Excelsior eighth-grader Ariana Feygin experiences a taste of the limelight.
If you’ve ever watched an episode of MasterChef Junior on Fox, the youth cooking competition hosted by celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay, you’ve likely wondered: How can those kids be so nice to each other? They’re competing for $100,000!
Minnetonka Middle School West eighth-grader Ariana Feygin had the same question when she first auditioned for the show at age 8. Four years later, Ariana became the first Minnesotan to compete in the sixth season, which aired this spring, and while Ariana came just shy of cracking the top 10, she wouldn’t trade the experience for the world.
“My ‘ah-ha’ moment was when I was watching [MasterChef], and I realized I could cook everything those kids were cooking … but I never thought they could really be so nice to each other,” she says. “I’m very competitive, so that was one of the biggest surprises, what you see on television, it’s all real.”
Out of the Pantry
Ariana started cooking at age 5 or 6, her parents Lenny and Julia Feygin recall. “It was a surprise to us, because we are not cooks,” Lenny says. “She came to those cooking shows all on her own.”
Ariana quite literally was watching as many shows as she could, and once she was old enough to read, she devoured cookbooks as well. “I think you have a lot more opportunity to be free with cooking, to come up with crazy combinations,” she says. “Cooking is so creative, a way to express myself … Most people rely on recipes when they cook, but for [the show] we needed to keep it all in our own heads. This wasn’t that difficult for me, because I can visualize the ratios. It just comes naturally to me. I can smell a dish and name all its ingredients.”
Her favorite cooking shows growing up were the competitions, but especially anything by Gordon Ramsay. “Every time I watched him, I didn’t see anger and fury—I saw passion,” she says. “He cooks with this confidence and knowledge that’s just so inspiring. He is my culinary idol.”
On MasterChef, lots of attention is paid to each young chef’s heritage and background, which influences their cuisine. Ariana is fluent in Russian and Spanish. Her parents each emigrated separately from Belarus, Julia when she was 6 and Lenny when he was 21. They met at a Russian restaurant in the Twin Cities, where Lenny was performing music. Ariana is well versed in what she calls “a lot of really interesting foods: earthy vegetables, beets (borscht is a traditional beet soup), meat and potatoes, and mushrooms,” she says, and this is due in large part to cooking with her grandparents in her younger years. She says these days, however, other international foods interests her the most.
Persistence Pays Off
Ariana began filming MasterChef right around Thanksgiving in 2016, but prior to that, she had auditioned for the show three times. There were more than 10,000 kids at the open calls, her dad says, and the first time she auditioned in Phoenix, Ariz., Ariana set off a fire alarm making a stir fry for the on-camera cooking demo, one of a variety of simple tests that also included things like knife skills. “I got very stressed out,” she says, and took away the importance of operating under pressure. “A lot of the kids had agents, but we discovered the casting crew didn’t want that,” Ariana says. “Just kids with big personalities.”
During her second audition, Ariana was fighting a virus and had a high fever, but persevered. “As a parent, I knew how badly she wanted this,” Lenny says. This time Ariana almost made the top 40, so when she had the opportunity one more time to audition in Jacksonville, Fla., her dad couldn’t say no.
In preparation, meanwhile, Ariana was “training” here in Minnesota between auditions. She became a stage, derived from the French word stagiaire (which means “trainee, apprentice or intern”) under James Beard Award-winning chef Gavin Kaysen at Spoon and Stable, as well as at 6Smith in Wayzata. She also did an intensive 10-day training session with the culinary and pastry team at a restaurant while on vacation in St. Lucia. She asked these mentors for their own cookbooks from their school days, which she read cover to cover several times.
Making the top 40 meant Ariana and her dad had to leave the rest of her family behind to fly out and film in L.A.—for as long as she stayed in the competition.
“I had so many mixed emotions when I finally made it,” she says. “I remember jumping around, but I had to leave my mom and siblings behind, and I couldn’t tell any of my friends where I was going.” It’s not really an expedited filming schedule, either. She—and all of the contestants—took classes on set, but when she returned to Minnetonka all she could divulge at first was she was “in California working on a special project,” she says, during those three months.
Behind the Scenes
While Ariana was competing, she and her dad lived in a hotel with the rest of the contestants and parents—but even since the finale, the Feygins contractually can’t share much about the process (spoiler alert!). Still, Ariana can divulge a few fun tidbits.
“We had to make a fruit tart in an hour—that’s really challenging,” Ariana says. “It’s so chaotic, your mise en place (which means ‘everything in its space’ in French and refers to being organized at your cooking station) is all messed up. You need to be able to cook under enormous pressure and think on your feet.
“For the first time in my life, I was able to talk about the right way to infuse steak or the flavor profile of a dish with kids my own age,” she says. “We were all so alike, it’s a special bond.” It was these contestants—the ones she thought she’d be so competitive with—who were the only ones she could speak freely with during the year between filming and the show’s airing. She texted and FaceTimed with them often.
Not as surprising were the long days: One morning in particular, the contestants got picked up at the hotel at 4:30 a.m. (buses shuttled the entire cast daily). Parents’ days were spent in the green room working on their computers; nights were often spent relaxing at the hotel, swimming, visiting the outdoor mall across the street and sometimes even eating out. “The kids would get offended if they were brought kids’ menus at the restaurants where we ate,” Lenny says with a laugh. “They didn’t understand why they weren’t offered a pork chop.”
