And then there were 16. After auditioning with hundreds of other aspiring young cooks for the television series “MasterChef Junior,” Mark Coblentz of Starkville has baked, broiled and sauteed his way into the show’s top 16 junior home chefs from across the country. Airing Thursdays at 7 p.m. CST on Fox, the cooking competition for kids 8 to 13 presents weekly challenges. Two contenders are eliminated in each episode hosted and judged by Chefs Gordon Ramsay and Christina Tosi.
Mark, who turns 14 today, has survived several cuts already in Season Five — from the original 40 chosen to vie for coveted Top 20 aprons to his current status. The season premiered Feb. 9. This is not the Armstrong Middle School student’s first time on national TV. Readers may recall he was featured in The Dispatch Nov. 1, 2015, (“Kid Power”) as a contestant in the Food Network series “Chopped Junior.”
“So far, this journey has been awesome,” said Mark Monday. Filming, of course, wrapped some time ago in Los Angeles, but Mark can’t reveal results of the contest. He can share that one major highlight of the experience was Ramsay’s master class on how to prepare pan roasted sea bass with cauliflower puree in Episode 3. The junior cooks then had to replicate the dish.
“I really didn’t expect to learn from Chef Ramsay one-on-one; I was so surprised,” said Mark. “It required a lot of finesse in plating it.” The Coblentz family watched the show with friends at the Central Station Grill in Starkville.
Episode 4’s vegan challenge, with guest judge and vegan Mayim Bialik (“The Big Bang Theory”) may have been the most difficult aired so far, the ninth-grader said. “I’m not a vegan, and I’ve never eaten any vegan food.”
One of the most fun tasks, he said, was a team challenge, which will air Thursday.
Start them young
Mark has a strong support team. He can credit some of his early training to his grandmothers, Barbara Coblentz of Starkville and Sue Allen of Sturgis.
“When he was little, I would sit him up on the counter, and Sue did the same thing,” Barbara said. From an early age, Mark learned how to crack eggs, mix, make cookies, pie crusts and homemade breads and rolls.
“We always made ‘bear bread,'” his grandmother smiled. “We’d make yeast dough and shape it into a bear; we’d have the ears and paws, and use raisins for the eyes.” This past summer, Mark wanted to learn how to can, so Barbara tutored him in putting up peaches. He was a quick study.
“He’s quite a remarkable young man,” his grandparent said. “He knew a lot, but he’s learned even more. We’re proud of him.”
Mark’s mother, Bonnie Coblentz, accompanied her son to Los Angeles for early filming; later she and Mark’s father, Robbie, swapped places.
“It was quite an interesting experience. I was amazed,” Bonnie said. “They really work the kids; they had to do school there, and then the hours on the set. I was impressed with the work ethic of the kids.”
She was also impressed with the level of culinary talent, saying “every kid out there really can cook.” Getting to know the other contestants and their families was a treat.
“We basically lived together, and we’d go out to dinner every night,” Bonnie explained. “It was fun to listen to the kids having conversations about how much they enjoy cooking, and asking each other ‘have you ever cooked with this?'”
Mark sums up the adventure as “amazing” and “fun.” He’s made new friends to keep in touch with and gained skills to use in videos he will post to his website, markthechef.com or his Facebook page, facebook.com/Marktherealchef/.
Tune in to the show tomorrow to see how Mark and his fellow chefs-to-be handle the next challenge. As the season progresses, their ranks will thin until one among them is named America’s next “MasterChef Junior” and takes home a $100,000 grand prize.
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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