- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 31, 2015

Helping out in the kitchen has gotten two District middle school children on TV.

Matthew Merrill, 11, will be appearing on “Kids Baking Championship” when the new season begins Monday. Matthew, a 6th grader from Great Falls, Virginia, started helping his mother make Christmas cookies before making pancakes all by himself when he was all of 5.

“My mom was happy but also really angry for doing it by myself,” Matthew told The Washington Times.

From there the aspiring dessert maker worked his way up to cupcakes and French pastries — all the while taking in cooking shows on television.

“I saw [‘Kids Baking Championship’], and then I thought to myself, ‘I can definitely do that,’” Matthew said. He submitted his online audition materials, had Skype interviews and was subsequently flown to California to try out.

“I first started auditioning in early January, and I found out that I got on the show in late June,” he said, with the season taping over the summer.

Ten-year-old Michael Lettieri of Annandale, Virginia, will be appearing on “Chopped Jr.” Tuesday. The 10-year-old with a penchant for whipping up Italian food also said that he was inspired to try his hand in the galley by watching The Food Network.

“I always watched ‘Chopped’ as a little kid, and I always dreamed about being on it,” Michael said. “I didn’t watch ‘Chopped Jr.,’ but I was watching ‘Chopped’ to study what I should do and what I shouldn’t do.”

Both shows are a competition format, with young cooks vying with one another for supremacy, and their creations judged by celebrity chefs. Matthew and Michael spoke of the thrill of meeting in person personalities they had only ever seen on television.

“I saw Duff Goldman on ‘Ace of Cakes’ and was excited to meet him,” young Matthew said of encountering the famous Baltimore baker. “He’s really nice [but] he wasn’t as big as I thought he would be,” he said with a laugh. “But he knew a lot about baking.”

Likewise Michael interacted with both Sandwich King Jeff Morrell and “Heroes” star Hayden Panettiere, who will be serving as a judge on “Chopped Jr.”

“It was pretty cool because I watched that on TV,” Michael said of the superhero drama.

While all the contestants are hoping for the shows’ ultimate prizes, Matthew said his season of “Kids Baking Championship” was in fact a friendly competition.

“At first we all wanted the prize, but we all became friends, so it would have been awkward” if someone was boastful about winning it all, the young baker said. Even now, months removed from the competition, he keeps in touch with his fellow contestants.

“Two other kids were from Virginia, so we all got along really well because we were from the same state,” added Michael of his time on “Chopped Jr.”

While both young men had to maintain strict secrecy about their involvement in the shows — and their eventual outcomes — their embargo of silence has been lifted ahead of next week’s premieres, giving both of the lads a certain fame among their peers.

“A bunch of people have asked me what happened, and I just had to tell them, well, I can’t tell you yet,” said Michael.

“My friends know I’m on the show, and the principal of my school made an announcement during lunch,” Matthew said of the baking contest. “Everybody is impressed.”

Matthew will be enjoying the premiere of “Kids Baking Championship” at home Monday evening with his family and friends. He says down the road he would like to be on another show or even host his own TV program someday.

Matthew also has a small business in Great Falls called Krazy Kreations Bakery. He bakes the treats at home, and his parents then deliver his creations to customers around the District.

“My mom ships them, but she’s usually not happy about it,” he said with a laugh. “My dad usually tells people about how I know how to bake, and then they ask for cakes for parties.

“I keep all the money I make,” said the straight-A student who dreams of one day being a combination lawyer and professional chef.

While hesitant to discuss much of what viewers will discover when they tune into “Chopped Jr.” next week, young Michael says he still keeps busy in the meantime in his family kitchen, however “my mom usually kicks me out [of the kitchen] for making too much of a mess,” he said.

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