When Lissa Ortego gets a grocery list from her 12-year-old son Cade, she usually can’t believe her eyes. The ingredients don’t look like something that would come from a pre-teen.
“When Cade sends you a shopping list for dinner, I just have to laugh and think, ‘Is this really a kid?’” she said. “He has a Southern comfort, Cajun flair.”
Cade’s shopping lists may be a bit advanced, but so are his cooking skills. The Oak Grove Middle School seventh-grader will make his television debut Friday night as one of 40 contestants on the new season of “MasterChef Junior.”
“I always knew how to cook,” Cade said. “My dad’s side of the family are all great cooks.
“I always grew up watching them and listening to them. I’ve pretty much always cooked, so I figured, why not try out?”
Cade’s father is Nick Ortego, former weather forecaster and news director for WDAM-TV. His uncle is Chris Ortego, owner of Cotton Blues restaurant in Hattiesburg.
Cade and his mother, an art teacher, were watching the Fox cooking competition about 18 months ago when an announcement came on for an open casting in New Orleans. Even though it was only a few days away, Cade was game to give it a try.
Getting the call
He was one of about 12,000 youngsters auditioning for 40 spots on the series, which gives kids ages 8 to 13 the chance to showcase their cooking abilities through a series of culinary challenges.
“Sometimes they would say, ‘Bring us your favorite dish,’ ” Cade remembered. “Other times they would say, ‘Make eggs or something.’
“They wanted to see what we could do.”
At the time, Cade was only 11 and attending Benedict Day School. Several auditions and a bunch of callbacks later, Cade was informed he had made the show.
“Every callback I was sweaty nervous,” he said. “Even the first episode of the show — jeez! That was the most nerve-racking one.”
Lissa Ortego was surprised when they got notice telling them to fly out to Los Angeles for the show.
“To be honest, I never thought he would make it,” she said. “It’s not that I didn’t believe in him. I just never imagined we would get the call.
“You tell your kids they can do anything, and you better believe it — they can.”
Lissa Ortego may have been more nervous than her son.
“When we were notified we were going to be flown out to L.A., it was surreal,” she said. “I was scared to death. It was a lot of pressure.”
‘It’s lots of pressure’
As a contestant on the show, Cade had the chance to compete for the title of MasterChef Junior and take home a trophy and $100,000 grand prize. Those stakes could give anyone a case of the nerves.
Cade had some experience dealing with the jitters. He’d been an athlete and a child actor and appeared in productions at the Saenger Theater. But he said when it came to meeting “MasterChef Junior” head judge and celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay, he just had to breathe and get through it.
“There’s really no way not to get nervous because you’re about to meet Gordon Ramsay,” he said. “As I saw him more and more, it got less nerve-racking, but I was looking at an actual superstar.
“(All the contestants) were nervous at the same level.”
Cade got a chance to meet other celebrities too — including renowned pastry chef Christina Tosi and restaurateur Wolfgang Puck.
On the first episode, the boys must prepare the perfect chicken breast. Cade was able to rely on his cooking sense and sensibility to get through some of the competitions, but not when it came to baking, which usually requires strict adherence to recipes.
“My favorite part about cooking is you’re in charge of your own style — you can go with the flow, you can put your own flair to it,” he said. “But baking was my weakness.
“Baking — you can’t put your own flair to it.”
For that reason, Cade found it challenging in the competition when he had to bake without written instructions. At those times, he was forced to come up with correct ingredients and amounts based on his own knowledge.
“The hardest part was, on the spot, knowing what to cook,” he said. “They tell you to cook this or that, and you just wing it. It’s lots of pressure.”
But Lissa Ortego said Cade’s at-home practice helped him on the show.
“At my house, I let him just do it,” she said. “He knew if it didn’t turn out, you just keep going.”
With the help of his mother, Cade completed his schoolwork in between takes on set. Despite the intensity of the competition, he enjoyed himself, especially getting to know the other 39 contestants.
“My favorite part was meeting lots of people from all over the United States,” he said. “People did things and said things I didn’t say.
“I made really good friends with all of them.”
On the air
Cade is looking forward to Friday night when he and his friends will be able to watch “MasterChef Junior” on TV. It was only two weeks ago that he was allowed to tell people he was even on the show.
“I’m really excited,” he said. “It’ll be one of the greatest moments of my life, and that’s going to be great to see.”
Cade said he went through a lot of emotions during filming, but it was all worth it.
“I would say it was definitely a roller-coaster, but I’m so glad I did it,” he said. “It taught me a lot of life lessons, and I wouldn’t change it for anything else.”
Cade said some of the things he learned are that “your best is your best” and “be yourself.”
Lissa Ortego also thinks the time spent on “MasterChef Junior” was valuable for her son.
“I think it was a positive experience,” she said. “I think ‘MasterChef Junior’ does a great job with that.
“(The kids) all left with their heads high and better for it.”
And Cade learned a little about his hobby that he can pass on to other amateur chefs.
“I would say cooking is just like any other skill — it doesn’t matter if you’re good or not — create memories and have a good time,” he said.
About Cade Ortego
Family: Mother, Lissa; father, Nick; brother, Blake, 17; sister, Isla, 2
School: Oak Grove Middle School, seventh grade
On the air
What: “MasterChef Junior”
When: 7-9 p.m. Friday