A passion for cooking



Aiden McCarthy didn’t want to be a firefighter or policeman or superhero for Halloween when he was 2. He wanted to be a chef. It was a precursor to the passion that would land him on an episode of the Food Network’s “Chopped Junior” 10 years later. 

“He was just in it from the beginning,” said his mother, Leah McCarthy, of Aiden’s passion for cooking. She and her husband, Ryan, own the Downtown Deli in Old Town Bluffton, a catering company and a food truck. “He has always shown interest from a young age. He’d always ask, ‘Can I help? Can I stir? Can I measure?’ He just wanted to do everything, and was always, always, always in the kitchen wanting to help.” 

Aiden, 12, competed in the Feb. 21 “Heads Will Roll” episode of “Chopped Junior.” When he opened up his mystery basket and saw shrimp staring right back at him, he knew he was in his comfort zone. 

“I’m from the Lowcountry,” Aiden said. “Cooking shrimp is like riding a bike. You just know it.”

Aiden quickly decided to cook a shrimp quesadilla with persimmon pico de gallo and moon pie sour cream. But with just five minutes left in the round, “I realized my quesadillas are burning and I’m running out of time. I cannot serve the judges burnt quesadillas,” Aiden said on the show. But, he persevered, taking the shrimp out of the tortillas and starting over. 

His shrimp was perfectly cooked. His presentation was clean and neat. But, citing too little cheese in the quesadilla and not enough acid in the pico, Aiden was chopped in the first round. 

“I felt upset, but I also felt just proud to have the opportunity,” he said. “It was really fun; the outcome never bothered me.” 

The journey to “Chopped Junior” started over the summer. The show’s casting agency reached out to Leah’s colleague in Savannah, who recommended Aiden. Then the virtual auditioning began. Aiden had to do a home video that showed him cooking, a Skype interview with a producer, “a lot of paperwork,” and more. He was one of 14,000 kids who tried out for the show. The episode was taped in October in New York City, and the family had to keep the outcome a secret for more than four months.

“Oh my gosh, it was super hard,” Leah said. On the night the show aired, they watched it as a family. “It’s been the biggest emotional roller coaster we’ve been on with any of the kids. Every parent wants their kids to succeed. It was a huge high when he got on … and to be the one to go out first, it was such an extreme low.”

They were soon uplifted by the outpouring of support from the community. 

“Our phones were going crazy,” Leah said. “Wherever we’d go, people were stopping us to congratulate Aiden and say how shocked they were to see him ‘chopped’ first.”

The town of Bluffton recognized Aiden before the show aired, and people lined up at Downtown Deli to buy the now-famous shrimp quesadilla and chopped salad, which was on the menu for a week. Sales of those two dishes went to Aiden’s college fund. 

Aiden has been in the restaurant business since before he could walk. When the McCarthys opened Downtown Deli, he’d eat Cheerios in a high chair next to the register and later helped clear tables, Leah said. He learned to cook alongside his father, including one of his favorite dishes, shrimp and grits. “It’s one of the first recipes I remember cooking with my dad,” Aiden said. 

The seventh-grader at River Ridge Academy will help in his family’s restaurant or on the food truck any chance he gets, and has also taught a series of kids cooking classes with his 10-year-old sister, Kate. His goal is to attend the Culinary School of America in Hyde Park, New York, and eventually open his own restaurant. 

Even though the outcome of “Chopped Junior” was disappointing, Aiden called his experience “exhilarating.” 

“It’s such a cool experience — a lot to put into words,” he said. 

To Leah and others, it wasn’t the outcome that impressed them; it was the way Aiden held his head high and plans to persevere with his passion. 

“I’m so proud that he was recognized not only for the culinary skills, but (the judges) recognized what a sweet young man he is and how he handled himself. They complimented his Southern charm and his manners,” Leah said. “It just warms my hear that he has such perseverance. He never had a bad attitude or blamed anyone. He handled it like a true champ.”