David DiTomasso, the head men’s soccer coach at Elmhurst College, was at work when he heard that his young son wanted to try out for a national cooking contest.
Sure, why not, he thought, and left it at that.
Now 11-year-old Michael “Mikey” DiTomasso is one of the fierce competitors on the Fox network’s MasterChef Junior, where contestants between the ages of 8 and 13 take on a series of cooking challenges in hopes of impressing three celebrity chef-judges and, ultimately, winning the $100,000 grand prize.
Coach DiTomasso says his son has approached the competition with same kind of positive, hard-working attitude he asks of his soccer players. And even though the DiTomasso family knows the outcome, they’ve enjoyed watching the contest unfold, and are more than a little relieved that all the months of secrecy are coming to an end.
In its sixth season, MasterChef Junior premiered with 40 kids from all over the country, including six from the Chicago area. As of the sixth episode, Michael DiTomasso was still in it, executing handmade sausage and cheese ravioli with pesto.
“He exudes a ton of confidence, but he’s also very personable and has that million-dollar smile and a crazy sense of humor,” his dad said. “He also has a flair for the visual aspect of food, and his plate presentation is second to none.”
Like his father, Michael loves to compete. He plays soccer, basketball and lacrosse, and gets straight-A’s as a fifth-grader at Prospect Elementary School in Clarendon Hills. “He’s a very, very intense athlete, in a good way,” Coach DiTomasso says. Michael enjoys cooking as a way to relax, even though he’s making full meals for his family—his dad and mom (a teacher at York Community High School in Elmhurst), and his older brother and younger sister—three to four times a week.
There was little time for relaxing when Michael was in Los Angeles filming MasterChef Junior. After Elmhurst’s soccer season ended, Coach DiTomasso went to L.A. to be with him for part of it. It was a challenging experience for the coach, to have sit helplessly on the sidelines and not even be permitted to be a spectator. He and the other contestants’ parents stayed in a hotel for as long as their children remained in the competition.
During the filming, the parents were sequestered for hours every day in a big room near the elaborate MasterChef Junior set, getting to see their kids periodically but not knowing everything that was going on or all that was said. DiTomasso spent the long days recruiting prospective Elmhurst students from two laptops set up on a table.
He takes no credit for Michael’s cooking talents. But he did counsel Michael the same way he does his recruits and players at Elmhurst. “We preach with every player to have a ‘person first’ mentality,” he said. “That means you treat people with respect, look people in the eye, shake hands correctly, be the first to volunteer. Be humble but confident.” Academics come second, soccer third, and players can’t truly succeed at either of those efforts unless they succeed at the first.
The coach is proud of how his son handled himself on the show, but can’t say much more, of course. “His approach has been all about the fun,” DiTomasso said. “He’s thoroughly enjoying himself but also is excited for the other contestants, who are his friends. He’s been truly grounded about the whole thing.”
MasterChef Junior airs on the Fox network at 7:00 p.m. on Fridays. The next episode is scheduled to air on Friday, April 6.