MasterChef Junior wraps up its sophomore season on Tuesday night (8/7c on Fox) with one last cook-off between finalists Samuel, 12, and Logan, 11. But executive producer Robin Ashbrook is already looking to winter, as the reality hit immediately returns on Jan. 6 with its third cycle.
Ashbrook says he's not worried about burning out the franchise too fast. "With MasterChef Junior we're lucky that these kids never feel like a carbon copy of one another," he says. "We have to always make the challenges harder and bigger. In one challenge next season, the kids will prepare dishes with ingredients older than they are, while judges Gordon Ramsay, Joe Bastianich and Graham Elliot are made up to look decades older.
On the eve of the MasterChef Junior season finale, Ashbrook spoke to us about the show's rise, its move to Tuesdays and how Bastianich, who's leaving the show after next season, might be replaced.
TV Guide Magazine: MasterChef Junior performed fine on Fridays last year. How nervous were you about moving to Tuesday and competing with The Voice and NCIS?
Ashbrook: I was absolutely terrified. I'm proud with everyone involved that we seemed to hold our own. I feel like even in the heat of the fall landscape, our group of kids felt refreshingly different enough to get noticed.
TV Guide Magazine: MasterChef Junior was under the radar at first. Were you surprised by how it eventually took off?
Ashbrook: It happens two or three times in your lifetime where you're producing a show and you know you've stumbled across some magic. It's a culmination of Gordon, the kids and the food. It all collided on set at the right time. We took what we learned from Season 1 and I think we managed to do it again.
TV Guide Magazine: Why is Joe Bastianich leaving?
Ashbrook: He's been a key part of the MasterChef family. But as the show gets bigger, it demands the ultimate focus. The reality is, Joe is a businessman in the food world. We came to the decision together that with the amount of focus and energy needed to be on this show, it was best for both parties to make Season 5 of the main show and Season 3 of MasterChef Junior the last that we do with Joe. It's amicable, but the reality is we have to have 100 percent of everybody when we make this show.
TV Guide Magazine: Have you decided how to replace him?
Ashbrook: That's ongoing. We're not necessarily looking to replace one restaurateur with another, but it needs to be somebody who can relate to home cooks.
TV Guide Magazine: How do you make sure a show about kids appeals to a wider audience?
Ashbrook: At every challenge on the show is I ask myself, am I going to enjoy this? I've got three kids between 8 and 13, would it entertain them? Would it entertain my 70-year-old mother? I don't care if you're 6 or 96, seeing Gordon Ramsay with pancake syrup poured on his head is great.
TV Guide Magazine: Is working with kids harder?
Ashbrook: I produced numerous shows with kids in the UK. And I still think like a kid. I was certain kids and Gordon Ramsay would be a very special equation. We've been so genuinely blown away by how these kids cook.
TV Guide Magazine: With Season 3 coming so soon after Season 2, is there chance of burn out, or running out of potential contestants?
Ashbrook: I haven't hit a wall yet, every time we go out and look for kids the standard gets better. I'm confident it will continue to do so. I'm now having kids walk into castings and they started cooking because of this show. I get a huge kick out of that. I have no fear that we will run out of talent. The biggest fear is that I will run out of energy or drop dead.
TV Guide Magazine: Was it tough for Gordon Ramsay to tone down his brusque TV persona for the kids?
Ashbrook: He's great with his own kids, so it was the most natural thing in the world to work with the kids on the show. People haven't seen that. But when he walks into that kitchen, he's their mentor and I would liken it to a great sports coach.
TV Guide Magazine: What can we expect from the Season 2 finale?
Ashbrook: You will see the food in this finale, and it's without a doubt the best food we have done in any edition of MasterChef, ever. It's mind blowing. I'm worried about how we ensure the adults [in regular MasterChef] keep up with the quality of the kids' food.