On a break from filming there were kids playing ring a rosy and laughing. Some were picking flowers. Others were jumping up and down, hugging one another, rolling on the astroturf, being surprisingly tactile. There were smiles on faces, adults talking to kids and loads of bonding.
If these are the kids in Junior MasterChef, don’t they know they are supposed to be competitors?
These kids are all bestest friends.
But it’s no surprise to Executive Producer Nick Colquhoun. He says Shine Australia has fostered an environment that allows the Top 20 kids to feel supported and confident, with a space that encourages expression.
In the world of Reality TV, where it is easy to throw around claims of child exploitation, Junior MasterChef prides itself on the lengths it has gone to for its participants. But while it may be an issue of Duty of Care, it is also a management system that delivers joyous contestants on air too.
Colquhoun says the Junior MasterChef model draws from the fact that Shine’s Mark and Carl Fennessy and Director of Programming Paul Franklin are all parents of school age children. With contestants aged between 8 – 12 years, the working environment of the MasterChef Kitchen has had to be transformed into a welcoming environment.
“There is their psychological and physical health and then there is the culture here (at the kitchen). They probably balance out in terms of importance,” he says.
“Once the kids are selected to go into the Top 50 they undergo a series of psychological evaluations. It deals with IQ, communication skills, self-awareness, and resiliency.
“They need to be able to communicate a passion for food in order for the process to be enjoyable and they need a level of confidence.
“If there are signs they wouldn’t cope because they don’t have the self-confidence and it might affect them if they don’t win a challenge, then based on that advice we might not put them into the competition. By the time they arrive we’re confident they’re going to have the capacity to enjoy the process. People enjoy it because there is a sense of positivity to it.”
The children and a parent or guardian are all accommodated in serviced apartments (1 child, 1 parent per two bedroom apartment) including with a recreational area and pool. Even those families from Sydney are housed here. Unlike the adult series, there is no filming at this accommodation. Colquhoun says it is crucial they allow the children to have time out from the competition.
During most shooting days at the kitchen the parents are not on hand.
“They are waiting at the accommodation for the kids to come home. It’s a big impost on the parents because some of them have to take time off work. If they’re from interstate they’re all of a sudden living in a serviced apartment for the period of time that the kids are in the competition. But it’s the sacrifice the parents make, just as they would for a sport,” he says.
“It can be added pressure to have mum or dad up there watching. What we’ve created for the kids is an environment where they have the support of chaperones and each other.”
The Top 20 have 3 full time chaperones (who have all had police checks), including one who lives at the same accommodation.
“They pick them up in the morning, bring them onto set, manage them during the day, spend time with them during the day, then go back with them at the end of the day. The kids have scheduled breaks of 10 minutes every hour and every fourth hour they have a one hour break,” he says.
Schooling is done via consultation with school principals.
“A system is developed between the principal and the parents so that they minimise the amount of work, but the parents manage to make sure they keep doing some work during the process.”
With filming taking place 5 days a week, are they supplied with tutors?
“They can (have them) if they request them, but none did. The parents are here for the duration and if they need extra support they will ask for that. Most parents see this as an experience in itself that broadens their horizons and skills in an area they’re passionate about.”
There are also weekly production meetings with parents. The show also has a resident psychologist on set for all challenges, who de-briefs children when they exit the series and empowers them with enough social skills for what may lie ahead.
“If there are comments in the schoolyard about them leaving the competition they can ask that kid, ‘Did you get into Junior Masterchef? Did you know that more people have been into outer space than have been in Junior Masterchef?’ It’s a pretty exclusive club. So it lets them know the ways they can deal with comments,” he explains.
“It’s reinforced that we’re only ever a phone call away, but it hasn’t been an issue.”
Colquhoun even says there are no “stage mums” amongst the group.
“You expect it but either we’ve been very lucky or very good at weeding them out because all the parents are just super supportive of the kids.
“Different series have different personalities but there’s no angst between them, they’re best mates already, they’re all on Facebook together and that’s flowed through to the parents.”
While watching a scene in which a child chooses ingredients from the pantry, the enthusiasm could barely be contained. Judges Gary Mehigan, Anna Gare and Matt Moran were affectionately taunted by the kids amid a buoyant atmosphere that occasionally undermined the usual MasterChef drama. Be serious kids, this is important stuff.
Series Eliminations are also structured in such a way so as to minimise an emotional impact.
“It’s designed for four, so that it’s not just one kid. So on a challenge, six will compete and four will go home, back to their school, family, and friends having had a great experience,” says Colquhoun.
“When there is a challenge the kids start supporting themselves, saying ‘well done!’ and that’s the heart of the show. They are the elements people enjoy more than the ‘long-pants’ show.”
Eliminations are followed by parties, to celebrate a child’s achievements.
But if there are any real risks in a show of this nature, it is surely allowing children to work with utensils, hotplates and ovens?
Overseeing this area is Safety Consultant Roger Graham, a former military commando who has worked on MasterChef, The Biggest Loser and similar productions.
“He’s the safest person I know. I’ve put my life in his hands on different occasions on numerous shows. He’s thrown me out of a helicopter in New Zealand, he’s had me walk across a tightrope between two buildings,” insists Colquhoun.
“He dictates what the kids can and can’t use. They can never use deep fryers unless in an exceptional circumstance when someone else will manage it for them. He decides the implements they use. We have special knives made of plastic so that if a kid drops it there’s no weight in it and it bounces off their shoe.
“There are occasional cuts and there is a nurse on set who bandages them, as would happen in their own homes.”
Induction ovens are used with hotplates that only get hot when something is placed on it, and they cool down just as quickly.
“If you happen to rest you hand five minutes later you’re not going to get burned. You can never stop it but it’s about diminishing it, managing it and reducing the risk,” he explains.
“Every single bench has a ‘Bench Watcher’ and their sole job is to watch the kids on the bench and step in if there is any sort of risk. If they see a kid struggling with a pot of hot water they’ll immediately step in. And that’s reviewed every week and it takes precedence over (shooting a) story. They are safer cooking in this environment than they are at home because they will always have eyes on them.”
Also contrasting the adult version is an intent to edit children into the show so that everyone has a visible presence.
“We’re mindful that every kid has fair representation and is featured. They’ve told their mates they’re going on Junior MasterChef so we have to make sure there is a balance in the coverage.”
What about questions of the contracts that parents were forced to sign? Did it go too far?
“Every contract has legal jargon but when you strip that away it’s there to protect both the brand and the child. We don’t want contestant to go out and sell their story because they don’t have the experience to manage the media. When you invite the vampire into your house it’s going to become problematic,” Colquhoun says.
“Bring us in and then we can help manage that for you.
“The risk of something or the promise of something is always greater than the reality. We’ve built up a framework where the kids are supported, we build the confidence in them, and that they know if there is an issue to give us a call because they’re always part of the family. But the reality is that when they go back into their school lives and home lives, people think they’re cool because they’ve been impressed by what they’re producing in here.”
Somewhere in the middle of all this nurturing and caring there are kids creating great dishes right?
“The focus is on celebrating what they’ve actually produced and celebrating the relationships they’ve formed here,” he insists.
“Carl and Mark spoke about cartoon love hearts that come out of everyone when they talk about Junior MasterChef. That’s what it’s like.
“There’s no place for cynicism in this show, and that’s why it’s a joy to work on.
“It’s amazing to watch what these kids are cooking and producing and they are a super bunch of kids. So I think the series will speak for itself.”
Junior MasterChef airs 7:30pm Sundays and Mondays on TEN.