Long Island's little chefs: Kids who appeared on 'Chopped Jr.,' 'MasterChef Junior' and more


Chicken nuggets won’t cut it with these young Long Islanders. They are budding chefs, and they tackle dishes such as duck sliders with mint pesto,  vegetarian empanadas with jackfruit and candied bacon cupcakes.

Some have competed on TV shows, including Fox’s “MasterChef Junior” and Food Network’s “Chopped Junior”; others are taking classes at local cooking and baking schools, and one even launched his own business, selling 45 jars of homemade pesto each Saturday at the Northport farmers market. 

Meet 10 young Long Island chefs and see what they’ve got cooking:

Sophia Cifuentes, 14, Bellmore

Sophia Cifuentes 14, In the kitchen of her
(Credit: Newsday/Thomas A. Ferrara)

SHE LOVES TO MAKE Pastas, chicken fried rice, fried plantains, roast pork, pecan tarts, Key lime pie
WHY SHE COOKS “I like feeding my family. It’s fun for me,” Sophia says. She cooks for mom, dad, grandpa and her 16-year-old brother. “Sometimes I make extra for my dogs. They like spaghetti and they like roast pork,” she says.

Sophia Cifuentes 14, In the kitchen of her
(Credit: Newsday/Thomas A. Ferrara)

WHERE SHE FINDS INSPIRATION “I always use recipes from online. But I switch it up a little bit,” she says. She might substitute Spanish-style seasoning, for instance.
HER BIGGEST FLOP “I made vanilla cupcakes. Instead of using baking soda, I used baking powder. It exploded in the oven,” she says.
HOW SHE LEARNS TO COOK “I take baking lessons at the Baking Coach [in Greenlawn]. I did a macaron class in New York City.”

William Connor, 14, Northport

William Connor showing off his specialty pesto at
(Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.)

HE’S KNOWN FOR Pesto. He makes eight kinds — arugula, kale, basil and more — and sells about 45 jars on Saturdays at the Northport Farmers’ Market, charging $10 a jar. He calls himself the “Gourmet Kid.” (William returns to the farmers market Aug. 12.)
HIS CLAIM TO FAME He appeared on Food Network’s “Chopped Junior” in October 2016, making duck sliders with mint pesto and fish tacos. “I got second place,” he says. While the first-place winner gets $10,000, “I did get a ‘Chopped Jr.’ apron,” William says.


William Connor preparing his specialty pesto at his
(Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.)

SIBLING SUPPORT His sister Sarah, 18, designed William’s business logo and his fraternal twin brother, James, is creating an app so people can customize and order pesto and pick it up at the farmers market. 
HOW WILLIAM STARTED HIS BUSINESS “When I was training for ‘Chopped Junior,’ I looked up a quick way to use greens in case they gave me chard or collard greens.” He made collard green pesto for his extended family. “Someone piped up and said, ‘Maybe you should make a business out of this,’ ” he says.

Jaiya Ahmad, 9, Rockville Centre

Jaiya Ahmad, 9, of Rockville Centre, stands with
(Credit: Steve Pfost)

SHE LOVES TO MAKE Macaroni and cheese, turkey burgers, seasoned crab
WHY SHE LIKES COOKING “My favorite subject is science, and cooking is like science because the meal, putting together things, is like an experiment,” she says. 
WHO SHE COOKS WITH Mom, Jeanise Frazier, who says, “When I watch how seriously she takes it, it blows my mind. I put her through a knife course. Now she corrects me in the kitchen.”

Jaiya Ahmad, 9, of Rockville Centre, prepares her
(Credit: Steve Pfost)

HOW SHE LEARNS TO COOK Jaiya takes classes at A la Carte Cooking School in Lynbrook.
A CHEF SHE ADMIRES New Orleans chef Leah Chase, known as the “Queen of Creole Cuisine.” Jaiya dressed as Chase for a school project during Black History Month. “I made a script and I read it to my class,” she says. Jaiya learned that Chase was the inspiration for Disney’s Princess Tiana.

Ally Kustera, 13, Huntington

Ally Kustera, 13, shows off her candied bacon
(Credit: Johnny Milano)

SHE LOVES TO MAKE “Fancy cakes that require a lot of time. I find it’s a challenge,” Ally says. Also: mushroom arugula flatbread, grilled chicken with sweet potato wedges, candied bacon cupcakes — chocolate cupcakes topped with bacon rolled in brown sugar.
WHY SHE LIKES COOKING “I like that you can make anything you want and that there are no rules in the kitchen,” she says.

Ally Kustera, 13, shows off her candied bacon
(Credit: Johnny Milano)

HER CLAIM TO FAME She appeared on Food Network’s “Chopped Junior” in May 2016.
HER COOKING ADVICE “You really can’t rush things. If the recipe says it takes a long time, you need to leave enough time,” she says.
BIGGEST FLOP “I attempted to make poop-emoji meringue cookies,” she says. But the eggs wouldn’t fluff up. “When I tried to bake it, it was disgusting,” she says.



