For Kiran Alwy, a 13-year-old culinary whiz kid who recently competed on the Food Network's "Chopped Junior," cooking became a priority when her parents got divorced.
"I'd always helped out in the kitchen when I was little. We'd make breakfast together. I'd put water into the pancake mix. "But when my parents split up — Sorry … "
She paused, looking at her parents, who laughed and encouraged her to continue.
"I kind of had to cook for myself," she said. "My mom really can't cook."
"This story always gets worse and worse," laughed Amanda Alwy, Kiran's mother. "It's so embarrassing."
The cooking part is true, Amanda admitted.
Kiran did learn her kitchen skills from her father, Moid, and her paternal grandmother, who taught her how to make traditional Pakistani dishes.
According to her dad, Kiran was 8 when she pulled him aside and said, "I'm done being the helper. I actually want to cook now. I don't want to get things out of the fridge, and I don't want to just pour water."
Her parents let her start using the stove with supervision. Moid taught her how to use a knife correctly. When she would stay with her mom in St. Louis Park, Kiran would hone those skills following recipes from meal kits Amanda ordered.
"[The kits] helped me learn certain techniques," Kiran said. "I also learned how to compose recipes because I saw what common ingredients were in things."
At her dad's house in St. Louis Park, Kiran would experiment with whatever they had on hand. "If we had ground beef in the fridge, I knew how to whip something up."
Outside of the kitchen, Kiran leads the busy life of a middle-schooler. She swims competitively and plays cello in the school orchestra. She hangs out with friends, maintains honor roll grades and watches TV, though mostly cooking shows.
Inspired by their love of Food Network, the family would hold cooking competitions between Moid and Kiran, with Amanda as the judge.
"I always won!" said Kiran. "I never lost once."
That ability to improvise in the kitchen was what landed her among the four contestants on last week's episode of "Chopped Junior." Out of thousands of kids who applied to compete on Season 9 of the youth cooking show, Kiran made it through rounds of rigorous interviews and onto the stage.
In "Chopped Junior," chefs between ages 9 and 13 get a basket of mystery ingredients and 30 minutes to prepare and plate a dish — an appetizer in the first round, entree in the second, and dessert in the third — that incorporates all the surprise components.
Kiran's episode aired last Tuesday.
For the first round, contestants were challenged to use ketchup-flavored soda, a hot dog with a cotton candy bun, cannellini beans and corn on the cob. Kiran had sampled ketchup soda before, so she sprang into action, whipping up a veggie and hot dog bruschetta, topped with a sweet and savory caramelized ketchup and soy glaze. She made the cut.
In Round 2, Kiran turned lemonade concentrate, rainbow chard, lobster tail and white chocolate macaroni and cheese into a lobster mac-and-cheese with a lemony chard salad topper. She finished with 10 minutes left and popped over to help other contestants finish their dishes. Her skills and generosity paid off; the judges were impressed and sent her to the final round.
There, Kiran went toe to toe with her new friend Uriah. They exchanged some hard stares for the camera, but Kiran said it was mostly for show. "We're still friends!" she said. "I knew at this point that I was just proud to have gotten that far. If I won, awesome. If Uriah won, also awesome."
It was a hard-fought battle — a flurry of pork rinds, cake, raspberries and salted caramel — but Kiran's cake pop and caramel ice cream was bested by Uriah's no-bake cheesecake.
"The judges said my cake pops were too sweet and the ice cream didn't have enough caramel," said Kiran. "I disagreed with them."
Though she went home sans title and $10,000 prize money, the experience has inspired her to apply for new cooking competitions.
"I'm heavily debating 'MasterChef Junior' with Gordon Ramsay, who I'm also kind of scared of," she said.
She's made connections with local chefs, as well. Gavin Kaysen of Demi, Spoon & Stable and Bellecour e-mailed her some tips for the "Chopped Junior" competition. Chef Alex Roberts offered to let her be a line cook at Alma for a day. She recently met chef David Fhima, of Fhima's in downtown Minneapolis, and he gave her some "life advice," she said.
"Then he invited me to come to the kitchen at the busiest time to see if I can handle it."
Something tells us she can.
Hannah Sayle • 612-673-7185