War, so there’s a lot of battlefield areas around our house. Our neighbors are the best, and they love when I go over to their house and cook for them. It’s really cool.

Obviously you guys love cooking and that’s your main hobby, but when you’re not funneling all of your energy into cooking, what do you spend most of your time doing? Outside of school, obviously.
: Outside of school and cooking, I’m on the internet a lot, doing social media and stuff like that. But I’m also a really big fan of doing crafts and little DIY projects that I see on Pinterest.

Do you have something you’re working on right now?
I haven’t been working on anything lately that isn’t food-related because I’ve been really into that, but I do a lot of DIY.

Andrew, how are you spending your time?
: Like Nathan, I’m on the internet a lot. I like YouTube, always searching up new episodes of TV shows. I was selected for the National Junior Honor Society, so what I do is study a lot and learn new things. I think that’s cool, looking up different facts. And some things are even about cooking that we learn in class, and some of my classmates are amazed I know these things. That’s what I like to do.

Well, congratulations. That’s very impressive. But, of course, I’m going to bring it back to TV. What are your favorite TV shows?
: I really like Cutthroat Kitchen. That’s one of my all-time favorite shows. Gordon Ramsay shows are really fun. I think they’re funny. I don’t think he’s necessarily being mean, I think he’s doing it for TV, and it’s really funny, the things that he says. I like SpongeBob. I never seem to grow out of that, I just love that show.

Nathan, I know you really like playing music. Do you play a particular instrument?
I play a lot of string instruments in orchestra, like the viola and cello.

Awesome. Do you have a favorite?
: I think my favorite instrument is probably the cello.

Do you like a lot of music? Is it mostly classical, or are you into more popular music as well?
: I’m really more into classical, but I do like some modern music.

And who’s your favorite classical artist?
NO: It’s really tough to say, but I’d have to say, at the moment, my favorite artist is probably Bach.

Andrew, I know you collect vintage game systems. What is your favorite and why?
: Well, I do collect vintage game systems. I put an Instagram post up today to see if anyone could guess my top three in order. My favorite would probably be old Nintendo games because I like Mario and Super Mario Kart and all these old games, because it’s really cool to see how it used to be. It’s what I like to do.

Do you like any modern game systems, or do you stick mostly to the classics?
: I have every one. I like the old ones, but I also like the newer ones because sometimes 8-bit graphics get really old and I want to see some new things, so I would play something maybe like a racing game or something that’s newer. Or maybe the same type of game but a newer version.

Right. Like how they keep coming up with new Super Smash Bros.
: I love that game. It’s really fun.

NO: Same.

You both spend a lot of time on the internet. What are the top three sites that you visit on a regular basis?
: I would say my top three sites are probably Tumblr, YouTube, and Reddit.

AZ: My top three would have to be YouTube, YouTube, and YouTube. Every day.

Sure! YouTube has everything. Why not?
: Maybe, like Nathan said, there are cool things on Reddit and Pinterest.

Being on the show must have been such a huge experience. What was it like to sit in your homes and watch yourself on TV? Was it a little surreal?
: It was definitely really crazy seeing myself on TV because when you’re actually in the moment, you never get a full grasp of what the situation looks like and what you look like in someone else’s perspective. It was really fun to re-watch everything that happened to me.

AZ: It was definitely crazy. That was definitely the right word to use. There’s little clips of me saying these things, and my mom’s laughing, like, “What? Did you say that?” Accomplishing all of the things that I did, winning all those challenges, it’s cool to see myself on TV. We have viewing parties at our school, and I don’t really realize how many people are watching. I think it’s just me and the TV. I never really realize that I’m actually on TV.

Because so much more gets filmed than ever makes it on TV, does it ever feel like a story is being created that you weren’t necessarily expecting to see? Are you ever surprised by anything you see in an episode?
: Watching the show back is really interesting because a lot of the key points that I remember are showcased in the show, but sometimes I remember tiny little things that, when I don’t see them, makes me think of the whole story that we went through a lot [differently]. It’s not necessarily a bad thing to see that, but it’s definitely a different experience than actually being there.

AZ: I absolutely remember everything that happens, watching it on the show, although I was mainly focused on my own dish. But there were a lot of things that they didn’t show that I do remember. In the restaurant takeover, they didn’t show that there were more fires on the red team. There are many things that they don’t show, but altogether, you could still get a grasp for how it went. But I think sometimes it’s good to not have them.

As you’re sitting there watching yourself, especially if you’re watching it in mixed company, has there been a moment where you said or did something, and it was filmed, and you wished you could take it back?
: [Quietly] Yeah.

NO: I’ll admit, during the restaurant takeover, I was surprised at how sassy I apparently was during the episode. [Laughs.] That was really interesting to watch back.

What was the most important thing that you learned about yourself being on the show?
: I learned that I’m a lot better at baking than I am at cooking. And I also learned that when I grow up, I don’t want to cook on the line in a high-stress environment.

AZ: I definitely learned a lot about myself. I learned that your teachers always say that practice makes perfect, and it’s absolutely true. You may think, Oh, she’s just saying that, but practice does make perfect. I also learned how confident I am. Sometimes I got overconfident, but I still had to keep the humbleness to be there because in a team challenge, maybe there would be somebody I wouldn’t want to work with, but you still have to be respectful, no matter who they are. They’re a good cook, too. It doesn’t matter if you’re better than them, [though] I think we were all on the same level of cooking. We were all really good. We all had things we were good at, and we had our pros and cons. But that would definitely be something I learned.

And if you had one piece of advice to give — not just to kids, but to anyone — what would it be? What did you learn about life in general from this experience?
: Something that I learned about life in general that I could tell anyone would be, if you’re not good at it, then practice makes perfect. Any age. You could be 100, you could be 40, 45, 50, it doesn’t matter. You’re never too old to accomplish your dreams. You could be 100 and if you want to open up a restaurant, if you’re going to die in a year and you want to open up that restaurant, then go open up it up. I’m sure you’re going to get lots of people that are going to come to that restaurant. It doesn’t matter. It’s never too late to go and try things.

NO: I would say the biggest thing I took away from the show is definitely to go with your gut. That can be used in a lot of situations today, with pretty much any job. If something seems like it isn’t going right, don’t just wave it off. Try and fix it the best that you can.

MasterChef Junior’s Top Two on Life Offscreen