As a toddler and young child in San Ramon, Abir Bhatia said that one of the first things that sparked his passion for food was fresh berries.
"I love the colors and the sweetness, and those … drew me into the kitchen," Bhatia told DanvilleSanRamon.com in a recent interview. "I love the vibrant freshness of the berries. I think strawberries are my favorite food. I go through a box in like half a week."
Now, as a contestant on the current season of Fox's "MasterChef Junior," Bhatia's attraction to vibrant, fresh foods has come to be part of his signature style as a budding young chef showcased on network TV on Thursday nights.
"I'm definitely geared towards Mediterranean and Middle Eastern foods because they have a lot of bold flavors and fresh ingredients," Bhatia said. "I like foods that have a lot of different moving parts."
While fresh berries drew him into the kitchen early on, it was watching and learning from his mother's deft cooking skills that kept Bhatia there.
"She always knew what to do, like how much salt something needed," Bhatia said. "I wanted to have that kind of intuition and flare in the kitchen, so I kept asking questions and I picked up little bits of information, and then I started cooking on my own more often."
Outside of his own kitchen, Bhatia said that there were local restaurants, such as Walnut Creek's Telefèric Barcelona, which made him branch out and experiment in the kitchen.
"They have all these great Spanish-inspired dishes, and that's where a lot of my inspiration comes from," Bhatia said. "I'll go to the restaurant, eat something, and think either 'how can I make this better,' or 'how can I recreate this?'"
Further inspired by being a picky eater, like many young kids, Bhatia's attraction toward, and passion for, cooking made competing on "MasterChef Junior" a natural fit -- and a goal he was determined to pursue upon watching the show, with the support of his parents.
"Seeing those kids, I wanted to be one of those kids, so I asked my mom and my dad, and they supported me the entire way through," Bhatia said.
Bhatia's television premier saw him narrowly escape elimination in the first episode, landing in the bottom three for an ambitious yet poorly received kiwi lava cake. But while the reality competition show, headed by celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay who is infamous for bringing adults to tears, might seem like a high-pressure situation for contestants between 8 and 13 years old, Bhatia emphasized that things appear much more stressful on the show than they really were.
"One thing people watching don't realize is that things are a lot more calm than they look on the show," Bhatia said. "So we're not filming every day, we have days off where we go play in the pool. It was pretty fun not just to film but to hang out with the other kids."
Their shared interest in cooking, as well as filming the show and spending all of their time together, led to relationships between the contestants that Bhatia said were a highlight of the experience.
"Really, we have lifelong bonds, because that was a really unique experience that we all went through," Bhaita said. "I think we all definitely had our ups and downs on the show off-camera, so getting to spend those months that we did filming was really special."
With the eighth season of "MasterChef Junior" having been filmed prior to the start of the pandemic, Bhatia said that he hadn't been able to tell anyone about his appearance on the show until recently, but that neighbors and friends have been supportive, despite his cooking skills not being common knowledge.
"A lot of them are surprised, since they didn't know I could cook," Bhatia said.
Since Bhatia's cooking skills have been showcased on national television, he said that they have been in high demand from friends and neighbors. He hopes to expand his offerings in the city via a small baking business locally, which he's applied for a permit with the city for.
With the show having been filmed in 2019, Bhatia, now in eighth grade at Gale Ranch Middle School, has had a long time away from the camera. With the season premier finally airing this year, however, he said he's happy to be back in the spotlight, and excited for what his budding celebrity status might hold.
Despite the rocky start, Bhatia was safe in last Thursday night's episode, which he says he particularly recommends to viewers.
Bhatia and the 13 other remaining contestants will be back on Fox for the third episode of the show's eighth season at 8 p.m. this Thursday, where the competition for the $100,000 prize and title will continue.