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Mount Washington teen to bring culinary chops to 'Top Chef Jr.'

Mount Washington resident Owen Pereira, 13, will compete in the first season of 'Top Chef Jr.'
Mount Washington resident Owen Pereira, 13, will compete in the first season of 'Top Chef Jr.' (Chris Haston/Sprout)

The first time Owen Pereira tried to make a gastrique, it went terribly. He didn't know that it was necessary to reduce the acidity out of the vinegar.

But most could forgive this culinary oversight. After all, Pereira is only 13 years old.

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Pereira, an 8th grader at Baltimore Montessori Public Charter School, will compete against 11 other chefs, ages 11 to 14, on the first season of "Top Chef Jr.," which premieres Friday at 8 p.m. on Universal Kids.

"I was pretty surprised at how far I made it in the audition process," the Mount Washington resident said, adding, "It was more excitement than really surprising."

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From the producers of Bravo's "Top Chef," the show's "junior" version will follow the same basic format and include some of the original show's most well-known challenges — like "Quickfires" and "Restaurant Wars" — in addition to new kid-friendly challenges. Hosted by Vanessa Lachey with head judge Curtis Stone, "Top Chef Jr." also will feature familiar "Top Chef" faces like Gail Simmons, Graham Elliot and Tiffany Derry as recurring judges.

Pereira said he watched the most recent "Top Chef" season, and that his school offers some cooking classes, but he credits "a lot of YouTube. Like, a lot," and cookbooks with providing most of his culinary education. With a focus on contemporary cooking with a French influence, Pereira draws inspiration from chefs like Thomas Keller, Daniel Humm and Daniel Boulud, and "The French Laundry" and "Alinea" cookbooks.

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Pereira doesn't quite remember when he started cooking, but he thinks it was around age 5 or 6, when he'd watch his mom in the kitchen. Now he's usually the one occupying that space, cooking up delicacies like a recent duo of beef with seared rib eye, cauliflower puree, braised short rib, braised mushrooms and confit shallots.

Though the title of Top Chef Jr. comes with a $50,000 prize, Pereira said his desire to get a restaurant job when he turns 14 was the primary motivation to audition for the show.

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"It's always better to make money than spend money," he said. "Would you rather hire a kid off the streets who just wants a job, or someone who was just on 'Top Chef Jr.' Season 1?"

He would rather work his way up the food chain than go to culinary school, he said, and hopes to open his own restaurant one day. He thinks he'd like that restaurant to be in Denmark, France or Belgium — countries with good ingredients and a haute cuisine feel.

Since he's not yet able to take his skills to a Baltimore restaurant as a line cook, Pereira spends his time outside the kitchen playing soccer (as striker or outside midfielder) and drawing. But when it comes to his primary creative outlet, it's usually a solitary pursuit.

"I don't cook with any of [my friends] because most of them don't really know how to cook and are bad at it when they try," he said.

Butter, however, serves as a constant companion. Pereira settled on it as his favorite ingredient — but it wasn't easy to choose.

"It's like asking a parent who their favorite kid is," he said.

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