This tiny toque is really cooking with gas.
New Yorker Nikki Bidun, 12, was crowned the champ of “Top Chef Junior” on the reality show’s season finale Saturday night, winning a cool $50,000. She took the crown by whipping up a three-course meal of pork soup dumplings, short rib ragu with fresh fettucine and homemade ricotta, and lemon souffle — but the Upper West Sider really loves a good NYC hot dog.
“Gray’s Papaya has the best quality,” said Nikki, who’s in seventh grade at Booker T. Washington Middle School.
The precocious cook got her start at the cutting board at just 2 years old, acting as her parents’ sous chef. The family’s narrow galley kitchen actually gave her an advantage for “Top Chef
Junior” challenges such as working in the close confines of a food truck. “If you can cook in a phone booth, you can cook anywhere,” she joked of her tiny home kitchen.
An only child, she credits her parents — mom Olga is a real-estate agent and originally from Belarus, while dad Michael works in finance — for introducing world cultures into her kitchen repertoire.
“Traveling around to the Amazon rainforest, Italy and the Caribbean helped, but so does living in the city with its huge melting pot of cuisines,” Nikki said.
Before scoring a spot on the Universal kids reality show, she immersed herself in local cooking classes, learning to break down fish and chicken as well as kill a lobster, which prepared her well for the Halloween episode, which was her favorite challenge. Nikki concocted a “graveyard scene” using seared steak as a dead body, red cabbage and apple puree as blood-soaked dirt and Brussels-sprout leaves as flowers left by mourners.
During the nine weeks of shooting last spring in Los Angeles, she became close friends with her fellow contestants and often FaceTimes with them. A typical day on set could run as long as 12 hours, six days a week, and in their off time the kids would hang out at a mall or hit up their favorite dumpling restaurant.
‘School really gets in the way of cooking.’
“We’d laugh and cry,” Nikki said of her competitors. “We got really close — none of us hate each other.”
In Manhattan, her weekends are usually spent shlepping to restaurant-supply stores on The Bowery in search of the perfect tools and eating her way across town. (On her short list of restaurants to try is the Lower East Side’s Gem, owned by 20-year-old chef Flynn McGarry, who also started cooking at a young age.) Weeknights, Nikki likes to whip up roasted red bell pepper soup with Moroccan-inspired shrimp for her family: “It’s our rule, we eat together every night.”
At school, being Nikki’s pal comes with fringe benefits. “I told my best friend I’ll make her chicken wings for the Super Bowl!” the Top Chef said.
As for her big-money winnings, Nikki has no plans to spend it just yet. Instead, she said, “I’m going to use it for culinary school.”
Eventually, she wants to open a restaurant of her own, and plans to check pomp and circumstance at the door.
“You don’t really need a Michelin star to decide if your food is good or not,” she said. “I don’t need that to define me.”
But first she has to get through seventh-grade algebra. According to Nikki, “School really gets in the way of cooking.”