Though Tuesday was Election Day and the polls had just closed at Larson Elementary School, about 100 excited parents, students, teachers and guests sat in the darkened cafeteria, their eyes fixed on two giant TV screens.
They weren’t watching election returns. They were watching 11-year-old Jessica Stephens, a sixth-grader at the Arlington school district campus, mixing it up with 15 other contestants on MasterChef Junior, a prime-time high-pressure cooking show on Fox where elimination could be just a smoking skillet away.
“It was easier to watch it than to be there during the shooting, because then I was very nervous,” said Jessica, clad in the MasterChef apron bearing her first name. Matt and Anna Stephens stood nearby, smiling at their daughter’s newfound celebrity.
(Spoiler alert: Jessica lived to cook another week on MasterChef Junior on the strength of her chicken cacciatore with marinara and polenta.)
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MasterChef Junior pits competitors ages 8 to 13 against one another under the watchful eyes of celebrity chefs/judges Gordon Ramsay, Joe Bastianich, and Graham Elliot. Its second season premiered at 7 p.m. Tuesday.
“I started cooking when I was 6 years old,” Jessica said, adding that she “really took over the kitchen” two years ago when her mother was ill.
She and her sister Christina, now 16, compete in State Fair of Texas cooking contests, but early on, they competed against each other at home in Grand Prairie.
“We would have games, like who could cook this dish faster, or who could make that dish look the best,” said Jessica.
Jessica’s signature dish, handed down from her mother’s family, is a twist on tacos. Anna Stephens’ grandmother Carmen Herrera founded Granny’s Tacos in her home kitchen decades ago, and the business is still a popular north-side eatery in Fort Worth operated by Stephens’ cousin Roy Herrera.
“She makes it different, though,” Stephens said of her daughter. Jessica’s tacos include picadillo on a homemade flour tortilla.
Being on the show “brought out another side of me,” Jessica said. “Most people just know me as that nice person that sits over there, but they didn’t know me as a person who likes to cook.”
Early last year, Jessica answered an open call for would-be contestants on MasterChef Junior and ended up on the series, which tapes months in advance.
“I thought, ‘That would be perfect for me,’ and it was,” she said with a smile as appealing as buttercream on a cupcake. The time between the casting call and the acceptance call “went by like the blink of an eye,” Jessica said.
Naturally, the specifics of her journey are secret until the season finale airs.
What helped her take the heat and stay in the kitchen with a famously finicky chef like Ramsay?
“When they ask me to do something new, I’m the person that will try again and again until I get it right,” she said. “He’s nicer with the kids — he’s tough, but he doesn’t make you feel like he’s bullying you.”
“We are so proud of her,” said a beaming Larson Principal Teri Conley, who has sampled the fruits of Jessica’s talents for herself.
“She cooked for the teachers luncheon for our first week back,” Conley said. Jessica also baked cakes for the crowd at the screening Tuesday.
Natalie Pesenko, 11, has been best friends with Jessica “since we were born,” Natalie said as the girls exchanged hugs in the hallway. Natalie’s and Jessica’s parents are longtime friends.
“Sometimes I would cook with her,” said Natalie. “We’re used to hang out all the time.”
Maybe they can hang out at Jessica’s place when they’re grown.
“I want to own my own bistro,” said Jessica, “and I want to be my own chef.”