Marti Shavor is one lucky mom. There aren’t too many 12-year-olds who can help put dinner on the table on busy school nights.
And not just popular kid favorites like mac & cheese, pizza or hot dogs. Her son, Drew, is more apt to prepare the family a chicken in a creamy white wine sauce entree with a side of roasted potatoes and green beans. For dessert, he whips up a chocolate lava cake.
“Drew started baking with his grandmother when he was 4 and his interest just grew from that,” the proud mother says in explaining her son’s early attraction to the culinary arts.
By the time he was 5 or 6, the precocious youngster was a devotee of “Chopped Junior,” a reality show on Food Network that pits one adolescent chef against the other in a cooking competition.
“He was just fascinated with that show and loved watching the kids cook,” Marti remembers. “It inspired him.”
A few years later, after honing his skills at home and taking a couple of cooking classes at Taste Buds Kitchen in Southlake, the sixth-grader at Bear Creek Intermediate felt ready to join other contestants on “Chopped Junior.” Several applications and a battery of lengthy telephone and Skype interviews later, the Keller resident was chosen to compete against three peers in a Season 6 episode titled “Play Nice With Spice.” The show aired locally Oct. 17.
“I watch Food Network every day,” says Drew, who looks up to five-star chefs Michael Symon, Bobby Flay and Alex Guarnaschelli. “For the kid shows, I think you need several years of experience preparing different foods.”
Exposed to a wealth of unusual recipes thanks to Blue Apron, a meal-kit delivery service his family sometimes orders, the confident youngster warned competitors, “The judges have never seen sophistication like this, so watch out!” at the beginning of the show.
Given a 30-minute time limit, the contestants had to create a spicy appetizer with “must use” ingredients that included Scotch Bonnet peppers, cucumber kimchi, crawfish tails and bluefoot mushrooms. Additional items, available from a well-stocked pantry and fridge, provided extra “oomph” to their creations.
“I ran down to the pantry and found some apple cider vinegar, oranges, Napa cabbage, spinach, olive oil and cayenne pepper,” says Drew, who fashioned the different elements into a tasty salad. “I try to make recipes that are healthy but also taste good.”
Used to cooking with different peppers and unusual spices, the native Texan wasn’t fazed by the required use of Scotch Bonnet peppers — one of the hottest chili peppers in the world. The inventive foodie only sauteed a corner of the pepper with mushrooms for his crawfish salad recipe, hoping to create a palatable amount of heat.
“Spice is in my blood so I can handle the heat in the ‘Chopped’ kitchen,” Drew quipped as he quickly prepared his dish during the competition.
A piano student and choir member, the Keller middle schooler was the “artistic” component on the four-person lineup of junior chefs. The 10-year-old daughter of a chef from Virginia, a 12-year-old thrill-seeking boy from Manhattan and an 11-year-old girl athlete from Ohio also vied for the $10,000 in prize money awarded to the winner of the episode.
“Playing the piano and cooking have a lot of common because both are art,” Drew explains. “Cooking builds your confidence and it’s just something fun to do. I’d definitely encourage kids to try it.”
Producers of reality shows, like “Chopped Junior,” strive for diversity when it comes to casting.
“They are very intentional about the mix of kids they put in each show,” says Marti, who had to list her son’s hobbies and achievements along with a non-professional photo with the application. “They’re looking for different personalities to create a good dynamic.”
Months went by and the Shavors didn’t hear from the show. But a determined Drew asked his mom to resubmit the form. This time a casting agent responded in three days and was charmed after speaking with the young theater enthusiast. During the screening process, Marti Shavor was interviewed and was asked to video her son cooking.
His watermelon, kalamata olive, mint and feta cheese appetizer, with a drizzle of balsamic glaze, helped win him a spot on the show.
“I wanted to do something creative they had never seen before,” Drew explains. “The dish has a lot of bright colors I thought would look good on a Skype interview.”
Cooking skills are important.
“But the producers want someone who will not be afraid in front of the camera,” Marti adds. “They told us that over and over.”
Filming the episode in a New York City studio last December took 12 hours. The first set was a beautiful gourmet kitchen where Drew was filmed making his signature chicken dish. Shots of him playing the piano and drawing were also taped for use in the show.
Contestants later toured the actual studio where the competition takes place.
“It was really fun to see in person what I had watched for years on TV,” Drew says. “The set looks much bigger on TV.”
Because the taping was done in early December, the mother and son enjoyed seeing the Big Apple and Rockefeller Plaza decorated for the holidays. Neither had visited New York before.
The only downside of the experience was the imposed silence demanded by the show. Drew and his parents, Marti and Joe, couldn’t tell a soul he competed on “Chopped Junior.” The moratorium lasted nine months. If the confidentiality agreement was broken, the Shavor family could face a lawsuit.
During that time, the Keller youngster bonded with the other kids on the show through the internet. They couldn’t discuss the show with anyone else, but they could talk to each other. Those friendships continue.
“We Skype every month to talk about what we’ve been cooking,” Drew explains. “After the episode aired, we kind of analyzed how it went.”
Drew was the first contestant “chopped” from the group. Judges told the Keller “tween” that his spicy salad was full of flavor but lacked a sufficient amount of crawfish and mushrooms. His first-round elimination was a disappointment, “but just having an opportunity to be on the show is a win,” Drew says philosophically. “That was my overall goal so I’m proud of myself.”
A fan of Tex-Mex, Japanese and American classic cuisine, the budding chef hopes to take more professional cooking classes. He’s also trying to get on another show — “Food Network Star Kids.”
“You still have to audition, but the producers actually encourage you to try for another show if you’ve already been on one,” Drew points out.
The legal process to allow a minor on a television show is daunting, and his parents had to sign an incredible number of documents and permits.
“Once you’ve done that, it’s an advantage,” Marti explains. “Producers have all that information, so it’s easier on their end.”
Drew didn’t win the prize money or become a “Chopped Junior” champion, but there were other rewards.
“I was so lucky to meet the group of kids that I did,” he says. “If other kids want to get on a cooking show, I’d tell them not to give up. You may have to apply more than once, but keep trying.”
The food aficionado may become a full-fledged chef someday but there are still other occupations to consider. Until he makes that the decision, Drew is satisfied cooking for his parents and younger brother, Nick — his biggest fan and chief taster.
As for his role as the family’s personal chef: “It makes my mom’s life a little easier so I like that.”
Drew’s favorite recipes:
1 12-ounce bag of fresh cranberries
2 tangerines, peeled
1 cup sugar
Blend together in food processor until finely chopped and well combined. Cover and store in fridge for 48 to 72 hours before serving.
Chicken with white wine cream sauce
1 1.2-ounce packet of McCormick’s fajita seasoning mix
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
1 medium onion, chopped
1/2 cup dry white wine
1/2 cup heavy cream
Parsley for garnish
Use half the packet of seasoning mix to coat the chicken breasts. Drizzle skillet with oil and add butter. Heat pan to medium high. Add chopped onion and cook until translucent. Then lower the heat and continue cooking until caramelized. When the onions are a deep golden brown, remove from pan and set aside. Turn heat back up to medium high and add chicken breasts. Cook 4-5 minutes per side and then remove from pan. Turn off the heat and add the wine to the pan, scraping up any brown bits from the bottom. Turn heat back on to medium and add remaining spice mix, whisking to combine. Let wine and seasoning mixture simmer until reduced by half. Add heavy cream and whisk to combine. Return chicken and onions to the pan and cook 3-4 minutes, turning once. Plate chicken and drizzle sauce over top. Serve with roasted potatoes and green beans or your favorite side dishes.