A group of talented kids will take over the stage at the Merriam Theatre on March 11. But they won’t be singing, dancing, or acting; they will be cooking.

This is the touring version of the kids’ cooking competition MasterChef Junior, now in its eighth season. On TV, a group of culinarily-inclined young contestants sear, julienne, and fricassee their way through a battery of challenges. Judges Daphne Oz, Aarón Sanchez, and of course, that perpetually red-faced Brit Gordon Ramsay nibble and deliberate until just one child is crowned MasterChef Junior.

For the live version this week at the Merriam Theater, past winners and fan favorites (including Che, Malia, Matthew, and Avery) will lead cooking demonstrations and take part in new challenges. The show is recommended for all ages.

And it all made us wonder: What were Philly’s top chefs cooking up when they were little? We asked five chefs from across the city about their culinary prowess when they were kids:

Chef Judy Ni fell in love with cooking making potstickers when she was little.
Courtesy Judy Ni.
Chef Judy Ni fell in love with cooking making potstickers when she was little.

Judy Ni, Baology

Where it started: potstickers

Potstickers have been a part of Ni’s life as long as she can remember. She made them with her grandmother growing up, and she continues to serve them at home and at Baology.

“The reason I remember is because when I was 5 or 6, I could eat like, 20 of them at a sitting, and she was like, ‘Uh, if you’re going to eat that many, you’re going to have to learn how to make them.’ That was basically it," she said.

"I was born in the States, but my father’s parents lived with us six months out of the year, and my grandmother was a phenomenal cook. But that’s pretty much all she knew how to do, so that’s what we did, together. It’s like a family ritual. Tradition. We do them really regularly. It’s something that we always do at holidays, but it’s also such a great thing to just sit down together with friends and it’s the way, of like, everyone benefits.”

Cristina Martínez, South Philly Barbacoa

Where it started: corn tortillas

Martínez is well-known on the American restaurant scene for her immigration activism and her barbacoa — the latter got her nominated for a James Beard award in 2019. The journey for Martínez and her barbacoa began as a child in Mexico.

Comencé a aprender cómo hacer las tortillas de maíz cuando era una niña de seis años en México. Todavía hago estas mismas tortillas en el restaurante, y servimos nuestra barbacoa de borrego en estas tortillas."

“I started learning how to make corn tortillas when I was a 6-year-old girl in Mexico. I still make these same tortillas in the restaurant, and we serve our lamb barbacoa on these tortillas.”

Chef Yehuda Sichel, left, with a friend, as a kid.
Courtesy Yehuda Sichel
Chef Yehuda Sichel, left, with a friend, as a kid.

Yehuda Sichel, Abe Fisher

Where it started: wings

Sichel remembers his first foray into cooking as a simple exercise: breaking eggs. “I must have been 5 or 6 years old. And I was at my friend’s house and his sister was teaching us how to make eggs, so she had us, like, cracking eggs, and I just remember there were shells everywhere. It was not one of my finest moments in cooking."

In high school, Sichel took the reins as chef for the first time for Super Bowl XXXV, between the New York Giants and his hometown team, the Baltimore Ravens. "We had a Super Bowl party and I cooked like, awesome wings, and I do remember that was my first, ‘Hey, this is fun, you know how to cook, you know how to combine flavors, and everyone really loved it.’”

Apolinar ‘Poli’ Sanchez, Le Virtù

Where it started: zucchini

Growing up in Mexico, Sanchez learned to value simplicity in his meals. He learned from watching his mother, who would whip up huevos à la Mexicana out of three simple ingredients: tomatoes, onions, and eggs.

“I was like, 7 or 8 years old when my mom, she used to go grab some zucchini, some squash from the farmers," he said. "I mean, it looked like, so crazy when she was scooping something, like zucchini and squash; put some salt, and pepper, put it on the comal: squash, zucchini, zucchini flowers, corn. So you just make a very simple food, and delicious.”

Chef Jezabel Careaga used to make bread with her grandmother, Julia.
Courtesy Jezabel Careaga
Chef Jezabel Careaga used to make bread with her grandmother, Julia.

Jezabel Careaga, Jezabel’s Café

Where it started: bread

Careaga spent her early years in northwestern Argentina, where she learned the flavors and the sense of care she tries to bring to her cooking today. Part of that education came from cooking alongside her grandmother, Julia.

“The one thing I always remember with her, it was making bread. She would make bread like, once a week or so for family and some friends, and just to have around the house," she says. "Playing with dough and making bread with her, that was like my favorite part. Running in the backyard, she had this old, brick mud oven — a little similar to the ones that you have today, pizza-oven like — something like that, that my grandfather built, way in the ‘50s or ‘60s.”