For the last two years, 10-year-old Joshua Pantoja has spent hours studying YouTube videos on cooking. He’s closely watched his parents in the kitchen. He has worked carefully to develop a cooking style that captures his heritage and his personality.
And his friends and teachers knew nothing about it. That is, until Pantoja wound up on TV.
The Wilson Elementary School student appeared this spring on the Season 2 premiere of Chopped Junior, a cooking competition for children on Food Network. The episode is entitled “Dough Business.”
“I had no idea he was this incredible at cooking,” Wilson Elementary principal Barbara Panfili said. “Everything happened so quickly…Josh stands out of the four-hundred children I have here at Wilson…He’s a role model in the building.”
Junior, as his family calls him, started cooking at 8-years old. In the two years since, he taught himself how to cook through watching his idols like Bobbie Flay and Emeril Lagasse on YouTube and on television. He mimicked what they were doing, and learned how to create his own style after awhile. Of course his mother, Elsa, and grandmother, Amelia, helped him with cooking, as well. His families Puerto Rican and Guatemala roots influenced his cooking style, too. Junior refers to himself as “Guaterican.”
“We noticed him cooking and loving the kitchen so we really supported his dreams,” said Junior’s father, Joshua Pantoja, Sr. “We’re the type of parents that keep an open mind. We said, ‘Hey, he’s cooking breakfast. It needs a little work, but it’ll get better.’ And now he has such an incredible passion for it.”
In fact, he learned how to make his first dish of basic eggs through watching a YouTube video on his iPad. Junior also attended a camp for inner-city families in upstate New York called Frost Valley YMCA, where he learned to grow gardens in small spaces, make kale chips and grocery shop for organic foods.
“Frost Valley was really the drive to be in the kitchen for Josh,” Pantoja Sr. said.
Since then, Junior had been determined to compete on Chopped Junior. In January, he went to New York City to audition for the show. He got the gig during the first casting call, and went to film for two days in March.
On the show, cooks are given basket of mystery ingredients, and must turn them into a dish that is judged on its creativity, presentation and taste. Contestants have 30 minutes to complete their dish in each round. The show starts with four contestants, and one cook is eliminated each round—appetizer, entree and dessert— until only the winner remains. The last chef standing claims a $10,000 prize.
During “Dough Business,” contestants were asked to make an appetizer using Paneer cheese, baby beets, masala-roasted chickpeas and camel hot dogs. Junior took the ingredients to make a Paneer cheese quesadilla with camel hot dog and chickpea crumble for the judges—chef Monti Carlo, actress Sarah Michelle Gellar and chef and restaurateur Scott Conant. He advanced to the next round, where he made blood orange-marinated filet mignon with kale and lime.
The judges decided to “chop” Pantoja because they felt the meat had been sliced inconsistently. But the Wilson School student said his favorite part of the show actually occurred during the entree round—he loved the look of filet mignon.
“I’ve never seen it before—it was just precious,” he said.
The “chomedian” as he calls himself—part comedian, part chef—is determined to be back on the show; he wants to win for his 6-year-old sister, Gabby. He had planned to give $1,000 of his winnings to Gabby, and save the rest to go toward culinary school for himself.
“Gabby looks up to me definitely, but she sometimes tries to copy me with cooking and can’t do it so she stops,” Junior said.
Pantoja, Sr. added, “You can see that he’s the life of the party on the show, a great entertainer and is a natural in front of the camera.”
Moving forward, Junior cannot wait to run the food truck his family has bought by next summer. Although Junior said he wanted to name the truck “Panda Express,” he’s settled on working with his dad and calling it “Empanada Factory.” The idea of the food truck is to have for kids made by kids, and they hope to have it at school functions, festivals and parades alike. The senior Pantoja works in parts logistics for Mercedes-Benz, and Elsa runs an office park deli in Princeton Junction.
Since appearing on Chopped Junior, Junior has had cooking spill over into every aspect of his life. He was invited to cook with Aramark Food Services at his elementary school for special teacher luncheons and after-school meals. His friends think his cooking talents are “cool,” and have watched the “Dough Business” episode with him. When he isn’t cooking he’s playing basketball, soccer and frisbee with his friends and family on the playground and at the bus stop.
Looking at the future, Junior aspires to be “better than Emeril” one day. And, with his resolve, he just might do that.
But, first, he’d like another shot at Chopped Junior.
“I said, ‘I bet I’m as good as those people [on TV], and so that’s why I went on,” he said. “I got chopped because my name’s Junior, and I was on Chopped Junior, but I’ll be back for sure.”