Chicago loves its home-grown celebrities. Recently blossomed out of the eclectic Pilsen neighborhood, is Master Chef Junior contestant Beni Cwiakala. Beni is part of the 6th season cast of aspiring young chefs that range in age from 8 years to 12 years old. Since the wee-age of 3, Beni has been cooking with her parents, starting as all new cooks should - prepping the food. From there, Beni took it upon herself to start reading cookbooks. With the consistent support of her parents, Beni has developed a wide set of cooking skills. The Cwiakala family makes it a weekly ritual to visit farmer’s markets allowing their children to be involved in choosing fresh fruits, vegetables and even proteins.
Beni, along with the entire cast, aspire to become chefs and restaurant owners. Since season 6 began, their culinary challenges have included making the perfect filet mignon, milk shake and tart. Other exciting challenges include watching the kids work as team to cater a wedding and the creation of their own heritage based dish. Chicago chef-librity Beni, made a deconstructed chicken pot pie! I was lucky to catch up with Beni between her book reports, swimming workouts, boxing classes and spring break. She was delightful and adorable during our conversation.
Katalin: You told the Master Chefs that you gave up the swim team to be on the show, have you been able to return to your sports?
Beni: I have not been able to rejoin the team, but I swim for fun on Fridays. My grand parents take me to the same place I have always swum and I am back at my boxing and muay thai classes at POW.
Katalin: So have you been practicing your strokes to get ready for the swim team next season?
Beni: I don’t really do a stroke – I like to dive for the fish toys. It is a pretty deep pool… but I try to focus on all the strokes. I really want to work on speed and going fast… I swim in a 25 meter pool! Before Master Chef, I was working on the butterfly- which is the stroke that everyone hates.
Katalin: What was the most demanding part of the being on the Master Chef Junior?
Beni: I kinda had to lie to my swim coach- because I couldn’t tell her why I was leaving. So I said, I was going on a trip with my dad. I could not tell anyone why I was not here or where I was going. That was hard.
Katalin: What was the coolest part about being on the show?
Beni: The coolest thing was being able to cook for the judges and meet the real Master Chefs…. Gordon has a very understanding helpful, kind personality. Christina has a gentle attitude and Joe is intimidating and intense, he is hard to read. But I learned so much from all.
Beni: I really wanted to practice my knife skills because, I got a clever for my birthday and my dad got me a fish knife, it is really long for cleaning the fish. I love fish.”
Katalin: How was the food on the set? Describe what you kids were fed– was it chef caliber or school lunchroom caliber?
Beni: (Laughing) It was in the middle –between those- it was good in the beginning, but then it went down a few steps.
Katalin: We are at episode 6. Of the dishes you have made so far, have you made any of them again since returning home.. for family or friends?
Beni: Well, I didn’t get to make the milk shake on the show, but I have made them at home now. I made a blackberry milkshake…it was really good – I even added girl-scout thin mint cookies!
Katalin: My daughter has told me that you are her idol, what advise would you give to kids starting out?
Beni: It is best to learn to cook healthy and simple foods. Using the simple ingredients is better. Every kid should learn to cook with olive oil, vegetables, garlic, seasoning and butter.
Katalin: Can you rank from favorite to least favorite - baking , sautéing, frying, chopping, marinating or grocery shopping.
Beni: Oh, I love grocery shopping! Then, chopping because I get to use my knives. Then sautéing, marinating, baking and frying.
Quick Fire Questions:
- Favorite Food: Sushi
- Least Favorite Food: Bananas
- Favorite Book: Hunger Games
- Dream Vacation: Travel around Europe
- Favorite Workout: Youth Boxing Class at POW! Gym Chicago
- Favorite Movie: Pirates of the Caribbean
- Favorite Toy: Stuffed animal named Wolf.
- One of your Favorite Chicago Restaurants: Pisolino Italian Cafe
- Favorite dish your parents make? Kale Lentil Soup with Rice