Late last spring, Lila DeLuca, a braided 10-year-old Rockporter, quietly slipped off to Los Angeles. She reported to her elementary school that she would be accompanying her father, Scott, on an “indefinite business trip.”
This, of course, was cover for the strict code of silence the Fox Broadcasting Company imposes upon its MasterChef contestants — even the juniors.
In her 2016 audition video, DeLuca had proven to the MasterChef Junior talent team that she had the right stuff to be one of the 40 kids qualified to endure — with all due adorableness — celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay’s famously menacing temper and the lofty standards of his co-host Christina Tosi, the high priestess of pastry at New York’s Momofuku Milk Bar.
For the next six weeks, DeLuca would proceed to croûton, coulis, caramelize, and squeal for joy — like 10-year-olds do. While the show has concluding taping and the results are in, DeLuca is prohibited from sharing any of the juicy details. But she can say that, yes, there was school (as California laws require). And there were field trips, intended to keep young minds working in between the intensity of shooting, and, of course, there was the once-in-a-lifetime experience of being on the set of a nationally-televised, wildly-popular TV show.
Of her experience, DeLuca says, “I learned a lot more about techniques and styles of food. I really opened up to different types of cooking.” She learned how to consider different spice combinations. She learned to love rosemary and paprika, the latter for making rubs. She learned to flambé. She even learned how to use a blowtorch. (Guess what was at the top of her Christmas list this year).
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Here’s the thing about Lila DeLuca: despite her age, she’s an authentic and skilled cook. She grew up among the pea tendrils, strawberry beds, and yards of swiss chard and kale at Appleton Farms, the Trustees of Reservations property in Ipswich that features a growing agricultural business and a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program. It’s a DeLuca family tradition. Her parents joined Appleton Farms’ CSA before Lila was born, so she has spent her entire life making the weekly visits to this North Shore gem from spring through fall.
Kale makes Lila very happy. “We cook kale a lot at home; we bake it, sauté it, put it in smoothies, and we are always looking for more recipes,” Lila says. “And we cook fish a lot, too. In the summer we catch fish from our boat — stripers and, sometimes, flounder.”
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From the age of seven, Lila DeLuca, along with her younger brother, Anderson, has been a constant presence at Rockport’s Harvestfest, an annual celebration showcasing New England food producers under a giant tent on the town’s historic T-Wharf.
“Every year we go to Harvestfest,” DeLuca says, “and we love the Seafood Throwdown (a competition-style showcase between two local chefs) because we cook fish a lot, and we’re always on the lookout for new ideas. And then we make them at home.”
The DeLuca family likes to travel, which has opened up even more opportunities for Lila to experience new cultures and learn about what they eat. She knows her tikka masala. Trips to Mexico, Costa Rica, and the Galapagos have made the DeLucas big fans of rice and beans.
One of her favorite memories was in Europe. “There was this restaurant very near the tip of Spain; I remember they made this juice that had orange blossoms in it. It was amazing.”
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“I made a ton of friends on MasterChef,” she says, jumping back in the moment.
Modeled on the adult version, Masterchef Junior takes 40 talented kids between the ages of 8 and 13, and puts them through a series of challenges in which some of the contestants get eliminated and the field gets smaller and smaller. Ultimately one lucky child takes home the MasterChef Junior trophy and a whopping $100,000 grand prize.
It was TV cooking that originally pushed DeLuca into the kitchen.
“Every summer we would go visit my mom’s college roommate on Martha’s Vineyard. She had older kids who loved watching cooking shows. That’s how my brother and I learned to love them. We started watching them at home — and I liked Masterchef Junior a lot.”
“I knew something was happening,” Scott DeLuca says, “when, after one evening of watching Masterchef Junior, we heard Lila down in the kitchen the next morning at 6:30. She was making croquembouche,” an elaborate tower of cream-filled profiteroles held together in a crystalline web of spun sugar.
Sounds like a winner to us.
Portions of this article originally appeared in the Gloucester Daily Times.
► Season 5 of MasterChef Junior, airs on Thursday nights at 8 p.m. EST on Fox
Heather Atwood is the managing editor of The Other Cape and a Rockport-based freelance writer. Her first cookbook, In Cod We Trust: From Sea to Shore, the Celebrated Cuisine of Coastal Massachusetts, is available at Amazon. Jonathan Kozowyk is a commercial photographer based in Boston and New York — and also a new dad!