SM’s Junior Chef is Masterful

If one were to ask a typical 9-year-old to name his or her favorite foods, truffles and foie gras would not likely be at the top of the list. Kya Lau, however, is not your typical 9-year-old.  While other kids dream of pizza, Kya dreams of pig’s trotters. At the age most of us mastered the PB and J, she’s cooking up lobster and sea urchin. And when her 3rd-grade classmates from Valentine Elementary School tune into Fox every Friday night, they can catch Kya dazzling celebrity chefs with her culinary prowess on the current season of MasterChef Junior.
The San Marino resident may be the youngest contestant on the hit show’s fourth season, but she certainly hasn’t let that hold her back. In addition to her trademark hair bows and colorful socks, Kya has stood out among the competition for her performance in “mystery box” and elimination challenges, where she’s wowed audiences and judges alike with her technical skills and sophisticated palate. In a recent episode, a stunned Gordon Ramsay declared the young chef a “freak” after she replicated a seared chicken dish from a blindfold-tasting nearly perfectly.
“The trick is you should try a lot of stuff, but don’t eat it quickly,” Kya explained last week in her family’s kitchen at home. “You have to take it in your mouth and slowly eat it and try to sense all of the flavors.”
As the daughter of two serious foodies, Kya got an early education in flavors, starting in Hong Kong, where she lived with her family until she was 6. By age 3, she was already dining out with her parents, who traveled the world to eat at prestigious restaurants such as El Bulli and the French Laundry. When he was old enough, Kya’s younger brother, Dylan, was also brought along.
“Whatever we would eat, they would eat, so I think very early on, they were exposed to that kind of food,” said Kya’s father, Ken. “And in Hong Kong, when we watched TV, it was always cooking shows, so they were just immersed in it. Kids at that age are like sponges, and they just pick up and remember everything.”
Kya’s foray into the kitchen began with helping her mother, Dawn, make cookies and banana bread. Then, when she was 5, she got an iPad and discovered YouTube.
“I started watching a lot of cooking videos,” Kya said. “In the morning, I would get out of bed and just keep watching them, because I loved them so much and they were so interesting. When my mom would come down, I’d pretend I was sleeping, but I wanted to watch the videos all the time.”
Soon, watching other people cook wasn’t enough, and Kya was eager to get in the kitchen to try it herself. Using instructional videos as her guide, she taught herself how to chop an onion, how to slice vegetables, how to cook meat — all under adult supervision, of course. Chefs such as Gordon Ramsay, Thomas Keller, Marco Pierre-White and Jérôme Bocuse became her idols, and recreating their iconic dishes an ongoing mission.
When Kya and her family moved to San Marino three years ago, her culinary curiosity only expanded. She visited Julia Child’s house in Pasadena and dined at Los Angeles establishments such as Providence, Melisse and Bouchon, refining her palate and developing a deep appreciation for the chef culture along the way. It was on a flight home from a vacation in Bali that she discovered an episode of the Australian version of MasterChef Junior. By the time the plane landed, she’d finished the entire season and convinced her parents to let her audition. When that day came, she was ready.
“Before the audition I would practice chopping onions every day, slicing carrots, cutting celery, cooking eggs — you know, all the basic stuff,” she said. Her parents would create mock “mystery boxes” and time Kya while she prepared three-course meals in less than two hours. After going through the show’s rigorous audition process, Kya learned that all the effort had been worth it: She’d made the cut.
“I was so excited,” she said enthusiastically. “I was running around the whole house and jumping on the bed, and jumping on the sofa and jumping on my parents.”
Audiences (and readers) will have to wait until the end of January to find out who won this season of MasterChef Junior, but in the meantime, Kya and her family are enjoying reliving the experience by watching it on TV together every week. For Kya’s classmates, watching the show is Friday’s unofficial “homework,” but outside of San Marino, there are nearly 4 million people watching Kya, too, including, she hopes, a new generation of fellow female chefs.
“I want to encourage other girls to cook, too, because the past three seasons, all of the winners were boys, so I feel like girls could win, too,” she said. “Some people think it’s only grown-ups that are supposed to cook, but anybody can just go to the kitchen and cook something. You get to try new flavors and then you can create something of your own and make it into something really good, and it’s really fun.”
With the competition behind her, Kya has turned her attention back to her home kitchen, where she’s continued her tireless pursuit of new recipes. Recently, she’s made a foie gras crème brûlée and a lobster, salmon roe and avocado tower, and of course there’s those trotters: pig’s feet stuffed with sweetbreads, chicken mousse and morels and served with mashed potatoes.
“She’s very fearless,” said Ken. “She’s never been intimidated. There’s no reservations — she just sees something and she says, ‘Let’s make it!’”
With the holiday season afoot, Kya’s been busy preparing for the family meals, and as one might expect, Honeybaked Ham is not on the menu. For the last three years, Kya has prepared a truffle-poached turkey with Madeira truffle cream sauce — a seasonal take on the French classic “Bresse Chicken in Half-Mourning” — every Thanksgiving and Christmas. Last week, with family arriving the next day for a pre-Christmas feast, she and sous chef Dylan were perfecting a new dish for the occasion: “Land and Sea,” a pairing of boiled fingerling potatoes and sea urchin.
Naturally, these were no ordinary potatoes. Adapting a recipe from renowned Swedish chef Magnus Nilsson, Kya had foraged leaves from a neighbor’s maple tree, which she boiled and steeped the potatoes in to create a deep, earthy flavor. When the potatoes were done, she plated them with the leaves and served them with a generous smattering of truffle butter — because for Kya, nothing says the holidays like truffles.
“I love truffles so much,” she said. “Truffles are definitely on my Christmas list.”
Kya has big plans for the future: running a three Michelin-star restaurant, representing the United States in the Bocuse d’Or and publishing her own cookbook — a collection of French-Asian fusion dishes from the aforementioned restaurant, which, at Gordon Ramsay’s suggestion, will be named Kya Dawn Lau, after its head chef. She’ll get there by traveling and training in the best restaurants in the world, she says, and becoming fluent in French, Spanish, Mandarin and Italian. Maybe she’ll have her own cooking show. But first, she just needs to get through the 3rd grade.
MasterChef Junior airs Friday evenings at 8 on Fox. Episodes are also available on-demand at fox.com/masterchef-junior.

Leave a Reply