Catering queen

Junior takes culinary field by storm



Junior Tara O’Donnell cooks ratatouille, a stewed vegetable dish, in her kitchen. She wears the chef’s coat that she won while on Chopped Junior. “I love to cook different dishes,” O’Donnell said. “My favorites to cook are mediterranean, french and asian dishes.”

The scent of chocolate cupcakes fills the air in the home of a happy couple and their close friends. Junior Tara O’Donnell works quickly and precisely while the guests eat and celebrate the recent wedding. Crostini with filet mignon and horseradish cream, chicken skewers with Thai peanut sauce, fig and goat cheese puffs, mushroom pastries and turkey meatballs with tzatziki sit out on the table for the guests to enjoy. O’Donnell looks out from the kitchen to see everyone savoring the food, making all the stress and preparations worth it.

O’Donnell has a passion for all things culinary arts. Since winning “Chopped Junior” four years ago, she has been practicing her cooking skills and running a catering business named Tara’s Tasty Table. She hopes her early start in the culinary business will set her up for a successful future in the field.

“I definitely want to go into the food industry,” O’Donnell said. “But as I’m getting older, I’m getting more interested in the business side, so I’m thinking about travel, tourism, hospitality or maybe food science.”

O’Donnell has expressed her cooking talent from an early age. Her parents took notice in her unique abilities by observing her while she would help them cook meals.

“She started really taking an interest when she was 3,” Tara’s mom Joanna O’Donnell said. “We had a little stool for her to stand on, and I would have her mix spices. She was able to identify flavors. Her palate seemed to be very sophisticated from a very early age. We felt that she had talent right from the start.”

While in middle school, O’Donnell competed on “Chopped Junior,” a show on Food Network in which children enter the cooking competition, and the last chef standing wins a Chopped Junior chef’s coat and $10,000. O’Donnell ended up winning the show after hours of preparation, practice and dedication.

“I was so happy,” O’Donnell said. “It’s been about four years, so it’s drifting in my memory which is so sad, but I cried, which you can see on the show. I just felt so happy because I had worked so hard for it and it felt really good. I still wear and use the chef’s coat all the time for catering and events. I put all of the money into my college fund — I didn’t touch any of it.”

O’Donnell’s business is catering to events regularly, and she’s working on writing a cookbook. She says that every time she takes a catering job, she’s always learning because there’s always something unexpected that happens.

“It’s always a lot of work; it’s always way more work than I’m expecting,” O’Donnell said. “But when I’m actually at the person’s house and everyone is giving me hugs and telling me that they’re shocked by how young I am, it’s just a really good feeling. It’s something I’m never expecting because I’m just cooking, but everyone is so happy and encouraging. It’s a really awesome experience.”

For her largest catering job yet, a wedding party, O’Donnell enlisted the help of her friend, junior Claire Kimbel. They cooked six different types of food and hundreds of each; which totaled to about 1,000 items for 80 people. They made the food in O’Donnell’s kitchen, then packaged and took it to the house where the party was.

“It was kind of hectic because it was the biggest catering job she’s ever done,” Kimbel said. “It was really cool to be around her because she’s extraordinary. Her food is so good, I can’t put it into words how amazing it is. It was really cool to be there in the moment and see her in action because she doesn’t really talk about that part of her life very often, so I got a sneak peek.”

O’Donnell said the most rewarding part of being a chef is getting to meet new people and have them enjoy her food. She said she practiced a lot to get to where she is now, and will continue to push herself to be better.