August 03, 2021

Elmhurst boy stars in premiere of ‘Top Chef Jr.’

ELMHURST – Fernando Valdes-Nicholson, 12, started cooking when he was 10, hungry and his mother wasn't around to cook for him. So he made a quesadilla. Now he's making Chilean ribs and egg dishes.

Although he admitted that first meal wasn’t all that good, he made it to national television and starred on the premiere episode of “Top Chef Jr.,” which aired Oct. 13 on NBCUniversal Cable Entertainment’s Universal Kids.

The show features 12 chefs, ages 11 to 14 from across the United States, who compete for the coveted "Top Chef Jr." title and a $50,000 cash prize, according to NBCUniversal.

“It was all super fun,” Fernando said about his experience on the show, which debuted this season.

He had auditioned in Chicago in April after his family saw the opportunity in a school announcement.

Although he didn’t make it to the second episode, he still learned a lot, like how to use an industrial fryer, butter baste in frying a king salmon and hot to make mashed potatoes.

In one of the show’s challenges, contestants had to come up with a cooking concept for a restaurant. Fernando said he wants to create a “kid-friendly international restaurant,” where children would have more options than traditionally offered on a restaurant’s children’s menu, he said.

“I’m lucky to get pasta,” he said about his experiences of ordering from a children’s menu.

He added he would keep some well-known options, such as mashed potatoes, so children could have something they’re accustomed to while also having the opportunity to branch out with less standard fare, like fried fish.

“The family has definitely benefited from what he learned,” said Fernando’s mother, Shelly Nicholson.

Fernando, a sixth-grader at Sandburg Middle School, said he wants to be a cook or a scientist when he gets older, adding “there’s some overlap there.”

In the meantime, he’s studying cooking through Sandburg’s family and consumer sciences section of its unified arts program and teaching his 10-year-old brother, Alejandro, how to cook.

“Now we have a backup short-order cook,” Nicholson said.