Jake Nelson and his family had a “Thanksgiving in July” blowout dinner this summer with turkey, mashed potatoes and all the fixings.
Not because they love Thanksgiving especially — although they do — but because Jake was preparing to compete on the season premiere of Food Network’s “Chopped Junior,” airing Nov. 12, set to a “Turkey Day” theme.
“He’s been my sous-chef for years,” said his dad, Ben Pearson-Nelson.
When he was a toddler, Jake was cutting tomatoes with a plastic knife. Now in sixth grade at Robious Middle School, he can chop, sauté and fry just about anything.
Jake, 11, fried soft-shell crabs during his audition for the show, which impressed the producers.
“They were like, ‘What is that?’ I don’t think they’d ever seen a soft-shell crab before,” his dad said.
Mid-Atlantic dishes are Jake’s specialty, combining local ingredients like fresh seafood with chicken, turkey or pork loin.
To get on “Chopped Junior,” Jake sent in a variety of videos that showed off his cooking chops: In one video, he whipped up ceviche and pan-seared scallops; in another, he de-veined shrimp and shucked oysters.
His brown-butter mashed potatoes are also legendary, at least in the Nelson family.
“Melt the butter in a pan, let it sit until it bubbles and browns, but don’t let it burn, then add it to the mashed potatoes,” Jake said.
“It’s an incredible shortcut for potatoes that will blow people’s minds,” his dad added.
Last year, Jake took a class with Edible Education, and his teacher recommended he try out for the show. Another Edible Education student, Claire Hollingsworth from Moseley, appeared on the show a few years ago and won $10,000.
“Jake knew his way around the kitchen. And he’s very eager to learn,” said Katelin Arrington, kitchen manager at Edible Education.
“His palate is really impressive,” his dad added.
Jake’s favorite local restaurant is L’Opossum in Oregon Hill. Jake loves the Swank Bank, a lobster mac and cheese dish topped with truffles. “Their foie gras melts in your mouth,” he added.
Jake learned to cook with his stay-at-home dad, who teaches criminal justice online on the side. His mom is a technical consultant at Accenture. While his dad is a fan of meats — with five smokers in the backyard to prove it — Jake prefers fish and seafood, especially the grouper from Bon Air Seafood.
Together, father and son test-drove different recipes to prepare for “Chopped Junior.” For example, Jake created a garlic grilled grouper with asparagus and brown-butter mashed potatoes for the show. The father-son duo also worked on several turkey recipes for the Thanksgiving theme, including a citrus-curried pressure-cooked turkey that locks in the flavor.
Whatever they did, it worked.
In July, the whole family traveled to New York to tape the show.
“It was amazing. I never expected to be there,” Jake said.
Jake can’t reveal what happened until the episode airs, but he said cooking in the “Chopped Junior” kitchen was an experience in itself.
“Everything was top-of-the-line. The pantry was loaded with so many ingredients you would never expect,” Jake said.
The kids were given baskets of food with different ingredients to create a Thanksgiving menu including an appetizer, main dish and dessert.
Each dish was a 30-minute challenge. Jake had to think quickly on his feet and make the ingredients work.
“It was an emotional roller coaster,” he added. “In the actual kitchen, it gets nerve-wracking.”
While the show is competitive by nature, there was also a camaraderie between the young contestants, Jake said, with kids sharing ingredients and helping each other out.
He filmed for two days, but said, “I wish it was for longer. I had so much fun cooking in that kitchen.”
Back home, Jake and his dad are working on their Thanksgiving menu for the whole family again, which will include a brined turkey and enough brown-butter mashed potatoes to go around.