Notwithstanding its premiere on Friday the 13th, Louisiana has favorable luck going into the debut season of "Top Chef Jr.," the kids' version of the popular Bravo TV cooking competition series, "Top Chef."

Two of the 12 young chefs competing for the title and $50,000 prize are from the state — Audrey Brust, 12, of Zachary, and 11-year-old Katelyn Rickert, of New Orleans. They'll be in the kitchen up against other youngsters ages 11-14 from across the country.


The dozen hopefuls traveled to Los Angeles this summer to shoot the 12, hourlong episodes, which will air at 7 p.m. Fridays starting this week on Universal Kids (formerly Sprout).

"They'll battle it out in some of 'Top Chef’s' most iconic challenges, including 'quickfires' and 'restaurant wars' as well as new, kid-friendly challenges exclusive to 'Top Chef Jr.,'" the network says.

"I started cooking when I was about 7, when I found out I had celiac disease," the home-schooled Audrey says. "I knew I was going to have to cook for myself my whole life. And after that, I just kind of fell in love with cooking. And I’ve enjoyed it ever since."

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder in which the ingestion of gluten leads to damage in the small intestine, also affecting the body's absorption of nutrients. So learning to cook gluten-free was Audrey's first hurdle. 

"It is sometimes very hard to make things gluten-free, especially baked goods," she says. "But I actually made a flourless chocolate cake on Tuesday for my brother's birthday. Once you know what flours you can use, you can start making like, a béchamel sauce, stuff like that."

The Brust family also includes mom and dad, Stacy and Gregory Brust.

Audrey says she cooks a lot of Southern dishes, Mediterranean fare and Louisiana seafood, such as the fried oysters Rockefeller she also whipped up for brother Luke's 15th birthday dinner.

Audrey documents her time in the kitchen with photos and videos she shares on social media. She does still let mom, Stacy Brust, cook "every once in a while," she says with a giggle.

Audrey's "Top Chef Jr." journey began with an at-home interview by Skype with show representatives, followed by submission of a cooking demonstration. Two months later came news that she had qualified for "Top Chef Jr." boot camp, an initial competition from which the final 12 contestants were chosen. 

Walking into the "Top Chef Jr." kitchen that first time was mind-blowing, the young chef says.

"I was like, 'Oh my God, this is crazy,' because it was like the biggest kitchen I'd ever seen," she says. "Lots of stoves, ovens, and the pantry was huge.

"And to be able to cook with a whole bunch of other kids and see what their style is, that was a lot of fun."

The show also provided cooking classes to the contestants, where they learned to use a gas stove, food processors and other equipment, Audrey says.

But how did she stand the pressure in the show's kitchen, the cameras, the challenges and the time clocks?

"I had friends all around me, so that kind of calmed me down. And I had my mom with me the whole time," Audrey says. "If I was really having a hard time in the kitchen, I would just take a step back and take a few deep breaths." 

Audrey says she's been watching TV cooking shows "basically since birth." She's a big fan of "Top Chef," "The Pioneer Woman" (Ree Drummond), and now, "Top Chef Jr." lead judge and TV personality, chef Curtis Stone.

"He's a great chef and a great mentor. He gives great cooking tips."

Audrey says she had time to compare Southern cooking notes with fellow contestant Katelyn, and hopes the two can get together again soon.

Although she always likes being in the kitchen, Katelyn says her interest in cooking escalated around a health issue as well, that of her mother, Lisa Rickert. 

"When my mom had to change her food diet, and we got our family chef, she taught me different techniques and that's when I really started my passion for cooking," Katelyn says.

Lisa Rickert said a couple of years ago she had to adjust to eating completely gluten-free and completely dairy-free. She had been eating MSG-free since she was 19. 

"With two companies and two kids (the family also includes husband Scott Rickert and son Christian, 6), I didn't have time to prepare every meal I needed to eat, so we brought in a family chef, Jewel Robinson," Lisa Rickert explained.

"When we hired chef Jewel, I really just got out of the way, and I told the chef, 'If you trust her (Katelyn), then I trust you' and that's when Katelyn started to flourish and develop all her chef skills," her mother says.

Katelyn says the family's new chef started her on kitchen techniques and eventually instructed her in cooking full meals.

"My favorite thing to cook is pork tenderloin," Katelyn says. "I like to make it with mashed potatoes or green peas on the side."

As far as auditioning for "Top Chef Jr.," Katelyn says her mom sprung the whole thing on her.

"She scheduled the interview. It was basically all a surprise until the day before my Skype interview. So I just had to get ready, and I made it," says Katelyn, a sixth-grader at St. Dominic School.

The "Top Chef Jr." kitchen was also a jaw-dropper for Katelyn.

"It was super pretty, super big, state of the art," she says.

And her biggest challenge in the competition?

"When you're cooking, all the adrenaline like kicks in," she says. "You really don't look at the time that much, so I was worried that it was going to like slip away.

"I think I handled it (the pressure) pretty well. Everybody was running around, trying to get things from the pantry, you're like super sweaty. It was fun, although it was extremely stressful."

Katelyn says she's also an avid watcher of food shows on Netflix and cable TV.

"I love 'Top Chef,' 'Chopped,' 'Chopped Jr.,' 'Next Food Network Star,' all of Giada's (De Laurentiis') shows. She's my inspiration as a chef."

'Top Chef Jr.'

WHEN: 7 p.m. Fridays

CHANNEL: Universal Kids (cable Channel 218 in Baton Rouge and Lafayette, cable Channel 350 in New Orleans)


Follow Judy Bergeron on Twitter, @judybergeronbr.