By Hannah and Cailin Loesch
Ace of Cakes phenom Duff Goldman has a couple of new protégés.
They are the most elite of their kind - bakers with loyal customers across major cities, business-owners-turned-TV-stars, industry veterans with their craft down to a science - and now, since the premiere of their new show that hit the airways earlier this month, the new faces of the Food Network.
Still not impressed? Not one of them is even old enough to have graduated middle school.
The show is Kids Baking Championship, and the cast - which shrinks with each passing week as eliminations send home all but the strongest competitors - had dwindled down to four finalists. Only one can take home the title, but for these young bakers, the winning moment came long before the cameras started rolling; when the long and nerve-racking casting process ended with good news.
"We had friends over at our house after a baseball camp so my mom pulled me aside into the kitchen and told me [I had been chosen for the show]," said 11-year-old Jackson Fujimori from Torrance, California.
"I was really excited and had to scream quietly."
And though the premiere season of the show has been a tough battle with a dreamy end result (a feature in Food Network Magazine, an original cake available at Goldman's famous Charm City Cakes, and ten thousand dollars), the contestants confess that they had been able to put aside the rivalry for a little fun while filming in Los Angeles.
"We would go out to dinner together sometimes and even Dave & Busters after the tapings if we weren't too tired," said finalist Natalie Venable, 11, from Westlake Village, CA.
"It was sad to see the others go home."
Boise, ID's Annika Coffman, also 11, was able to second that she has nothing but fond memories of her time spent with her competitors.
"The night before we competed on the day that we first met, we all went to one hotel room and just hung out, ate pizza, and talked! It was one of the most fun times I've ever had!"
Of course, working with one of Food Network's biggest stars wasn't an experience that the contestants would be forgetting anytime soon, either.
"My sister and I watched his [Goldman's] show, Ace of Cakes, since we were little. Having him stand right in front of me was an unforgettable moment," said 13-year-old Jacksonville, FL girl Hollis Johnson, the eldest of the four finalists.
"Working with Duff kinda felt like closely working with your dad. He’s really fun but he also gives lots of constructive criticism and encouragement."
And being a kid on TV certainly has its perks, especially when all your classmates are cheering you on.
"School has changed a bit since I've been on the show ... All the people in my class watch my show which is really great because I feel super supported by all of them," says Coffman.
"It makes me really happy to know that I am inspiring people just by doing something that I love!" So what advice do the young trailblazers in the world of baking have for others who want to follow in their footsteps? Fujimori was adamant.
"Don’t give up on your dreams! If something doesn’t turn out right when you first make it, keep trying because it will be better the next time."
Even Goldman was able to take a lesson away from his time mentoring the kids. "I learned that I still have much to learn," he said.
"They showed me that real chefs never give up, and that it is never too late to start over. They would mess up a batch of cookies, and with 20 minutes left, toss them and start a new batch."
A seasoned professional, Goldman was inspired by the lack of inhibition that comes with being able to face challenges with a beginner's mind.
"We are infinitely creative when we look at our existence with enthusiasm and an open mind stripped of preconception. That is how these kids baked."
Perhaps Goldman has gotten as much out of the show as his four fearless fellow-bakers.
"Mentoring these kids was so educational for me as a chef and as a person, and it was seriously one of the coolest things Food Network has ever let me do."
Watch the season finale of Kids Baking Championship on Monday, February 23 at 8/7c on the Food Network.