DOWNTOWN — When Kevin Cooper moved back to Englewood from Florida he was constantly busy balancing his job and working on his bachelor's degree.
So his son, Kaliq, 11, found a way to give dad a break when he began cooking most of the family meals.
"Once he learned how to cook, I stopped cooking," Kevin Cooper said with a laugh, as he waited with Kaliq and dozens of other aspiring young chefs hoping to appear on the next season of FOX's cooking competition, "MasterChef Junior."
The show features the country's top young chefs aged 8 to 13, who compete against each other and are judged by firebrand chef Gordon Ramsay, Chicago chef Graham Elliot and one of the restauranteurs behind Eataly, Joe Bastianich.
Kaliq first began learning to cook when he was 4 or 5 years old from his father. The first lesson wasn't actually for him: It was for his older brother, Kamal, but when he lost interest in the middle of the lesson, Kaliq picked it up instead.
"When my brother didn't want to learn how to cook I thought it would be a good idea to learn how to cook for myself, so I started learning," Kaliq said. Now Kamal depends on his younger brother when he gets hungry.
With 50 other young chefs vying for a spot on the show, Kaliq said he added a Tilapia recipe to his repertoire to help win over the judges and pursue his dream of owning his own restaurant one day.
The young chefs were grilled in groups of five, and asked to demonstrate their skills, showing the can chop, measure and cook, said Kristin Curtin, a casting producer for the show.
"We ask them questions about themselves and their hobbies or their families, just to get to know their personalities a little bit as well," Curtin said. "We really look for their passion."
The kids that make it on the show are usually incredibly passionate about cooking rather than just a hobby, she said. They practice at home, they cook for their families, they read about cooking, they watch cooking shows, Curtin said.
"With kids they always surprise you; especially with their talent. When kids come in and they're talking about sautéing and flambéing and braising beef ,and you're just like, 'Gosh, when I was 10, I didn't even know how to microwave popcorn without burning it,'" Curtin said. "It's always surprising to me to see what they're capable of doing because you don't imagine that an 8-year-old kid knows anything about braising beef, but they surprise us every time."
While the show will hold auditions in Los Angeles and Dallas next week, producers said Chicago's food culture makes it fertile ground for possible cast members.
"With Chicago there is really great flair here. There's deep-dish pizza and there's a lot of different ethnicities, different cultures and food types. We kind of want to see what the kids bring to us," said Curtin.
Patrick McCloskey, 11, from Downers Grove, said he hoped to impress the judges with his recipe for grilled pork tenderloin with apricot preserves and a watermelon salsa.
"It's about the food. I'll just do what they tell me to do and smile," he said.
"I helped out my dad when I was little and I didn't really get it, but my dad was doing it and I thought it was pretty cool," Souza said sounding confident his measuring and chopping skills learned helping his dad would help him stand out.
From the moment Beverly resident Kendall Dillon made pancakes after a sleepover as a 4-year-old, cooking has been his passion. Now the 10-year-old helps his mother with her business, Bon Manger Catering, located at 1973 West 111th Street.
He's even started his own cooking class for fourth graders every Wednesday at Johnnie Coleman Academy. In the first few weeks, he's taught them how to cook baked potatoes, pizza and parfaits.
Though, he learned about the competition Friday night he said he only needs to the show the judges "that I cook real well" and plans to demonstrate that by "cooking the best meal I've ever cooked."