Future and Fundraising
When all is said and done, “I’ve learned a lot from Ariana,” Lenny says. “With kids, it’s interesting. They don’t see the obstacles in life; they truly believe anything is possible.” He’s been so inspired, in fact, that he’s shifted careers to help with Ariana’s next business endeavor, a private experiential dining company called Ariana’s Kitchen. He’s studying to become a sommelier to complement her recipes.
And this belief in the possibilities of life was something the Feygin siblings were already living prior to Ariana’s stint on national primetime television. “My parents’ stories are really humbling to me, to be born into such a special place,” Ariana says. “My sister and I always knew we were so lucky and it wasn’t fair that other kids don’t have as good a life as us, so we were looking to do something.”
In 2013, Ariana and her sister, Gabi, discovered the Pinky Swear Foundation, which raises funds for kids and their families facing childhood cancers. The Feygins have raised almost $200,000 to date for the organization, in a variety of ways, including bagging groceries for shoppers, hosting a silent auction and organizing movie nights.
Today, Ariana’s emphasis is on giving back through cooking. “Philanthropy is really at the core of my business,” she says, noting she donates private catering to silent auctions via organizations like the Lions and Rotary clubs, or the Newborn Foundation. “I want to use my cooking as a platform.”
She really loves public speaking, which she’s gotten to do a lot of, thanks not only to the MasterChef experience, but also through her fundraising. “My biggest goal is to continue to inspire people, to let them know that anything you put your mind to, you can achieve,” she says, adding that she could see a future as a food critic or even instructing cooking classes. “Chase your dreams, and never give up.”
School: Eighth-grader at Minnetonka Middle School West where she maintains a 4.0 GPA.
Family: Parents Lenny and Julia, sister Gabi, 11, and brothers Michael, 8, and Nicolas, 3.
• Local chef-mentors Andrew Zimmern of Bizarre Foods fame; Gavin Kaysen of Bellecour and Spoon and Stable restaurants; and Randy Stanley’s staff at 6Smith restaurant in Wayzata.
• Her Belarussian heritage.
• Chef Gordon Ramsay.
Stats about the show that made Ariana Feygin a household name around Lake Minnetonka—and the country.
Just kids: MasterChef Junior is Fox’s cooking competition featuring young cooks ages 8 to 13, based on the MasterChef competition for adults.
Judges: Host and judge is celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay, who was joined in season six by pastry chef Christina Tosi and chef-restaurateur Joe Bastianich.
Cash money: The winner earns $100,000.
The challenges: Highlights in Ariana Feygin’s season included mystery box challenges, preparing dishes made from items found in a concealed box; preparing a wedding meal; chicken-and-waffle recipes influenced by their heritage; and a Blue Apron mystery box challenge.
Ariana’s Successes to Date
Prudential Spirit of Community Awards honoree in 2017 for
raising more than $100,000 (now $200,000) with her sister, Gabi, since 2013 to support youth cancer patients and their families through the Pinky Swear Foundation.
First Minn. contestant on MasterChef Junior cooking
competition, season six.
Celebrity judge for the 2018 Super Bowl Super Snack Challenge in Minneapolis.
Founder of Ariana’s Kitchen, which provides in-home
Ariana’s Recipe Box
Two dishes your kids can make at home, courtesy of the young chef.
Pan Roasted Pork Chop and Apple Sage Chutney
4 bone-in pork chops
2–3 Tbsp. butter
3 cloves of garlic
5 sage leaves
Salt and pepper to taste
Canola or grapeseed oil
Apple Sage Chutney
3 Tbsp. butter
3 medium-size apples
1 Tbsp. brown sugar
Pinch of salt
¼ cup chopped parsley
Chopped sage, to taste
Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Season pork chops generously with salt and pepper. Place pan over high heat, and add the oil. Once the oil is hot, add the pork chops and sear them on all sides, until colored and golden all over. Add the butter, sage and garlic. Spoon the foaming butter over the pork chop to infuse the herb flavor, and cook the pork through.
Remove the pork chops, and allow them to rest at least 5 minutes. For the chutney, in the same pan as the pork, add the butter, and allow it to melt. Add the apples, brown sugar, salt, and sage, and cook until the apples are soft and caramelized. Finish with chopped parsley. Plate the pork chops, and top them with the chutney.
Honey and Vanilla Bean Panna Cotta with Blackberry Coulis and Maple Oat Crumble
1 vanilla bean
3 oz. honey
1¾ cup heavy cream
½ c. whole milk
2 tsp. unflavored gelatin
1 cup blackberries
Honey, to taste
Lemon juice, to taste
1 cup rolled oats
¼ cup flour
6 Tbsp. cold butter, crumbled
2 Tbsp. pure maple syrup
Split the vanilla bean lengthwise, and scrape out the seeds. Over medium heat, combine the vanilla bean seeds, cream and honey. Bring to a simmer.
Pour the milk into a bowl, and sprinkle with gelatin to soften; mix. Whisk together the gelatin mixture and the cream mixture. Cool at room temperature or over an ice bath.
Pour the mixture into panna cotta molds, glasses or ramekins. Chill them in the fridge until firm (about four hours).
To make the crumble, combine oats, flour, maple syrup and butter. Spread onto a sheet tray, and bake at 375 degrees F until golden (about 15–20 minutes). Crumble.
To make the coulis, add the blackberries to a saucepan over medium heat. Allow them to release their juices, reduce, and thicken. Add honey and lemon juice to taste. Strain to remove the seeds.
Remove the panna cottas from the molds or leave them in the glass or ramekins. Serve them with the coulis and crumble, and top with fresh blackberries.