What does Emmy Sumpter credit for her win on Food Network’s Chopped Junior this past October? Was it her early start helping mom, Erica, in the kitchen? Or the many trips they took to the grocery store searching for new and interesting ingredients? Perhaps it was the at-home cooking competitions.
All these factors played a role, but so did something unexpected: her participation in the local youth theater organization, SPARC. As Erica describes it, because of her confidence and improvisation skills, Emmy’s participation in Chopped Junior seemed as much a theatrical performance as a cooking competition.
When Emmy was about six years old, she started helping her mom in the kitchen – cutting, seasoning, and prepping ingredients for their meals. A personal chef, Erica cooked often and encouraged her sons, now twenty and twenty-two, and Emmy, now eleven, to participate.
At eight, Emmy, a pescatarian who eats fish, but no meat, could cook salmon poached in butter, basil, lemon, and asparagus. She even earned the title of the family’s best egg maker. “It was really fun,” Emmy says of those early experiences. “Cooking was something I could
do on my own.”
Already a cooking pro at a young age, Emmy made her own lunches and continued to help her mom in the kitchen. She also took classes to improve her skills at Williams Sonoma, Sur la Table, and Southern Season.
In 2016, Emmy came across a casting call for Chopped Junior and sent in her resume and a video of her cooking. That led to a phone call with Food Network executives and an invitation to participate in one of their episodes. “I was so excited to have a chance to cook on the show,”
To prepare for the competition, Emmy and her mom made dishes at home for the whole family. Modeling their at-home competitions after the actual show, her father put random ingredients in a basket for Emmy and Erica to use to create a meal. The family members didn’t know who had prepared what when they voted for their favorite. “Emmy usually won,” admits Erica. “She was always very much in her zone.”
In late January 2017, 10-year-old Emmy and her mom traveled to New York City for three days of filming. During the filming, she competed against three other kids – all of whom were two years older – on the episode titled “Stick With It!” involving food on a stick.
Although the contestants only got thirty minutes to complete each challenge, they were on set for about thirteen hours each day. For her first round, Emmy was given button mushrooms, shishito peppers, a corn dog, and tortellini. Out of that random assortment, Emmy created a burger bite that drew praise for its seasoning – pretty amazing considering Emmy doesn’t eat meat and hadn’t even tasted her creation.
For the second round, Emmy was given heirloom tomatoes, cake pops, filet mignon, and baby zucchini. “That one was harder,” she says because of the sweetness of the cake pop. She ended up creating a kebab and tomato salad with a cake pop smear with herbs on the side.
For the third round, Emmy was given a brownie, raspberries, marshmallows, and chocolate-covered bananas. She cut the brownie in half, roasted the marshmallow with a torch, sliced the banana and layered it on top, and then added the other half of the brownie. She put a stick through that and created a raspberry sauce. “The judges liked the raspberry sauce,” Emmy says. “They said it was well-balanced.”
Overall, Emmy was happy with the feedback the judges gave her, but she says the judges talked for much longer on the set than than they do on the television show. “They tried to encourage the kids,” says Erica, “and told them to persevere and stick to their beliefs about what worked, regardless of the judges’ responses.”
After three grueling days, Emmy had received enough praise and high marks to beat out her three 12-year-old competitors. “I was really proud of myself,” she says of the experience. “It was amazing!” Because of the confidentiality agreement they signed, however, Emmy and her mom couldn’t tell anyone what had happened or who had won. Considering the filming happened in late January and the episode didn’t air until October, they had to keep a secret for a very long time.
While Emmy’s experience performing with SPARC helped her stay calm throughout the competition, her natural focus and maturity also played a role. Cynthia Beausang, one of Emmy’s teachers at St. Catherine’s, says she is impressed by Emmy’s poise. “One time,” Beausang says, “we had just come back from an exhausting, fun-filled field trip, and Emmy offered to lead us in meditation. We all spread out on the floor, and she calmly led us. It was just what the class needed.”
Emmy hopes to cook on TV again on the Chopped Junior championship round, but in the meantime, she stays busy, using her experience on the show as a platform for helping the Richmond community. In February, she was the keynote speaker for The Children’s Business Fair’s launch party at Mama J’s, and she donated the fee to Anna Julia Cooper Episcopal School, St. Catherine’s sister school, which provides full-tuition scholarships to fourth through eighth graders in Richmond’s East End. She is planning to donate some of her winnings from Chopped Junior to FeedMore. This month, Emmy will cut the ribbon for the Children’s Business Fair at the Science Museum of Virginia.
