Tuscaloosa’s Fuller Goldsmith will test skills on ‘Top Chef Jr.’

Tuscaloosa’s Fuller Goldsmith will test skills on ‘Top Chef Jr.’
Tuscaloosa's Fuller Goldsmith exudes confidence in a promotional photo for Universal Kids' "Top Chef Jr." cooking competition. (Universal Kids)

Tuscaloosa’s Fuller Goldsmith continues his televised-cooking-contest streak this Friday, as one of the dozen picked for the debut run of “Top Chef Jr.”

The first segment of the elimination contest airs at 7 p.m. Friday on Universal Kids, NBCUniversal’s network designed for preteen children. “Top Chef Jr.” will follow much of the same format as its senior version, a Bravo hit since 2006, except with a different age range: A dozen chefs, aged 11-14, chosen from around the country, will take on various challenges as they strive for the title, which comes with a $50,000 prize.

Back in April, Fuller won “Chopped Junior” on the Food Network, beating out three other young culinary artists for a $10,000 prize. There’s no connection between the contests: Fuller applied for “Top Chef Jr.” earlier in the year, and taping started in May. To keep up the suspense, the outcome can’t yet be revealed, but in a phone interview with Fuller and his parents, Scott and Melissa, he sounded confident and calmly experienced. Producers offer tips for working on-camera, but Fuller mostly just gets on with it, and lets the TV people do their thing.

“I just do what I do,” said Fuller, who turned 14 Monday. “At first, you really think about the cameras, but once you’re, like, doing your thing, you get so focused on what you’re doing that you don’t notice.

“Just after a while, I fall into it, and everything around me is just in the background.”

“Chopped Junior” was one of the Food Network shows Fuller fell into while undergoing chemotherapy at Children’s of Alabama hospital in Birmingham. Diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia in 2007, when he was 3, he’s achieved a remission, followed by three more years of chemo, then spinal surgery to correct problems from medication, and a bone-marrow transplant in 2014. High-dose steroids, to combat some side effects, have led to weight gain, but it doesn’t slow his energy and inventiveness in a kitchen.

On his winning episode in April, “Chopped Junior” host Ted Allen noted, “Fuller’s body language is like that of a line cook. He’s like a pro.”

Guest judge Zachary Quinto, who played Skylar on TV’s “Heroes” and is the newest incarnation of Spock in J.J. Abrams’ “Star Trek” movies, noted Fuller’s cool control during the timed competition: “He obviously knows about the clock, but he’s not frantic,” Quinto said.

Learning from each other

“Top Chef Jr.” is a competitive process, but drawn out over a longer period. On “Chopped Junior,” competitors barely had time to talk.

“It makes a difference because the 12 kids, we all stayed at the same apartment,” Fuller said. “Pretty much every night we would go swimming down at the pool, so I got to know everybody. With ‘Chopped,’ I never got to know anybody.”

His competition includes kids from Louisiana, Illinois, Texas, North Carolina, Minnesota, California, Maryland and New York. A pool of 217 applicants was narrowed to 22 competitors, who then cooked through a “boot camp” for the top slots: Fuller made it at least into the top 12.

“Each week, it was very hard to see people go,” he said. “It was so much fun having other kids around who like the same things.”

The young chefs shared regional flavors and styles, Fuller said.

“We learned a lot from each other, actually,” he said. “I didn’t know what a sous-vide was until a couple of my friends did it.”

For those now Googling “sous-vide” — a French term, for cooking in a vacuum-sealed plastic pouch for long hours, at lower-than-normal temperatures, in a water bath or steam environment — to catch up with Fuller, welcome to the world of his parents, Scott and Melissa. While in California, father and son dined at one of the restaurants created by Curtis Stone, the “Top Chef Jr.” head judge.

“It was the first time that I’ve ever had a 10-course meal,” said Scott Goldsmith. “It’s interesting when you go to a restaurant, and here’s a 13-year-old doing the ordering. Of the 10 courses, I might have known one.”

A battle with leukemia didn’t prevent Tuscaloosa’s Fuller Goldsmith from pursuing his ambitions with gusto. (Karim Shamsi-Basha / Alabama NewsCenter)

Public recognition

Fuller studies not only the myriad of cooking shows, but watches others, dives into books and picks brains.

“I read about it, I watch it, I ask questions about it,” he said. “Then I try and do it for myself. I experiment.

“When I talk about cooking with my parents, it’s like I’m speaking a whole ’nother language.”

Fuller says his friends, family and fellow students at Tuscaloosa Academy don’t treat him any differently after the TV fame.

“It hasn’t changed, really. I just hang out with them like I used to,” he said.

But the big picture skews a little differently from the parental side.

“When we go to the grocery store, he’s recognized and stopped by everyone,” Melissa Goldsmith said. “They ask, ‘What are you working on?’ ”

When Scott went for a doctor’s visit a few months back, a woman at the office asked, “Are you that chef’s father?”

That chef’s been cooking for family, tailgate parties and special events for years. Southern Ale House, which hosted his victory show back in April, has helped introduce Fuller to staging, where he observes and helps out.

“He’s learned a lot from them, and (owner Justin Holt)’s even let him sit in on interviews, how to interview a potential employee, so he’s getting information on the business side of it,” Scott said. Having a chef experimenting in the family kitchen typically works out to their satisfaction, though ”he doesn’t like to clean up, so we have to do that.”

Whatever happens with “Top Chef Jr.,” Fuller’s plans remain to some day attend culinary school, then return to Tuscaloosa to open a restaurant, probably called Fuller. Its slogan: “Why be full when you can be fuller?”

“I knew I wanted to cook for the rest of my life before I went (to TV),” he said. “I just like to cook. Simple as that.”

To find Universal Kids on your provider, go to www.universalkids.com/shows/top-chef-jr. At the bottom left, click on channel finder, then insert your ZIP code.

This story originally appeared in The Tuscaloosa News.

Read more about Fuller Goldsmith from Alabama NewsCenter and watch him in action in the kitchen here.

Watch Fuller Goldsmith make smoked chicken spring rolls at Birmingham’s Pepper Place and read the recipe here.

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