“It is truly extraordinary watching these kids so fearlessly walk into this giant kitchen,” says Leong . “The MasterChef kitchen is huge, for me, as a big kid, and then you see these 10-year-old, 11-year-old kids walk in there, who are tiny, and they absolutely dominate.
“It was very humbling for me, because the amount of joy and fearlessness kids cook with is inspiring. We lose some of that along the way as we pick up the baggage of being grown-ups. But when you don’t have that, you really truly can fly.”
Zonfrillo, however, puts the skills of junior contestants down to one thing: YouTube.
“We were saying to some of the kids, ‘How on earth did you manage to make an eclair with choux pastry? Was it your grandmother?’ And they turn around and go, ‘No, I learnt how to make it on YouTube. It’s like, ‘Yeah, of course.’
“Their access to learning and knowledge is so much greater than us and it’s repeatable. Unlike us, when we learnt something as kids, we’d get one crack at it – you’d hear it once on TV if you couldn’t record it – whereas they are just moving that dial back 60 seconds and watching it again until they get it right and understand it. We just didn’t have that.”
Zonfrillo also credits MasterChef, which originally started in Britain in 1990 as a Sunday afternoon TV staple, as being the ultimate family viewing and one that has lasting effects.
“I remember watching MasterChef as a kid and it was one of those shows you were allowed to watch as a family,” he says. “When you think of family viewing, there isn’t a huge amount you can watch together in that prime-time area. Whereas MasterChef ticks the boxes: the parents actually watch and engage with it, [and then] there’s a post-show engagement advantage – you watch the show with the kids, it becomes part of a ritual and afterwards there is a product of engagement that happens through a combination of the kids being excited about what they’ve seen or they fancy baking a cake. And I just love that.”
And if that “post-show engagement” results in more tears and tantrums than tortillas, Zonfrillo and Leong say it’s best to abide by the KISS principle: keep it simple stupid (or, more likely, stressed-out parent).
“My two-and-a-half-year-old is not going to be peeling carrots at the same speed as I am, or julienning celery,” says Zonfrillo. “But it’s important for you, as a parent, to understand that part of the learning process for a child is just to touch and feel and smell and taste. So if you’re chopping vegetables, give them some of each vegetable. Letting them take a nibble of it or just touching it, means they are learning.”
Leong, whose favourite thing to cook with her god-daughter Dion is pasta and sausages, agrees: “Whenever you’re cooking with kids, it’s always starting off to appreciate the basics of cooking and also be interactive and for it to be simple enough to be accessible and understood.”
To that end, Leong suggests “starting small” – she and Dion have always picked herbs together, while Leong also remembers “squishing the mince for dumpling fillings” when she was in the kitchen with her mum.
“That way you can see all the different ingredients before they are all brought together and you have the tactile nature of something that’s really fun and interactive and easy to achieve.” says Leong. “It’s a successful result because you can see what you’re doing.”
And what if you have picky teenagers in your life, what’s the best way to get them interested in food?
“The important thing with your kids is to actually engage with them about the foods they want to eat,” says Zonfrillo. “It’s pointless if your daughter is bordering on being vegetarian, if you’re trying to cook a daube of beef or a casserole, you’re just not going to have much engagement. Whether you like it or not, it’s just not going to happen for you.”
For those who have children obsessed with eating flour – OK, my child – Zonfrillo advises on giving them their own bowl of flour and some water with which to make a not-so-sticky dough and then a child-size rolling pin with which to roll out the dough and then shape cutters to get stuck in with.
“You’re cooking with them but not in a way that frustrates you,” he says. “That’s the key to having a great relationship with your kids in the kitchen. Because the moment you are frustrated, just step back and think, ‘How can I not get frustrated?’ As soon as you whip that out [the child-friendly dough], you’ll have a ball and your kids will engage with you on such a different level. It’s brilliant.”
And in the pursuit of balance, what about grown-ups in the kitchen? Does our kid-in-residence Dion have any advice for them?
“Don’t burn the toast,” says Dion, sitting beside her mum Jo Gamvros on a video call.
Surely a motto we can all stand to live by.
Junior MasterChef premieres on Ten, Sunday, 7.30pm
Louise is Editor of S and TV Liftout at The Sun-Herald. She also hosts the SMH and Age podcast The Televisionaries.