Ella Rutiaga is like most 11-year-old girls her age: She loves french fries, watching television and acting silly. But twice a week, when someone in her family asks what’s for dinner, Ella is the one who answers.
This spunky sixth-grader has been cooking and baking since she was old enough to reach the counter in her family’s Clovis kitchen. Her cooking skills rival those of most adults.
One of her cooking mentors, Shayna Telesmanic of Young Chef’s Academy, says Ella is a rarity. .
“She retains information in such a way that she is able to recall recipes from scratch,” Telesmanic says. “And for an 11-year-old, that is pretty impressive.”
This past spring, Ella’s culinary talents landed her on a national stage as a contestant on the Food Network’s “Chopped Junior” show. The show pits four kids against each other to see who can put together the most creative, best tasting and stylish dish. The catch is the kids don’t know the ingredients they will work with until they arrive on the show.
A celebrity panel of judges picks the winner, who gets $10,000. Ella and her mother, K.C. Rutiaga, are sworn to secrecy but the winner will be revealed on Tuesday, Sept. 6, when the show airs locally at 8 p.m. It will be rebroadcastat 4 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 10, and at 5 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 18.
For Ella and her mother, K.C. Rutiaga, the trip was a once-in-lifetime experience. They spent three days in New York for the show’s taping that was sometimes too much for Mom to watch.
“Watching her on the closed-circuit TV, as time was ticking down, gave me the worst anxiety,” she says with a laugh.
Ella seemed to take it all in stride.
“I was excited and a little nervous,” she says. “But I knew that I could do it.”
Those who know Ella and have tasted her cooking had no doubt she could compete.
From the time she was 18 months old, Ella was comfortable in the kitchen. Her grandmother Chris Kratt, an artist and avid cook, would sit young Ella on her counter as she baked cookies, pies and other desserts.
Ella still remembers the joy of smelling freshly baked pies and cookies coming from her grandmother’s oven.
“It smelled so good,” Ella says. “I’ve always loved the smells that come from the kitchen.”
As she got older, Ella’s interest grew, as did her culinary skills. She skipped the Disney Channel in favor of the Food Network and the Cooking Channel. Her favorite shows: “Good Eats With Alton Brown,” “Chopped” and “Cutthroat Kitchen.”
“I like cooking because I can be creative,” she says. “I can make my own sauces, salad dressings and cook with different ingredients.”
Her mother admits it wasn’t always easy to let her daughter loose in the kitchen. She worried Ella may accidentally cut or burn herself. Ella was about 9 when her mother let her use a chef knife on her own. She now has her own set of knives, thanks to Telesmanic.
“Once she learned how to use a knife and understood safety, I let her go,” Rutiaga says.
Twice a week, Ella is in charge of making dinner. Recently she made bacon-wrapped scallops, garlic green beans and a tossed salad using her own salad dressing. The scallops and bacon were cooked to perfection, and the well-seasoned green beans had just the right amount of crispness.
She also cooked something new for her family, stir-fry tofu. She marinated strips of tofu with a sweet and salty sauce and cooked it with snap peas and carrots.
“We had never eaten tofu before and it was delicious,” says Rutiaga. “We were blown away.”
Although Ella looks like an 11-year-old girl with pigtails and hair bow, she also talks with the confidence of a seasoned cook. She loves the word “pop” when talking about flavors and colorful ingredients.
Recently, she chopped some dark green Italian parsley to add to her green beans.
“The green beans lose some of their color when you cook them so the parsley makes it pop,” she says. “It makes it look more appetizing.”
For her birthday, Ella was in chef heaven over her gifts, including a KitchenAid pasta maker and gift cards to Sur La Table. She bought a pastry bench scraper, kitchen torch and powdered sugar shaker.
Like most hard-charging 11-year-olds, Ella is involved in multiple activities, including singing, theater, cheer, basketball, softball and soccer.
But it’s cooking that is her real passion. Her dream is to one day go to culinary school and run her own cafe and bakery.
“Or I’d like to have my own cooking show,” she says with a smile. “That would be lots of fun.”
Robert Rodriguez: 559-441-6327, @FresnoBeeBob