Milo Fleming's personality is as punchy as his cooking.
The St. Paul eighth-grader is one of a dozen kids ages 11-14 who were selected from across the country for the first season of Top Chef Jr., a spin-off of Bravo's hit reality cooking competition.
At 13 years old, Fleming is already a seasoned chef who makes dinner for his family at least three nights a week, and has helped with prep work at Tilia, one of Minneapolis' most sophisticated restaurants.
"I've always been in the kitchen," he told GoMN.
His father says from the time Fleming was 3 years old, he was raiding the cupboards and fridge to "mix potions" – aka not very tasty concoctions of random ingredients stirred together in a bowl.
With continued practice, Fleming's passion – and knife skills – sharpened. Once he got to sixth grade, he started culinary classes at Upper Mississippi Academy, his charter school in St. Paul. Around that time, he also auditioned for a different cooking competition for kids, but didn't make the cut.
But producers had kept Fleming's name on a list, and earlier this year, he got a call about an audition in Chicago. So he and his family drove out there.
"We had to slice a potato, we had to measure flour and water, just like some really basic cooking skills," Fleming said. "Then they asked us a bunch of different questions about our personality and our hobbies and like, what got us into cooking."
After several call backs, Fleming was asked to join Top Chef Jr.
"I kinda couldn't believe it when I was picked," he told GoMN. "I was on cloud nine and I couldn't really process it."
A winning dish
Fans of Top Chef will enjoy the kid version, which Bravo says has "all of the eliminations, the drama, and the kitchen disasters – but with smaller-size chefs."
That means the kids compete in some of the same challenges fans have come to know and love, like quickfire challenges and restaurant wars. Dancing with the Stars contestant Vanessa Lachey is the host, while Australian chef Curtis Stone is the head judge. The winner will receive $50,000.
"If I won the money from Top Chef Jr. I would buy a food truck. And with the rest of the money, if there was any left over, I would put a down payment on a degree at the Culinary Institute of America," Fleming said.
Only two episodes have aired so far, so Fleming couldn't share any spoilers about the challenges. But he said he'd learned more about cooking over the summer (filming wrapped up in August) than he had in his whole life so far.
The boy definitely has what it takes to win. On the show's premiere episode, the mini chefs were asked to transform their family's favorite meal into a restaurant quality masterpiece. Fleming won that first challenge with his ginger char-grilled steak with udon noodle salad and a roasted peach and jalapeño purée.
And for the interview with GoMN, Fleming made a miso and ginger glazed salmon with a chili oil and cauliflower purée, accompanied by scallion and soy glazed haricot violettes (purple green beans).
Both producers agreed that it was better than any salmon we'd ever made at home (we are 24 and 30 years old, so it was quite humbling). The salmon was perfectly cooked and the cauliflower purée was silky and buttery, with a kick that had us practically licking the plate.
Besides cooking, Fleming loves to draw, and plays basketball and the drums. But he definitely plans to follow his culinary dreams all the way to the top.
"My advice for other kids on following their dreams is just don't ever doubt yourself," he told GoMN. "I never thought in my wildest dreams that I would make it on Top Chef Jr., but I have and that's pretty crazy. So just go for whatever you want and just try to do whatever you can to get there."
What kind of foods do you like to make? I cook a lot of Asian food because my parents lived in China for a few years, so they have like some really authentic flavors that they brought home with them. Plus, I really like eating Asian food, and when it boils down to it, you're eating what you cook.
What's your go-to ingredient? Soy sauce, because it's a staple ingredient for any good Asian dish. I like using a lot of bold flavors, but I think soy sauce is an ingredient that I couldn't live without.
Tell me more about that food truck. I want to own a gourmet hotdog truck. And I want to have 10 different items on the menu – like 10 different hotdogs representing 10 different food cultures from around the world.
I'd have a Mediterranean gyro dog, or like a Vietnamese bahn mi dog, or an Italian dog on a hoagie roll. Just a bunch of different things that stay grounded on having the level that they are a hotdog, but still like representing different food cultures and bringing in their native flavors.
Favorite restaurant in the Twin Cities? Tilia, because I worked there a couple times and I really love all the chefs there. But also the owner of the restaurant, Steven Brown, he was just nominated for a Beard award, so he's like a pretty big chef in Minnesota. Plus he has another restaurant called Saint Genevieve, that's also really great.
Do you have a favorite food memory? One of my favorite food memories is making pasta with my family. It's kind of a big ordeal to make pasta from scratch and it takes a long time. So our whole family banded together to be able to do it, and afterwards the payoff was huge because it's so much better than normal pasta. And it was a lot of fun.