For the past two months, 12-year-old Zach Hofen of Olathe and his mom, Deliece Hofen, have been keeping a huge secret from family and friends. It was such a big secret, that when the two took a trip to New York City in July, they didn’t tell anyone outside their household where they were really going.
Turns out, it was a trip to the Food Network television studios, where Zach was filming a six-episode series called Rachael Ray’s "Kids Cook-Off," which is set to air its first episode at 7 p.m. Monday. Unbeknownst to Zach’s family and friends, the seventh-grader from Blue Valley’s Aubry Bend Middle School was about to make his national television debut as an up-and-coming chef.
“It was really hard to keep everything such a secret,” Deliece said. “We weren’t able to tell anyone about it until a week or so ago and the response from our friends has just been overwhelming. They are so excited for Zach.”
Zach, who is well-known among his family and friends for his cooking skills, applied for the show in the spring. The process included a written application and phone interview. Then in June, Zach’s mom was notified that he had been chosen to be one of eight national kidtestants, as the show calls them, to compete for a $20,000 culinary scholarship and a chance to have his own Web series on foodnetwork.com.
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His family was thrilled to hear the news. As for Zach, he was uncharacteristically quiet when told he was about to be featured on a Food Network show.
“I was absolutely stunned,” Zach said. “I couldn’t speak for like a minute. I was just speechless, which is unusual because I’ve been told I can’t stop talking.”
Each week on the show, the eight junior chefs will perform challenges that range from putting their own spin on a fast-food classic to creating their own food product.
The kidtestants will be mentored and judged by celebrity chefs like Food Network’s Robert Irvine and Sunny Anderson, while also facing weekly elimination from the competition. The show culminates in a grand finale cook-off between the final three junior chefs on Sept. 28 where one kidtestant will be named the winner.
Zach isn’t allowed to tell how far he was able to advance in the competition, saying that his friends and family will just have to tune in every week and see for themselves. But he will say that competing on the show is something he will never forget.
“It was a great experience and I was definitely proud of myself and excited to be part of it,” said Zach.
For Zach, who loves to watch Food Network shows, being part of one is like a dream come true.
“He watches Food Network 24/7,” Deliece said. “There is never a time it isn’t on in our house. Zach’s heroes are Food Network chefs.”
Cooking began for Zach as a fun way to spend time with his mom. That’s especially important given that much of the family’s focus is on supporting Zach’s 10-year-old brother, Braden, as he fights neuroblastoma, a form of childhood cancer. Braden’s public battle has garnered legions of supporters through a group known as Braden’s Army. Last year, Zach became a bone marrow donor for his younger brother when Braden’s cancer returned.
Deliece now runs a cancer foundation called Braden’s Hope for Childhood Cancer. Given the amount of attention that is frequently on Braden, she said she’s especially grateful that Zach has the opportunity to showcase his impressive cooking skills on a national television show.
“One of the hardest things is to be a sibling of a child with cancer,” Deliece said. “The spotlight doesn’t come very often. He was Braden’s bone marrow donor and he was in the spotlight for that. But this is different. It doesn’t have anything to do with childhood cancer. It’s Zach doing what he loves to do. It’s cool to see Zach shine for something he loves to do and is really good at.”