EDGEBROOK — Spending weeks being judged by restaurateurs and celebrity chefs has left Charlie Hans well-versed in glazes, garnishes and all kinds of culinary tricks beyond the vocabulary of most 11-year-olds.
Still, though, nothing beats a well-cooked burger.
Meat patties were Charlie's introduction to the kitchen, and his ticket to an audition for "MasterChef Junior," whose fifth season premieres on Fox Feb.9.
From the countertop in his Edgebrook home, the pre-teen kneaded a bowl of ground beef, threw in dashes of seasonings and chopped sweet peppers in a flurry of action. As his muscle memory kicked in, he chatted with his parents about Disney and visiting relatives.
"Shaboom!" the Edgebrook Public School fifth-grader called, leaning back from a neatly-assembled cheeseburger with outstretched arms.
Burgers and pancakes had always come easily to him, but he'd never expected them to get him on television. Then he started watching Gordon Ramsay.
Charlie was transfixed with the firebrand celebrity chef's shows, starting with "Hell's Kitchen," until his mom made him turn it off because of Ramsay's vulgar language and crass attitude, he said. But he couldn't be kept away.
"I always really liked how funny it is to see Gordon freak out," Charlie said. "And I liked the rush of seeing everyone compete to win. It made cooking look fund."
When Charlie and his parents found out that "MasterChef Junior" would be holding auditions in Chicago for its fifth season, they didn't hesitate. He enrolled in a cooking class to brush up on his skills, and he headed Downtown for an audition among hundreds of other kids ages 8-13.
When his dad got the call from a producer that he'd be among 40 kids flown to Los Angeles to compete, he "cried tears of excitement," he said.
The field will be cut in half after the first two episodes. From there, one or two contestants will be eliminated each episode, and the final winner gets $100,000 and a trophy.
The show was taped last year, but contestants aren't allowed to reveal how they fared until episodes air.
No matter how far he advanced on the show, Charlie came out of the experience with an acute pallet and a more adventurous attitude toward food, according to his dad, Marc Hans.
"Suddenly, all the things I always used to make, he was like 'This could use some salt,' or 'Why don't we add a lemon reduction,'"
Since the taping, the family has tried all kinds of new recipes together, from orange-glazed chicken to spinach pancakes.
But Charlie's cheeseburger is still his greatest creative outlet.
"Burgers are always super personal," he said. "I add a lot of veggies and different spices. I just like to experiment."
The Season 5 premiere of "MasterChef Junior" airs at 7 p.m. Feb. 9 on Fox-32 Chicago.