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August 13, 2014 at 6:15 AM

11-year-old Woodinville wundercook brings skills to Food Network

Photo by Greg Gilbert/The Seattle Times

Photo by Greg Gilbert/The Seattle Times

First, kid cook Amber Kelley went to the White House. Now she’s coming to the Food Network.

The 11-year-old Woodinville girl will be featured on a TV series with Rachael Ray and Guy Fieri premiering Aug. 17 at 8 p.m. She’s one of eight junior chefs around the country who spent three weeks in Los Angeles filming the second season of “Rachael vs. Guy: Kids Cook-Off.” Each of the six episodes features a different competition and cooking star, including visits from Alex Guarnaschelli of “Chopped” and Robert Irvine of “Restaurant: Impossible.” The winning kid will come out of it with a Food Network show.

“It was competitive, but it was fun competitive,” said the incoming sixth-grader, who was sworn to secrecy during filming and couldn’t tell her classmates why she was taking her final exams remotely from Los Angeles.

It was also a change in scope for Amber, a lively preteen with an easy sense of humor and an unforced feeling of fun about cooking and performing. She’s a camera pro who started her own “Cook With Amber” YouTube show devoted to healthy and tasty eating in 2012. A zucchini “noodle” recipe won her a lunch with Michelle Obama last year as the Washington state winner of a healthful recipe competition. She’s also been a finalist in a Jamie Oliver contest on healthful foods, a regular TV guest on Q13, and a genuine if unusually young evangelist for the joys of nutritious meals. Her recipe list includes Fudgsicles made with avocado and cacao powder. Then there’s the salmon salad that she named “ ‘I’m in Heaven Salad’ when I was 4 years old because it is SO DELICIOUS!”

Amber said in her casting video for the show that “I learned to cook from my mom. I’d always help her in the kitchen.” As a little kid she’d also pretend she was Rachael Ray, she remembered, using Play-Doh instead of ingredients.

When she got the call to come to L.A., she said it was a surreal feeling when Ray and Fieri walked on to the set. (Here’s a link to her casting video.)

“They’re standing there and they’re talking to you, and you feel like you’re going to pass out. But you don’t want to pass out,” she remembered.

Waiting backstage was stressful, but cooking was actually “super fun.”

Did Amber, who wound up on “Team Guy” with Fieri as a mentor, wish she had learned any more cooking techniques before the show?

“That’s mainly why Guy was there, to help us. There wasn’t a moment in there where I went, ‘Oh shoot, I wish I had learned that.’ He just made you feel so confident, and he’d help you with anything you needed at all.”

The reality-show world can be harsh, but Amber said no one was yelling on her set.

“They were really nice, and they told the truth, too,” she said. “It wasn’t like they were going to not tell us we under-seasoned just because we were kids. They actually told us the truth, and they liked our food, and I’m really happy about that.”
(Fieri, in one of the show’s promotions, comments on one preparation “I can’t believe this was made by someone with a bedtime!”)

Amber’s mom, Yohko, came for the filming, where parents watched from TV sets in a separate room. “I actually think it was more stressful for them than it was for us,” Amber said.

Parents did get involved at times — as in one episode when they had to reveal their children’s least favorite foods, which the kids would then be forced to cook with.
What was Amber’s? “Pie?” joked the health-conscious tween.

The junior version was also, at least from Amber’s perspective, less cutthroat among contestants than adult shows. The kids hung out in the hotel after filming, eating dinner together and enjoying the pool.

“We became really good friends. It was almost like having seven other siblings for three weeks.”

Back home in her own kitchen just in time to start thinking about school lunches, she hopes the show might inspire other people to have fun while cooking. She’s even been inspired herself. “I’ll be like, “Mom, give me 45 minutes, or give me 4 ingredients to use, kind of like ‘Chopped.’ ”

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