At home, Emmy and Erica continue to cook together. She and Erica go on “food tours” throughout Richmond, seeking the best French fries, donuts, and other favorite foods. She dreams of one day working as an actress or model; among her many accomplishments, she won a national modeling contract last year. Emmy would also love to continue with her cooking and either teach cooking or work as a professional chef.
In January of 2016, another Richmonder, Claire Hollingsworth, won the pilot episode of Chopped Junior, beating out three other kids, including another young cook from Richmond, Emily Waters. At the time, Claire was only nine years old, and she remains the youngest to have ever won the show.
Before participating in Chopped Junior, Claire had auditioned to be on a show with Rachael Ray. That didn’t pan out, but later, the
Food Network approached Ann Butler, CEO and founder of the culinary school Edible Education, looking for kids for a new cooking competition. She recommended both Claire and Emily, who had participated in camps and classes there. “Claire blew us away with her cooking talent,” Butler says. “She was always asking good questions.”
Like Emmy Sumpter, Claire started helping her parents in the kitchen at an early age. By the time she was three, she was helping prep and mix foods. At six, she started working on her knife skills. At seven, she was working on stovetop cooking, and at eight, she was using the oven.
By the time she was nine, Claire was ready for prime time! She and her dad traveled to New York to film the first episode of Chopped Junior in August 2015. It was an adventure getting there, Claire jokes, with a cancelled flight and then a train trip without their luggage, but they eventually made it.
Before filming, Claire felt nervous. Her dad reassured her, however, telling her she just needed to have fun. While on the show, Claire coined the phrase, “I’m nerv-ited!” This combination of the words “nervous” and “excited,” “nerv-ited” perfectly expressed how she felt.
During the first round, the “nerv-ited” contestant worked with clams, hot dogs, Japanese mayo, and shrimp chips. Out of that assortment, she created the clamwich. She had never cooked clams before, but as it turned out, she had nothing to worry about. The judges’ only complaint was that there wasn’t enough.
The second round, however, was very nearly a disaster. The ingredients in her basket included rib-eye steak, whipped cream, and yuzu juice. “The juice and cream stuck to the pan,” Claire says, “so I scraped it off into a plumcot relish.” Then, in what could have ended her chances of winning, Claire nearly dropped her steak on the floor. Fortunately, she again recovered and was able to keep cooking. Then, she almost ran out of time. Thankfully, her friend and competitor Emily, came to the rescue and helped her plate everything.
This time, despite the near misses, the judges gave her additional compliments. They said her mashed potatoes were a little too sticky, but they loved the spices she used on the steak. That feedback encouraged her to develop the seasonings she now sells on her website, clairescookinglab.com. The judges were also impressed that Claire had created a complete meal. “My mom had talked about making sure I had a protein, a vegetable, a starch, sauce, and seasoning,” Claire says.
For the dessert round, Claire created bread pudding, a family favorite, out of a list of ingredients that included champagne grapes and a gummy crab atop a vanilla cupcake. “The judges were in love with it,” Claire says, “especially because it was fresh and not just artificial.”
While it seems intimidating to turn an unknown slate of food items into a recipe, Claire was prepared for the challenge. During her training, she learned how to taste the ingredients, identify the flavor profile, and figure out how they related to the ingredients she had experience with and knew well. That preparation enabled her to improvise and develop recipes on the fly.
Then Claire received another exciting call from the Food Network. This time, they had chosen sixteen of the Chopped Junior champions for a special round of competitions. Claire traveled back to New York to film again. For that episode, which aired June 13, 2016, Claire made it to the final round but finished as runner-up. Though she didn’t win, Claire stays in touch with executives at the Food Network and hopes to continue inspiring kids to cook. One of her many dreams includes hosting a show that makes the science of cooking fun and interesting.
In the meantime, Claire is pursuing another dream: creating and selling products that help kids in the kitchen. She recently developed oven mitts that easily fit the hand of a child or small adult and reach above the elbow. Made from materials used in firefighting gear, the No-Fear Oven Sleeves help reduce the fear parents might have when their kids are working with heat. “Nothing like this exists,” says Claire’s mom, Christina. “If it had, I would have bought it when Claire first started cooking.”
