From left: Jayden Ingalls, Thomas Reyna, Neko Masi, and Nayeli Mendoza competed on Masterchef Junior, which will begin airing on March 5. Credit: Courtesy / MasterChef Junior

Countless cooks dedicate their lives to their craft, though not many get to train under the likes of Gordon Ramsay, Christina Tosi, or Aarón Sánchez. But four San Antonio-area kids learned cooking chops from the celebrity chefs last year.

Next month, viewers across the nation will watch four young locals compete on MasterChef Junior. The Fox network reality cooking show brings together chefs between the age of 8 and 13 and celebrity chefs Ramsay, Tosi, and Sánchez, who judge and coach them in different culinary challenges. At the end of the season, one young chef is crowned the new MasterChef Junior and takes home $100,000.

The four young chefs taped for more than two months last year. Though the contestants know who emerged as the new MasterChef Junior, they declined to give the Rivard Report any hints about the show’s outcome.

Thomas Reyna, a 13-year-old from Boerne, not only loves to cook but also runs his own business sharpening knives for friends and family members. After accumulating a considerable knife collection and asking for a forge for Christmas, he delved into the world of blacksmithing.

“My mom heard about how some people pay like $8 a knife for sharpening,” Thomas said. “I learned how to sharpen them really good. And then I was like, I could’ve just made $8 right now! So it just kind of happened.”

Nayeli Mendoza also runs her own business. Her mom, Denise, said her daughter started Nay-Loves Bakery when she was 7.

“She’s been baking since she was 4,” Denise Mendoza said. “My husband and I are realtors, and she started baking for open houses. Family and friends started ordering, and she decided to make it an official business. She buys her own inventory, and she puts [any profit she makes] back into baking.”

Nayeli has been watching the show, now in its seventh season, since she was 4 years old. She’s 10 now, and said she learned how to cook from her mom and grandma. She likes baking best, though, and said she loved working with Milk Bar founder Tosi while on the show.

“She inspires me a lot because she’s a baker, and she teaches me,” Nayeli said. “I go through her cookbooks sometime. She’s a girl, and it reminds me of girl power, that girls can do stuff, too.”

Neko Masi said her passion lies in baking, too. Speaking from her San Antonio home, the 12-year-old described the macarons that were baking in the oven — Tahitian, vanilla, rose, and lavender with clotted cream. Now, she’s working on a homemade toaster strudel recipe.

“I love toaster strudel,” Neko said. “You can put your own fillings in it like pumpkin pie or caramel apple, or maybe peppermint latte or rose. One of my favorite things about being a baker is experimenting with flavors. I’m not a standard cook when it comes to baking. I go really off [the beaten path] – rose, lavender, orange blossom.”

Thomas said he prefers cooking meat over “sweet stuff.”

“I think it may just be personal preference. And also because I like knowing that if something went wrong … [if there was] a zombie apocalypse, I could go outside … and provide for myself,” he explained.

Jayden Ingalls likes to marry sweet and savory flavors, a palate he attributes to his Hawaiian roots. The 13-year-old chef’s favorite restaurant inSan Antonio is L&L Hawaiian Barbecue on Austin Highway because “it’s Hawaiian, and I’m Hawaiian.” He recommended ordering the short ribs.

“Even if it’s not located in Hawaii, it still has a lot of passion from Hawaii,” he said. “A Hawaiian grill in San Antonio may not turn out as well as you think, but it does.”

Jayden said getting to meet and learn from Ramsay, known for his sharp tongue and no-holds-barred critique on his shows Hell’s Kitchen and Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares, was incredible. Ramsay keeps his tone much warmer for the young competitors.

“He’s made a big impact on my life,” Jayden said. “When I grow up, I definitely want [to] open up my own restaurant. I’m just so inspired by him, that I could use some of his techniques and become that professional chef I always wanted to be.”

Neko said she was surprised when she met the British celebrity chef for the first time. “He is really, really tall,” she said. “We were just looking up at him and thinking ‘Please don’t hurt us,’ but he’s actually really nice.’

She practices Irish dancing for several hours a day, and was able to show Ramsay that skill as well. “I got to dance for him! I think he told me, ‘Do you do Irish dance?’ So I did my treble wheel for him, and he tried to do it. It was crazy. I’m dancing for Gordon Ramsay. He acknowledged me!”

Thomas also spends a significant portion of his time outside of the kitchen training; the young chef holds regional and state titles in gymnastics. He doesn’t have ambitions to own a restaurant, but he does want to cook for people in the future.

“My career [goal] is to be in gymnastics through college, and having a side job making knives and sharpening knives,” he said. “And then after college I’m going to be a Navy SEAL, and hopefully own a ranch and have a dude ranch where people can come and learn how to hunt, and fish, and cook their food, and at the end of the day get together around the campfire and eat food. It’s not even going to feel like work.”

Though they started as competitors, the four chefs became good friends. They still keep in touch regularly through a group chat, Neko said.

“We have this little friend band – me, Thomas, Jayden, and Nayeli,” Neko said. “We all live in the area and we go to Sea World and all these different places. It’s so cool. We became best friends five minutes after we met.”

The seventh season of MasterChef Junior premieres Tuesday, March 12. The show is headed to Houston on Feb. 23 to cast the next round of competitors and will bring its cooking camp to Houston in July. Find more information here.

Avatar photo

Jackie Wang

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.