ENCINITAS — Grace Howard bubbles forth with childlike enthusiasm when she talks about why she loves to cook.
As she should — she’s 9 years old.
“I think it all started when I was really little, playing in my play kitchen, and I would serve fake food to guests at our parties,” said Grace, whose culinary repertoire has grown from Play-Doh to honey mustard glazed salmon.
“It is so much fun to have people come over and let the food talk for you,” she said.
On Feb. 9, however, Grace will be cooking real food on a really big stage — “MasterChef Junior.”
Grace is one of 40 finalists selected out of thousands of tiny chefs ages 8 to 13 from across the country to appear on the fifth season of the popular Fox reality TV show competition, the winner of which earns a $100,000 grand prize.
In the show, a spin-off of Fox’s “MasterChef” series, the junior home cooks compete in a series of challenges that whittle the field from 40 to one under the watchful eye of the show’s co-hosts, British culinary icon Gordon Ramsay and fellow Chef Christina Tosi.
Grace, a budding actress who has performed in many community plays, auditioned for the show in August of 2015 after her mother Melissa found out about the show’s casting call online. Filming actually took place in March 2016 in Los Angeles and mother and daughter stayed in Los Angeles while dad Mark held down the house and their three dogs, two fish, bird, turtle and lizard.
While filming for the show wrapped months ago, Grace and Melissa are sworn to secrecy about the results.
But both talked about the experience, which they said was life changing in many ways.
“There was a lot to it, it was a great experience in many ways, and we both learned a lot about the process,” mother Melissa said. “It took a lot of hard work and taught Grace a lot of life lessons along the way, and she was able to meet some fantastic people and learn a lot about something that she really loved.
“It was a great opportunity for any child, it is a big thing, and it takes a strong personality and a child with a lot of stamina, endurance and talent to do what all of these kids did, and I am really proud of her for that,” Melissa said.
And what did Grace love about it? Let’s just say the list is long: great friends, trips to Santa Monica Pier, learning to cook from some of the best culinary minds in the business and more.
“I definitely loved showing my creative side, it was fun putting food on a plate and turn it into a piece of edible artwork,” she said. “I learned something new every day I walked into the kitchen.”
And what about the hosts?
“Christina was just a little cupcake angel, she was amazing, she is kind of my cupcake mentor,” Grace said through audible effervescence. “She was just a little sweeter of a cupcake than he is.”
“He” would be Ramsay, the chef known for his, well, sharp demeanor.
“He is a really awesome guy, but he can be kind of tough with the ‘Get the food on the plate what were you thinking!’” Grace said, doing her best Ramsay impersonation. “But I learned a lot from him.”
Grace, who attends The Rhoades School, said she is bursting with excitement as the day draws closer to the show’s premiere.
“I have a really close friend who loves to cook and to act just like me, and I am so excited for her to see me on TV,” Grace said. “I want my teacher to see me, I can’t wait for my principal, my nurse, my family and my friends to see me on TV, I am so excited.”
Excited, to see her win? We had to ask.
“I won by being a contestant, does that count?” she said, with a laugh.
“MasterChef Junior” airs on FOX Feb. 9.