Ortego Fans the Flames of Competition

By BUSTER WOLFE,

Lissa Ortego almost had to eat her words. The Oak Grove mother of two knows that parents always say things to inspire their children.

“You can do anything you put your mind to; you’ve just got to try,” Ortego remembered telling her then-11-year-old Cade as he was growing up.

On one night, they happened to be watching “MasterChef” on TV. Cade, now a 12-year-old Oak Grove Middle Schooler, remembered that a commercial came on.

“There was a commercial that said, ‘MasterChef Junior Tryouts’ on New Orleans on Sunday,” he said. “It had to be Friday when we saw it.”

Cade, who said he has been cooking “all his life,” decided to go for it. His mother agreed.

“So when he wanted to go to New Orleans, I said, ‘Well, let’s do it,’” she said. “So we went for the opening casting call and there were hundreds and hundreds of kids there.”

Little did mother and son realize that in about two months, Cade would be cooking in front of Gordon Ramsay, Christina Tosi and Joe Bastianich. His first appearance on the show will be at 7 p.m. Friday on Fox.

As a contestant on the show, Cade had the chance to compete for the title of MasterChef Junior and take home a trophy and $100,000 grand prize.

Obviously, the odds were against Cade in the New Orleans tryouts. His mother knew it.

“In the back of my mind, I thought, ‘Well, this is a good experience,’” Lissa said. “I didn’t expect anything to come of it. You’ve got to definitely back it up when you tell your children, ‘Try for anything.’ You never know; they just might end up getting you on a plane a month or two later and making you go to L.A.”

Cade cooked Steak Diane with Gouda cheese grits and blackened okra.

After a call from the show’s producers, the whirlwind experience began, Lissa said.

“We were in mid-October, left for Los Angeles and weren’t back until mid-December,” she said. “I have another son (Blake, 17) who stayed back with his father (Nick). I definitely couldn’t have gone with Cade without the support of Benedict Day School, where I was a teacher, and Bristle Art Studio, where I work. So there definitely was a lot of support back from teachers and friends who could hold down the fort while we were in Los Angeles.”

The cooking part wasn’t so hard for Cade.

“My dad’s side of the family are really great cooks from New Orleans, all Cajun,” he said. “I always learned from them. My uncle, Chris, actually owns Cotton Blues, so it runs in the family. I’ve always been cooking with them, so when that commercial came on, I said, ‘Why not?’”

Cade follows in his paternal chefs’ steps.

“I love to cook any sort of food that I can put my own flair on: meats, pasta, I love Southern food and Cajun food and that type of food,” he said. “You definitely have to have your own personality in the food (on MasterChef Junior).”

Lissa said her youngest son is an excellent chef.

“Both of my boys are just so nice and down to earth,” she said. “But Cade just does so much. He just has a major passion for life. He is just very intense in whatever he does. He is a very good soccer play and very good student. He loves acting and has done some acting at the Saenger Theater. People locally already know Cade from being on stage and playing soccer. I think Hattiesburg is going to be excited to see him on screen.”

Cade said he was nervous when he appeared on the show.

“I definitely had stage fright when I walked up there,” he said. “There is one thing that I thought was funny. I walked up to my cooking station and looking at Gordon Ramsay’s face – it’s so different in person than it is on TV. It’s the craziest thing; on TV, you see him all the time. I don’t think I can describe it.”

Ramsay is well known for his cooking shows, including “Hell's Kitchen,” “Kitchen Nightmares” and “MasterChef.”

MasterChef Junior judge Bastianich also carries a stern face, Cade said. “You try to get on his good side, for sure.”

Ramsay, however, is certainly the star of the show, and Cade said cooking for him was definitely incredible.

“It’s no joke cooking in front of him,” he said. “It’s a challenge, but it’s definitely incredible to go up to L.A. and have a masterclass with Gordon Ramsay.”

Lissa said she and Cade made lifelong friends during the show.

“When we were in Los Angeles, we met so many wonderful children from across the nation and their parents,” she said. “I still keep in touch with all of my MasterChef moms and parents.”

Being the only contestant from Mississippi was special for Cade, Lissa said.

“We were really proud of that,” she said. “The other contestants had other people there from their state, but Cade was the only one from his state. He was so nice, everyone said what a gentleman he was and it was so nice to represent our state.”

As for the future, Cade has so many activities, with cooking, sports and even entertainment, but not just acting.

“There’s so many options that I would love to choose from, but I just started a podcast with two of my friends,” he said. “It’s going really well. It’s called, ‘Catch Cade,’ and it’s about things that we deal with that many people don’t realize.”

Sydnee Durham and Quin Sirmon, both Oak Grove students, are the other members of the podcast trio. So, Cade has plenty of options open to him.

The experience has also changed how Lissa talks with her children now.

“Now I say, ‘Be careful what you tell your kids they can do, because they really can do it.”