MIDLOTHIAN — After dominating the competition in the kitchen, a Midlothian 11-year-old has made her Texas heritage proud by débuting her impressive menu of barbecue cuisine on national television and in the heart of her new community.
“I’ve been cooking since I was three years old. I’ve really been cooking on my own since I was seven. I found myself in the kitchen without permissions at all, and I just love giving everyone the bold flavor of barbecue,” expressed Kenzie Mills, Midlothian Junior Chef, about her start in the culinary arts.
Surrounding her daughter with all things cooking since she was a toddler, Kim Mills, Kenzie's mother, unknowingly was preparing her for a televised unveiling eight years later.
“Kenzie got her first apron and measuring cups for her third birthday, and she loves to help and be in the kitchen,” recalled Kim. “Then she got to watching the Food Network, and I don’t watch it, she just picked it up. She started talking about all these chefs, and I was like, ‘Who are you talking about?’ And she said, ‘You know, Alex.’ I’m like, ‘I don’t know Alex, is that a friend from school?’ And she’s like, ‘No, Alex Guarnaschelli.'"
Stretching her passion for the kitchen, one of Kenzie’s sisters bought her an adult-level cake decorating class at their local Michael’s, which encouraged a deeper love for the art.
“A couple of months later we got a call from the teacher, and I thought, ‘Oh, the next session is starting.’ And she says, ‘Master Chef, Junior' is having auditions, and they’re looking for people, and I think your daughter would be great. So I'll put her in with our cookers if she’s interested,'” Mrs. Mills recollected the surprise phone call.
After the family had relocated to Midlothian in August 2016, the Mills' were was busy unpacking their home and balancing a full-time homeschool schedule, when the opportunity of Kenzie to be accepted on the show became a real possibility.
“We were in the middle of moving and I’m like, ‘Uh, no.’ And Sean, my husband, was like, ‘You should do it. Kenzie loves to be on TV, she loves cooking, and that’s what she wants to do.’ And I said, ‘Alright,’” Mrs. Mills recanted. She then took Kenzie to Houston to compete with hundreds of other talented kid chefs from Texas. “She got a callback - and then she got more and more. Plus, they did some online stuff - it was nuts!”
When the two returned to Ellis County, Kenzie waited to hear back from the show on her final results. While still dealing with the stresses of moving, the Mills connected with Mo and Hari’s Italian Bistro, thanks to a Yelp search, and quickly made friends with the chefs.
“Kenzie trained with all of the chefs there, and they taught her new techniques, and then she started interning on Mondays. She learned how to make seafood risotto, cut and bread the zucchini, and butcher all the fillets. She went from, ‘Hey, I can help dad cook dinner on the grill’ to making dinner all on her own,” Mrs. Mills said, impressed by Kenzie’s rapid gourmet growth.
Though Kenzie was developing her chef abilities, the call from the Master Chef auditions had yet to be returned six days before the auditions moved to L.A.
“I called, and they were like, ‘I’m sorry, we went on to final casting without her.’ Of course, Kenzie was devastated,” Mrs. Mills shook her head. “So I found Chopped Junior online, which she also loves, and we put her stuff in, and twelve hours later they said, ‘We love her! We’re going to push her through."
Kenzie recalled, “It was like, ‘Can I try out for Master Chef Junior,’ and then it was like, ‘Okay, I’m going to try out and if it doesn’t work out, then it doesn’t work out.’ And then they were like, ‘Hi, you’re going on Chopped Junior.’ And I’m like, ‘What?”
Appearing in the second episode of "Chopped Junior: Make Me a Judge," Kenzie contended for a chance to sit at the judge’s table and critique the professionals.
“It was a special run where they only picked twelve kids for this tournament style. They wanted kids who not only cooked very well but were also very poised. So the kids that win are the ones who get to judge the judges – for the first time,” Mrs. Mills described before the family traveled to New York six weeks later.
Flipping the cutting board and putting the judges on the chopping block was only one of the perks for first place, as it also came with $10,000 and bragging rights. Although the challenge of the vehement match was not to be taken lightly, the four middle-school cooks seized the objective of barbecue — which gave Mills the upper hand.
"It felt amazing but at the same time, really nerve-racking because you have 30 minutes to make a dish and that is not a lot of time,” Kenzie explained.
According to Food Network, the theme of the contest required the chefs to work with different kinds of BBQ sauces in each round. In the appetizer basket, the junior chefs had to transform cookies and a slimy vegetable into delicious starters. A pork product was then paired with fresh greens in the entrée course. Then the finalists had to place cheese in their desserts – all of which required a sharp mind and cooking creativity.
THE WATCH IS ON
When she premiered her culinary skills at Midlothian’s Mo and Hari’s Italian Bistro for a public watch party on Wednesday, March 15, the Mills' noted the support of the community was overwhelming.
“The turnout was fantastic. I was expecting the front row to be there but knowing Hari’s has been amazing, they opened up their restaurant as Midlothian’s living room,” said Sean Mills, Kenzie's father. “They even let Kenzie be the executive chef for the evening, letting her come up with the menu, work with the staff, and teach the staff how to cook her stuff her way. Everything that was on the menu was being served from Kenzie’s stuff."
In an excerpt from the show, Kenzie stated, “I wanted to show the judges that I could bake my little butt off.”
And, after a laugh from her adoring audience, she did just that.
The guests all watched as she began with open-faced burnt end sliders with sautéed spinach and fried okra. Then, their attention, and stomachs, progressed as Kenzie unveiled a BBQ wild boar with wilted collard greens and black-eyed pea salad. Finally, they watched as the junior chef finished a dish of halloumi and barbecue-sauce trifle with a blackberry whipped cream — Kenzie's watch party was on the edge of their seats the entire night.
“On the show, they were like, 'She made a mistake,' and then everyone was like, 'What? Why would she do that?' And then the entire restaurant noticed it," Kenzie described the tension in the atmosphere her dessert had a baking hiccup.
Passing from round to round, the heat of competition came down to two finalists — Kenzie and Jacob Scott.
“I feel like I did pretty well,” Kenzie admitted, watching the final judging of her dessert dish. “One of the most exciting parts about watching myself on TV is that I get to critique, make better, and what better techniques I can get better at.”
Mrs. Mills added, “the experience was amazing. The people they hired to do their stuff were super professional and great with the kids."
As the silver lid slowly lifted to reveal Scott’s dish being chopped, Kenzie’s face lit with joy, knowing she had just won the competition. Cheers erupted from the restaurant with applause and whistling, as Kenzie smiled ear to ear.
“It was fantastic to see everyone come out and support Kenzie and help her follow her dreams,” Mr. Mills proudly said.
“She made great friends with the kids on the show, having their own watch parties and texting her already, doing their thing. They’re all really close friends, and it was just a great experience and a lot of fun. I’m proud of her,” Mrs. Mills complimented her daughter’s early success.
Kenzie added, “It feels really awesome. I’m so happy my friends and family could come out and support me."
From broiling to caramelizing, and firing up the grill, this spunky, blue-haired youngster can do it all, and will soon take her seat at the judge’s table.
Chelsea Groomer, @ChelseaGroomer