Gabriel Blanco, 11, West Hempstead

Gabriel Blanco, 11, grills a skirt steak, sausage,
(Credit: Raychel Brightman)

HE LOVES TO MAKE Garlic mashed potatoes, risotto, salads, fish, steak on the grill
WHY HE LIKES COOKING “I love how the food tastes. I’m a very good eater,” Gabriel says. “I love how there are so many techniques to be able to do it; I love seasoning all the foods.”
ONE FOOD HE ADORES “I love garlic. I eat garlic chips. I cut the garlic, and I fry it . . . with some olive oil and some lemon pepper,” he says. 

Gabriel Blanco, 11, grills a skirt steak, sausage,
(Credit: Raychel Brightman)

WHERE HE LEARNS TO COOK He takes classes at A la Carte Cooking School in Lynbrook. “The first class I took was meat loaf, garlic mashed potatoes and asparagus with Parmesan cheese.”
WHO HE COOKS WITH “When I see my dad grilling, I say, ‘Can I do it?’ and he says, ‘Sure, go ahead,’ ” Gabriel says. While supervised of course, Gabriel adds.

A.J. Espinoza, 13, Freeport

AJ Espinoza, a young chef from Freeport, plates
(Credit: Raychel Brightman)

WHAT SHE’S KNOWN FOR Gourmet empanadas. Varieties include “Thanksgiving in a Bite,” “Steak Fajita” and a dessert empanada called “Vanilla Oreo.” “I’m doing a vegetarian empanada with jackfruit,” A.J. says. 

WHY SHE MAKES THEM “As a chef, my own unique trait is to take something so classic in the Latin culture and make it so unique,” she says. A.J. is part Ecuadorean.
WHAT ELSE SHE LIKES TO MAKE Arroz amarillo con gandules, three-layer cake

AJ Espinoza, a young chef from Freeport, tosses
(Credit: Raychel Brightman)

HER CLAIM TO FAME She’s competed on both Fox’s “MasterChef Junior” and Food Network’s “Chopped Junior.” 
CURRENT GOAL “I’m trying to better myself in technique,” A.J. says. She’s concentrating on baking skills, “to even myself out between savory and sweet,” she says. “Three-layer cake is actually very difficult. It’s all in balancing with layer cake. I’m also going to work on fondant. I’m working on my art.”

Sophie Bravo, 11, Woodbury

Kid chef Sophie Bravo, 11, at her home
(Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa)

SHE LOVES TO MAKE Chicken, steak with homemade French fries (“I sear the steak and put it in the oven until it’s medium-rare, and then I flip it. It’s juicy and good,” she says.) Also: strawberry shortcake, éclairs, Key lime pie
WHY SHE LIKES COOKING “It’s sort of relaxing sometimes,” Sophie says. “I like eating it, and also giving it to people. They appreciate it and compliment me on it.”


Kid chef Sophie Bravo, 11, at her home
(Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa)

WHO SHE COOKS FOR Her parents and her 13-year-old brother, Sam. “We have Friday night Shabbat dinner. My mom is a rabbi,” Sophie says.
HOW SHE LEARNS TO COOK “I started looking on YouTube, and videos. I experimented on things,” she says. 
HER CLAIM TO FAME She was on Food Network’s “Chopped Junior” in April 2016.

Kayla, 14, and Lauryn, 11, Mitchell, Center Moriches

Sisters Kayla Mitchell, 14, and Lauryn Mitchell, 11,
(Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas)

WHAT THEY LOVE TO MAKE Macaroni and cheese served in cones made from pizza dough, scallops, fluke. Their grandfather fishes and brings home his catch; Lauryn wants to try making mako shark.
WHAT ELSE THEY’VE BEEN UP TO The girls cook with Girl Scout troops and donate baked goods to fundraisers; they bill themselves as Cooking with the Mitchell Girlz. “With a ‘z’ and not an ‘s’ to add some swagger,” Kayla says. 

Kayla Mitchell, 14, who has been on Masterchef
(Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas)

HER CLAIM TO FAME Kayla competed on Fox’s “MasterChef Junior.”  Watch for Kayla and her mom, Michelle, to be on a TV cooking show this fall where they compete against other parent-child teams in front of a live audience;

Lauryn Mitchell, 11, who won $10,000 on Chopped
(Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas)

HER CLAIM TO FAME  Lauryn  won Food Network’s “Chopped Junior,” bringing home a $10,000 prize. The stint on “Chopped Junior” led to her becoming an extra on a “Sesame Street” episode set to air in August. 

Brennan Thomann, 13, Commack

Brennan Thomann, 13, of Commack, loves to bake,
(Credit: Steve Pfost)

WHAT HE LOVES TO MAKE Chocolate-chip cookies, s’mores brownies with a graham cracker crust and toasted marshmallows on top, cakes
WHEN HE BAKES  “Once a week I bake,” Brennan says. “I basically do it whenever our family comes.” 
WHERE HE FINDS INSPIRATION  Pinterest. “You subscribe to different boards and they send you suggestions,” Brennan says.

Brennan Thomann, 13, of Commack, loves to bake,
(Credit: Steve Pfost)

WHY HE LIKES BAKING “I like the science part of it. I like how everything has to be exact or it won’t turn out well, and how different ingredients levitate the mixture differently.”
HIS BIGGEST FLOP “I tried to make one of those roll cakes. That just cracked, and ripped and fell apart,” Brennan says.
HOW HE LEARNS TO COOK He’s taken classes at Baking Coach in Greenlawn. “We learned about fondant. I also went to one class on how to make flowers out of icing.”

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