Tanner Waxman relaxes on the couch of his dad’s photography studio in Hershey, a lock of his signature blue hair escaping from the side of his baseball cap as he shares a few details about his unique opportunity to appear on a popular Food Network cooking show.
It turns out that landing a slot on “Chopped, Junior” wasn’t Tanner’s first shot at fame.
“I did some Skype interviews for ‘Food Network Star Kids’ and learned not to pair radishes and peanut butter,” said Tanner, an impish smile spreading across his broad face.
His mother Tijen offered a little more information.
“He was the youngest one to compete at the time, and we got really far in the process,” she said.
As for the odd food pairing, Tijen suggests that they might have been looking for something more like a slaw, rather than a mixture. The timing was less than ideal anyway. The family was in the process of moving their business and dealing with the aftermath of a flood.
“The initial competition would have required us to be in Los Angeles for three weeks,” Tijen said.
The experience, although short-lived, was nonetheless valuable in giving the student an edge when the next opportunity presented itself.
Tanner and his dad Ali volleyed back and forth how the idea for “Chopped, Junior” came about and exactly how many Skype interviews were involved. But both seemed to agree that the first shot at fame was good practice for the second. Tanner tried again and, this time, beat out 3,000 other hopefuls for a slot. Afterwards, the real work began.
Ali, who specializes in food photography, reached out to friends willing to share their knowledge and help young Tanner prepare for his debut. Café Fresco Chef Travis Mumma rose to the challenge.
“He was very hands on,” said Ali.
Tanner chimed in, adding, “He said, ‘cut that celery, cut those carrots.’”
Chef David Mills, who works as a culinary instructor at HACC, also spent time with Tanner.
“We met about once a week for two months to prepare for the competition,” said Mills. “He showed a lot of promise, and whatever I asked him to work on, he came back knowing exactly how to do it.”
By October, 11-year-old Tanner had absorbed what he needed to know to compete on the show. He packed his bags and headed out to New York’s Chelsea Market for filming, joined by his biggest cheerleaders—mom, dad and 18-year-old sister Didi.
There, the budding young chef joined three of his peers to compete for the grand prize of $10,000 in an episode titled, “Three-Ring Kitchen,” based on a circus theme.
The show began with a bang as the children ran excitedly around the kitchen to gather ingredients for an appetizer using corn dogs, avocados, corn on a stick and circus cookies, while judges Ryan Guzman, Geoffrey Zakarian and Sunny Anderson chatted in the background. Buttoned-up Zakarian, whom Tanner found a bit intimidating, took a ribbing for claiming to never have consumed a corn dog.
“Geoffrey likes his corndog with a little dollop of caviar,” joked host Ted Allen.
With his fun sense of humor and confident stage presence, Tanner stood out early on with colorful commentary.
“If I were in a circus, I’d definitely be a strong man because of these guns,” he said with a grin, while pointing at his biceps. “I’m the definition of a circus because hey, I’m cool, and who wouldn’t want this in the main show,” he quipped, gesturing towards his blue Mohawk.
The lighthearted background banter among the judges suddenly turned serious when they realized that Tanner had cut himself while slicing an onion to make guacamole. Tanner shared his feelings about the setback with the audience.
“I’m freaking out,” he said. “This is a huge disadvantage right now. I don’t have much time left.”
Producers consulted with Tijen on the situation.
“They told me it was a really deep cut, and he could opt for stiches at the hospital, and they could call an extra, or they could glue it on the set.”
Tijen was torn, but in the end, decided to trust the medics enough to allow them to glue the finger. The crew then broke for a 90-minute lunch, and Tanner resumed cooking, finishing his dish in a mere 20 minutes.
Tanner’s corn dog taco with guacamole and a sweet and spicy sauce won over the judges, who especially liked that he used feta in the preparation.
“That feta saved my butt,” Tanner said.
For round two, the three remaining chefs were given hamburger sliders, heirloom tomatoes, pretzel rods dipped in chocolate called “Tiger Tails” and purple-hued “jester” potatoes.
“I have no idea why they call them ‘jester’ potatoes, they’re not really that funny,” said Tanner, shrugging his shoulders.
The ingredients proved to be a challenge for Tanner, thwarting his effort to make it to the third round. Zakarian said he was hoping that he would do “something more with the burger” and also objected to the tiger tail “icing” Tanner used in the preparation of his dish. Nonetheless, his superb plating skills piqued the judges’ curiosity, which provided Tanner with the opportunity to give a shout-out to his dad and explain how he learns various techniques by tagging along on his father’s photo shoots.
According to Tanner, one of the most challenging parts of the experience was keeping the information under wraps for months before the episode aired. Once the cat was out of the bag, however, the excitement was palpable. More than 100 students and members of the community turned out to support Chef Tanner at a viewing party held at the Hershey Middle School.
“It was a lot of fun,” said proud mom Tijen, who takes pleasure in fostering her children’s hopes, dreams and creativity. “I teach them to stay present, don’t overthink things, to love and trust themselves, and they will be OK, no matter what.”
These days, Tanner and his father are joining forces in an entrepreneurial endeavor.
“We came up with an idea called PB&J Plus,” said Ali. “Basically, it’s using his creativity and my photography to market a product which will combine ingredients like pretzels and potato chips with peanut butter.”
For Tanner, who has since turned 12, there’s really no hurry to decide what he wants to pursue as an adult, although he’s currently toying with the idea of becoming a lawyer due to a desire to help people. When questioned about his next cooking endeavor, he grins, looks over at his parents and hints that his cooking chops might come in handy someday.
“I’ll cook for someone, when I get a girlfriend,” he said.
Author: Stephanie Kalina-Metzger