- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 10, 2017

LEOMINSTER, Mass. (AP) - Unless you’re a professional chef, chances are Jayda Caldwell is a better cook than you.

And even if you are a professional chef, that’s no guarantee that you’ve also been a chef on TV like she has.

Currently a student at Fall Brook Elementary, Caldwell was recently able to put her passion for culinary arts to good use as a contestant on the fifth season of the Fox reality series “MasterChef Junior.”

“I was really excited, but first I was nervous because I wasn’t sure I’d make it that far,” she said. “I thought it would be a fun thing that would last a day then I wouldn’t be on it anymore.”

However, that didn’t end up being the case.

After several rounds of auditioning, where she competed alongside thousands of chefs between the ages of 8 and 13, Caldwell was selected for the show, which is set to air its first episode on Feb. 9.

This marked a high point for the Leominster 9-year-old, as she’s been progressively become more and more interested in cooking over the last few years.

“I used to watch my mom and my brother cook in the kitchen and one time I just asked my mom if I could help her cook and she said ‘sure’,” Caldwell said. “Then I started going into the kitchen when I’d get bored in the house and I’d start getting ideas for things to try to make.”

Although her mother, Nikki Caldwell, had initially kept a watchful eye over her daughter’s work, she said she’s given her more freedom as her skills have developed.

“At first I wasn’t so sure I wanted them in my kitchen,” she joked. “But then her brother started fooling around in there, he made a good meal, so I told them to keep going.”

Her older brother, Eric, also has interests in cooking, but served as a valuable taste tester for many of Caldwell’s creations. Of all his sister’s dishes, he said his favorite is her signature steak tips.

“She makes them so tender. You chew it and it melts in your mouth,” he said.

Caldwell’s journey to celebrity chef stardom began in January 2016 when she started the audition process for MasterChef Junior.

“They kept narrowing it down state by state and there were a few from Massachusetts, but she ended up being in the top 40 out of the thousands of kids,” her mother explained. “It was a long process.”

In the end, Caldwell was the youngest of six Massachusetts children who were chosen as contestants. Leading up to that, she explained that she had to go through a series of auditions that became progressively more difficult.

“For the first one you go into a kitchen with four or five other kids and they say you have to make a scrambled egg, then egg over easy, and then you have to cut celery,” she said.

This first round tested each applicant’s basic cooking ability, focusing on tasks like measuring ingredients and handling cutlery, Caldwell’s mother explained.

The second round of auditions was primarily an interview with the show’s staff, but the third audition gave Caldwell the chance to actually show how well she would do preparing a dish while on camera. For that task she prepared seasoned shrimp with guacamole dip.

While the weeks of filming did provide an exciting new experience, it also offered the opportunity to learn more about the art of cooking.

“Since I’ve been on the show, I really like to try different things, which is something I had to do,” Caldwell said.

Her mother said that she has expanded the range of dishes she likes to prepare and her skills have sharpened through the time spent on MasterChef Junior.

Though many children her age might say that getting to be on TV would be the best part of the experience, Caldwell said she most enjoyed getting to meet other kids from across the country with similar interests in cooking.

Once filming the show was completed, the Caldwells, as well as 30 other contestants and their families went on a 10 day vacation in St. Augustine, Florida together.

“We all talk regularly. We just went to a Christmas party at one of their houses,” said Nikki Caldwell. “We’ve connected with people who have become like a second family.”

Being a contestant also meant that Caldwell got the chance to meet celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay, who serves as one of the show’s judges.

“He was very nice to us. I always watch almost all his shows,” she said, later adding “He doesn’t really yell.”

A career like Gordon Ramsay’s is actually what Caldwell aspires to have some day, as she too hopes to own restaurants all over the world.

MasterChef Junior does end with one of its 40 contestants being chosen as the overall winner, but good luck trying to get anyone from the Caldwell family to tell you who won.

A series of non-disclosure agreements and other contracts mean their lips are sealed until the last episode airs.

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Information from: Sentinel & Enterprise (Fitchburg, Mass.), https://www.sentinelandenterprise.com

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