It all started with a chocolate fondue maker Levi Eirinberg got when he was 8 years old.
The gift sparked a hunger in Levi, now 13, to learn how to cook — a skill that landed the Highland Park culinary prodigy a spot on this season of “MasterChef Junior,” airing at 7 p.m. Tuesday on WFLD-Channel 32. He’s one of 16 young cooks hoping to win the $100,000 grand prize on the Fox show.
Just like in the grown-up version, kids compete in a series of food-related challenges to avoid weekly elimination. The aprons may be a few sizes smaller, the judges — including the infamously hotheaded Gordon Ramsay — a bit kinder, but the cuisine these children churn out is above a lot of adults’ pay grades. No peanut butter and jelly sandwiches need apply.
During the Chicago tryouts, Levi whipped up a winning pan-seared Scottish salmon with a mustard maple glaze accompanied by an apple, fennel and arugula salad.
“All of my learning is from YouTube and cooking shows,” said the Elm Place Middle School eighth-grader, who interned over the summer at Abigail’s American Bistro on the North Shore.
“I definitely want to be a chef and the owner of my own restaurant,” Levi said. “New American food, farm-to-table.”
His favorite dish to make? New York strip steak with a red wine reduction and crispy Dijon glazed Brussels sprouts.
Levi has two older brothers “who couldn’t even make themselves an omelet.” He said his mom is pretty good in the kitchen — at least she was before he took over.
“She doesn’t cook so much anymore because I make most of the dinners,” he said.
Fellow challenger Nasir Lomax, 11, also wields an unusual amount of control over the family menu, cooking an estimated three to four dinners a night in his Bronzeville home.
“My best dish is fish: tilapia with rice and carrots and broccoli,” Nasir said.
When he goes out to eat, the sixth-grader at STEM Magnet Academy likes to dig into a pie at Lou Malnati’s or a platter of bivalves at GT Fish and Oyster.
“I got into cooking because one day I was laying around the house and my mom didn’t want to make me any breakfast, so I made some eggs,” said the aspiring architect.
A self-taught cook, Nasir likes to experiment in the kitchen, “making my own masterpieces.” That category includes a pineapple hamburger with honey mustard sauce — the audition dish that won him a place on “MasterChef Junior.”
“It really didn’t feel like it was a competition — it was really fun,” said Nasir, who got so into it he sometimes forgot the cameras were rolling. “I was cooking and I burned myself and a cuss word accidentally slipped out.”