Top Chef Junior, the cooking competition that spun off from the immensely popular Top Chef last year, will return to the airwaves in September. Among the 12 contestants, ages 11 to 14, who competed for top honors during filming last spring was Ventura local Carson Peterson. A 13-year-old student at Cabrillo Middle School who just started eighth grade last week, Peterson will be shown baking, braising and broiling against 11 other talented young chefs during the show’s second season, which starts on Sept. 8 on Universal Kids. He took time out of his busy schedule to talk to the VCReporter about his love of cooking, favorite foods, greatest influences and more.
VCR: When did you start cooking?
Carson Peterson: I started cooking around 4 or 5. I’d stand at the counter and watch my mom [Kristine Peterson] and Nonna [Andrea]. I definitely remember my nonna making her pasta from scratch, her raviolis. I remember the feel of the dough, and the flour being everywhere.
When did you start being able to contribute in the kitchen?
At 8 I was in there helping and actually being kind of a sous chef. For instance, if she was making the pie dough, I’d help her with the filling.
What are some dishes your grandmother made that you enjoyed?
Definitely her sauce. She won’t share that with anyone but family. The pasta takes a whole day to make. She gave me the recipe. The thing I really liked about it is that it’s been passed down — it was her mother’s mother’s cooking. I saw that cooking brought tradition with it, and that really pushed me to become a chef.
What sorts of foods do you like to cook?
I really enjoy making classic French food. I made a coq au vin, which is chicken braised in wine. And I’ve made duck a l’orange. I was probably around 10. One of my dishes is fish en papillote (fish cooked in parchment paper). I started leaning more towards classic French as I got older, that really interests me. I like the flavors. But I still cook Italian.
At what point did your parents realize that you were really talented in the kitchen? Was there a particular meal or dish that surprised them?
I think I started realizing it in myself, maybe a year and a half ago. I was taking more time to cook than doing other things, like going outside. I think my parents noticed long before.
Were there any dishes you made that really surprised your family?
I made a confit byaldi, from [the film] Ratatouille. . . .The confit byaldi was made by Thomas Keller. Eggplant, tomato and zucchini are sliced on a mandolin and slow-roasted for about two hours with a sauce on top. And then they’re plated in a ring mold — it’s a really beautiful dish.
What does it take to get on Top Chef Junior?
I think the most important thing is determination and confidence. During the audition process, you’re waiting and waiting for a call. You have to maintain a certain amount of confidence in order to carry on. You also really need to be good — you need to know what you’re doing, have proper knife skills, understand technique.
What was the process like?
The first audition was an open casting call. We went to a hotel in Los Angeles. It was a bunch of kids in the L.A. area. We went into a room where they asked us a lot of questions. We had to demonstrate knife skills and we had a written test as well. I got the call back, and then I had to do some demos. They gave me a mystery bag [of ingredients to cook with].
What did you do to prepare for the competition?
I started really brushing up on my techniques and knowledge of food. I was confident in my flavors, that’s something I’d already been good at. So it was reading up on the classic cookbooks and doing research.
What sources did you rely on?
I used a lot of Julia Child’s cookbooks. Jacques Pépin. I have two sets of Thomas Keller cookbooks, with a lot of French-inspired dishes, that I really look to. I asked my dad [Calvin] to time me because I had to learn time management.
What do you think distinguishes someone who likes to cook from someone who can succeed on a cooking competition?
I’d say that the No. 1 thing is that you don’t just want to cook or like to cook — you have to cook. It almost becomes an addiction. You have to make something at least every few days. It’s a lot of drive and determination. If you have that and you put that all into cooking, I think that makes a difference.
Are there cooking shows and competitions that inspire you?
That’s really the only thing that ever comes on our TV, except for movies for my little sister [4-year-old Cara]. I watch a lot of Iron Chef America — that’s one of my favorite shows. Top Chef, Master Chef, Meet Bobby Flay.
Which chefs do you admire, and why?
I really admire Alton Brown. He’s just so knowledgeable — any question you can ask him, he has the answer. Curtis Stone — I’ve always wanted to go to Maude, which he recently opened [in Beverly Hills in 2014]. And of course Julia Child. Jacques Pépin, a really classic chef. I also really like Tiffany Derry — she has a really intriguing cooking style. [Ed. Note: Tiffany Derry is one of the judges on Top Chef Junior]
Tell us about some of your favorite foods.
I don’t have one particular favorite food. I really like macarons. I’m actually going to make some after this interview. One of my cravings is pho, Vietnamese noodle soup. It’s so comforting, I just love eating it. Moqueca, or Brazilian seafood stew. I love Asian cuisine as well. I love all cuisines, really. Bouillabaisse and cioppino. I like ramen — there’s a great restaurant in Ventura, Kao Ramen by Mama. And homemade rigatoni — we have that every year at Christmas. That’s kind of a Nonna thing — she still likes to make it.
Anything else you’d like to share with us?
I’m actually going to intern at Slate [Bistro in Camarillo] with Executive Chef Abdu Romero. He was the private chef for Will Smith for two years. I also have been looking to get an internship at Café Ficelle — I love that place! The atmosphere is great, and you can just go up to the counter to talk to the baker. I love that.
Top Chef Junior, Season 2, airs on Saturday, Sept. 8, at 6 p.m. on Universal Kids. For more information, visit www.universalkids.com/shows/top-chef-junior. Follow Carson Peterson on Instagram at @topchefcarson.