A Kickstarter campaign for that product will launch this spring. Claire is looking to partner with a charity for that sale in an effort to help reduce childhood hunger. Because many women like to wear the No-Fear Oven Sleeves, Claire is also one of the headliners during the Southern Women’s Show at the Richmond Raceway Complex this month.
On her website, Claire also sells an adjustable teaspoon, seasonings, and cooking-related t-shirts. In addition, she is working with Revolution Foods to promote healthy school lunches. “Claire’s pretty ambitious,” says Christina, “but we’re really focused on one project at a time.” During the summer, they get projects started so they can keep things moving during the school year. Claire is a seventh-grader
at Midlothian Middle School. “There are so many good ideas,” says Christina. “We just try things and see how they go. What’s the worst that can happen?”
That willingness to let the chips fall where they may has served Claire well throughout her cooking journey. “Most kids are too afraid of making a mistake,” says Butler. “Not Claire – she is fearless, and that is huge… she was always saying, ‘what if?’. Many foods came about by accident, including brownies, so it’s important to not worry too much.” And what happens if you do make a mistake in the kitchen? As Christina has always reminded Claire, “It’s okay. You just throw it out and order pizza.”
With no planning on my part, my 13-year-old has become the chief baker of the family. When she’s looking for something to do, I tell her to find an appealing recipe in a cookbook, and voila … about forty-five minutes later, the house smells like cookies, and I have not stepped foot in the kitchen.
If you’d like to make yourself a little less necessary in the kitchen – and prepare your kids for adulthood – you can help children learn their way around the kitchen. Ann Butler of Edible Education, and an influence on Chopped Junior winner Claire Hollingsworth, recommends starting early.
When your child is about four, Butler suggests, take him to the grocery store and have him pick out the weirdest thing he can find in the produce section. Then figure out what to cook with it. That brings us to another important point: If kids are preparing food, they’ll be more inclined to try it. So, let them help you figure out the best way to fix a less-desirable veggie.
Jenny West, who teaches cooking classes for adults and kids at Mise en Place, says it’s important to let your kids engage in age-appropriate tasks. “I have 4- and 6-year-old boys,” West says, “and they love to be up on the counter doing anything they can get their hands in.”
West believes in letting kids learn different skills under observation. At age five, kids can start cutting with safety knives or heavy-duty lettuce knives. “It’s cool for them to experience using tools,” she says, though she also emphasizes the importance of age-appropriate utensils. Her older son particularly enjoys peeling carrots when he gets home from school.
When kids are about six, Butler says they’re ready to set the table, and when they reach age seven, you can introduce measuring skills, including fractions. When she works with students, West likes to emphasize the need for math. “I talk about how I didn’t love math as a kid,” she says, “but now I use it to double recipes or to calculate the cost of ingredients.”
Kids ages nine, ten, and eleven can begin executing entire dishes on their own, says Butler. “If they come up with weird combinations of foods,” she says, “let them do it and figure it out.” Have them smell and taste everything so they understand the flavor profile.
For West, cooking with her kids works better when she loosens up and lets them take ownership. That means being okay with a little mess. I often tell my kids, “We made this mess together, so help me clean it up.” That teaches an important lesson in follow-through.
Beyond math, West finds that many life lessons emerge when she teaches cooking. For instance, some things don’t turn out exactly how they should have – an important part of cooking and life. West reminds her students that we can learn from our failures, figuring out what went wrong and how to do it better the next time.
If your kids really show interest in cooking, there are ways to foster that interest. Butler recommends letting kids host a bake sale or cook for the swim team concession stand. West suggests parents find someone – a relative or cooking instructor – who can take them to the next level. “Or go to the library,” she says, “and check out cookbooks so you can try new recipes at home.” Of course, there are also a ton of helpful cooking how-tos online.
And keep in mind that if your child wants to cook professionally, he doesn’t have to go to culinary school right away. “When they’re sixteen,” Butler says, “they can get a job washing dishes at a small, local restaurant, and the staff will eventually teach them how to cook.” Both RVA chefs agree: Whether you’re trying to raise the next Julia Child or just ensuring someone else can take over dinner duty every now and then, the time you spend teaching your child to cook will reap many benefits.
Photos: Jason DeCrow, Scott Gries, Rexford Studios