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'MasterChef Junior' Contestant From River North Wants To Build An 'Empire'

By David Matthews | January 26, 2017 5:59am
 Avani Shah, 9, said she developed her love for cooking making pancakes with her dad. Now she's vying for a six-figure prize on network television.
Avani Shah, 9, said she developed her love for cooking making pancakes with her dad. Now she's vying for a six-figure prize on network television.
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RIVER NORTH — Avani Shah has cooked for the famously tempestuous Gordon Ramsay, but work in the kitchen is much more stressful when her brother is around.

"It's not as relaxing," she said.

Avani, 9, is one of 40 young chefs vying for Ramsay's adoration and $100,000 in the new season of "MasterChef Junior," which premieres Thursday night on Fox. 

Now a fourth-grader at the British International School-Lincoln Park, Avani developed her love for cooking while making pancakes with her dad on weekends. She's since graduated to Indian cuisine such as Aloo poori (potatoes with fried puffed bread), or anything else she sees the stars make on TV.

"She definitely didn't learn it from me; my recipe book is all the delivery services out there," said Avani's mother, Rohini. "It’s amazing to see her so passionate about something so early on."

Avani, of River North, auditioned for the show in late 2015 at a "fancy hotel" Downtown, where she chopped celery and kept conversation with judges as the cameras rolled. She made it to the second round, where she made the judges potato pancakes. 

Then her parents got the call to fly to Los Angeles for taping, which lasted from March to May. Avani couldn't tell her friends or classmates about the show, but teachers assigned her homework from afar. 

Avani said Ramsay, who's famous for his televised meltdowns, was always "really caring" on the set.

"He wants us to do the best we can," she said. 

The show's first episode will divide the 40 contestants into cooking teams. Only half of them will make it to the next episode. 

The season premiere doesn't air till 7 p.m., and Avani's family can't say how well she did. But she learned a lot of new tricks, saw the famous sights in L.A., and has hung out with fellow contestants across the country since taping ended. 

"I think that’s the most friends I made in that amount of time ever," Avani said. "They really supported me and I supported them." 

Avani has aspirations beyond cooking pancakes for her dad. She loves cooking ("it's a form of expression"), but aims to get a business degree in college so she can be like her hero: Candace Nelson, whose Sprinkles Cupcakes chain spawned a nationwide cupcake craze and a show on the Food Network. 

"She built an empire," Avani said. 

The season premiere debuts at 7 p.m. Feb. 9 on Fox. Other competitors from Chicago include Charlie Hans, 9, of Edgebrook; Evan Robinson, 10, of Hyde Park; and Na'imah Johnson, 11, of Beverly. 

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