Thirteen-year-old James Hooper is used to cooking for other people.
“I have really been immersed in food since I was born,” James said. “My mom had the business at the farmer’s market, and when she actually opened the bakery, I started baking some, and after that I just sort of started cooking.”
His mother is Lorraine Hooper, and the bakery is Lola’s Cookies. James grew up helping his mother at a farmer’s market and the bakery.
But James cooked for a bigger audience than ever before when he put his food in front of celebrity chefs Aaron Sanchez and Art Smith and former professional boxer Laila Ali on the Food Network program “Chopped Junior,” which aired Dec. 29.
The invitation to cook on air came as a surprise. James applied to appear on “Kids Baking Championship,” before “Chopped Junior” debuted. He was not selected for “Kids Baking Championship,” but the network held onto his application and called him up about applying to be on “Chopped Junior.” After a series of demo videos and interviews, James made the cut.
“It was a real surprise, and actually at that point we really didn’t have that much notice at all,” Lorraine said. “He was at camp at the time that he got that call, and I think he had about three weeks to prepare.”
That began a hectic—but very well-fed—time for the Hooper family.
“We were doing like two meals a day for a while, where he’d cook a full lunch and then we’d clean it all up—there was a lot of cleanup—and then we’d do it again for dinner,” Lorraine said. “We ate really well.”
“Chopped Junior” is an elimination program that requires contestants to come up with dishes on the fly in a half hour from unconventional ingredients. James and Lorraine put themselves through a crash-course in cooking to get ready for every eventuality.
“I learned as many techniques as I could—different ways to cook meats in enough time, different ways to cook vegetables, different ways to prepare food—so that whatever came up, I would have, hopefully, a way to make it,” James said.
They ran through ideas for meal courses and practiced everything from starches to sauces so James would be ready for any surprises.
“My background is more in baking, which is all about following recipes and being precise,” Lorraine said. “With cooking, you have much more leeway, and you can afford to just throw a little something in. … So I really follow recipes, I read them and I follow them exactly. But we had to get used to not doing that, and that was kind of a big leap of faith for me. But we did it together, we got the hang of it, and it was fun.”
Then, the big day. Filming days are very long and start first thing in the morning. James’ interview segment, which amounts to only a few minutes of airtime, took three hours. James wore a black-and-white bandanna under his brown mop of hair and told the interviewers he was hoping to win the $10,000 prize to help reopen his mother’s bakery.
Finally, the big reveal: The four young contestants would cook with vegetable fried rice, oven-roasted tomatoes, tofu, and gingerbread cookie men.
After all the preparation, the gingerbread did not catch James off guard. The tofu did.
“Mom and I practiced for everything!” James moaned on television. “Except tofu!”
Nonetheless, he whipped up a stir fry that drew admiring comments from the judges, both for his cooking and his composure under pressure.
“The whole experience was pretty intense,” Lorraine wrote in an email. “I think even the adults must find it very difficult, but the kids who do it are incredible troopers.”
Contestants cook under a tight deadline, lots of pressure, and with four or five cameras pointed at them the whole time. James had never cooked with tofu before. Sadly, he choked on the tofu (metaphorically) and the judges sent him home after the first round.
When the news was handed down, James took it with the barest flash of a grimace, a small nod, and a stoic straight face. He shook hands with each of the judges and walked out.
“Anyways, he still enjoys cooking, baking, and eating,” Lorraine wrote. “In some way or another, I bet we’ll be sharing this passion for food for a long time. All of that made it a good outcome as far as I’m concerned.”
And even without the $10,000 prize money, Lorraine, aka “Lola,” is selling her baked goods again at Very Virginia Shop, 16 S. King St. in Leesburg.
James said he loves cooking and expects to keep doing it, even considering it as a possible career down the road. Either way, he hasn’t slowed down cooking at all, and Lorraine and her family enjoy the benefit of this particularly talented teenager.
“I know he’s planning to make dinner for us tomorrow night,” Lorraine said.