Danielle McNerney isn't just a wunderkind who started preparing food at age 4 and has taught herself to cook. Now 12, she's a talented cook who has been motivated by her mother's battle with carcinoma to concoct meals that are healthful and delicious.
She's also appearing on TV, on "Food Fighters" on NBC. And earning kudos from a rival on Thursday night's episode: Charm City Cakes' Duff Goldman.
"There are two kinds of people in the world," he said of the Frederick County resident. "One shuts down, and the other gives it right back. Danielle was talking smack back to me and I was like, 'Uh-oh.'"
At 4, Danielle gravitated toward the kitchen.
She started making spinach salad and other small dishes, nothing involving sharp knives or the oven, said her mother, Meredith McNerney. But as she experimented, her skills and repertoire grew. By age 8, she was confidently preparing full meals for her family.
Danielle learned through recipes in magazines, cookbooks and Food Network shows. The Ijamsville family said they were pleasantly surprised but not shocked to see her talent emerge.
"The first time she made anything on her own ... she set up a little restaurant with her sister and made an awesome pasta primavera with all these vegetables and cream sauce," her mother said. "It wasn't just like, 'My kid made something, so I have to eat it.' We were like, 'Wow, this is actually really good.'"
In 2007, Meredith McNerney was diagnosed with Merkel cell carcinoma, a type of skin cancer, which prompted her to switch the family's diet to primarily organic, healthy foods. Danielle has since become passionate about healthful food that tastes good.
"My mom was really focused on healthy food regardless of what the taste was," Danielle said. "I told my mom, 'You can feel healthy and eat healthy, but it can also taste good.'"
McNerney is now in remission, but Danielle's focus on healthy food continues. Her favorite dish to prepare is spinach pasta with alfredo sauce — it's "fresh, homemade and makes me feel good about what I'm eating," she said.
Danielle said that although she was nervous to compete against professionals, her excitement outweighed the butterflies in her stomach.
"Here I am, following my dream," she said. "I told myself on stage, 'This is what I've been wanting to do the past four years, so I just have to let my food speak for itself.'"
Danielle landed the appearance on the show after previously auditioning for Fox's "Master Chef Jr." After multiple interviews and a trip to Los Angeles for a casting call, Danielle finally received word that she had been chosen for "Food Fighters."
Danielle's episode culminates in her battle against Baltimore native Goldman.
"I found out that it was going to be him doing the show by seeing him walk out on stage," she said. "It was surreal in that moment; it was just so cool. He walked out and I was like, 'Oh my God, I've seen him on TV. I watch "Ace of Cakes." I love his shows.' It was something I'll never forget."
Goldman described McNerney as a "tough cookie," able to take the smack talk he dished out. Based on what he saw, Goldman said Danielle has a bright cooking future.
"She's real level-headed, and you've got to be," he said. "She's a good kid."
Danielle's episode has been taped. If it reveals that she is the winner of the $100,000 grand prize, she says, she'll donate some of the money to A Message of Hope Cancer Fund, which provides financial assistance to families struggling to fund cancer treatments.
What's next for her culinary career? Is she destined for a Food Network television show of her own someday?
"I'd love to do something involving food in the future, maybe become a chef or food nutritionist," she said. "I don't exactly know. I'm only 12."
"Food Fighters" airs at 8 p.m. Thursday on NBC.