Ann Arbor 11-year-old Hits Primetime in Kids Baking Championship

The youngest contestant on this season's Kids Baking Championship, Nemo Tsai, started in the kitchen at his parents' Ann Arbor restaurant.

Nemo's Hero Shot, as seen on Kids Baking Championship, Season 9. Courtesy of the Tsai family.

11-year-old Nemo Tsai can add “Kids Baking Championship contestant” to his long list of accomplishments before even hitting high school.

Tsai is ranked as one of the top golfers in his age group worldwide and is two years ahead in school, but his latest feat — competing on the Kids Baking Championship, a television baking show featuring hosts Duff Goldman and Vallerie Bertinelli — takes the cake.

“It was an amazing experience,” Nemo says. “Baking-wise, I learned a lot from the judges.”

The Kids Baking Championship puts a dozen talented young kids head-to-head to compete for a $25,000 prize and a spot in Food Network Magazine. Contestants are asked to create an array of desserts, from decorated cupcakes to two-flavor pies, over the 10-week competition.

Baking with love

Nemo’s first cooking experience came from his family’s restaurant Godaiko in Ann Arbor, where he says his favorite things to cook include stir-fries and sushi.

“I would love for my dad to put some of my own dessert items on the menu,” he says. “I really love working in the restaurant and spending time with my family.”

He wasn’t interested in baking until, at the beginning of the pandemic, he wanted to give something special to a nearby hospital.

“When the pandemic started, we donated sushi to the University of Michigan hospital and I wanted to send cookies,” he says. “It made me happy to share that with others.”

That batch of cookies set off a baking spark and soon Tsai was perfecting his own creations.

A sweet experience

Before entering into the competition, Tsai set out to gain as much experience as he could. The then 10-year-old found a local teacher at the award-winning and much-loved Zingerman’s Bakehouse in Ann Arbor.

“Before I went to film the show I was able to train at Zingerman’s with instructor Megan Panchame and she helped prepare me,” he says. “I would go for lessons and we would make different desserts each lesson.”

Tsai says he liked every lesson but making cake was his favorite thing. His signature dessert is a buttermilk candy bacon cake, which he says Kids Baking Championship hosts Duff and Val “loved.”

Season 9 of Kids Baking Championship is the first time that parent reactions were included in the show. Nemo’s dad, Paul, was able to watch his son bake on a monitor without sound during the competition.

“You see your own child go through these emotions and challenges and it’s amazing,” says Paul. “They grow up in front of you.”

“I was surprised by how emotional it was, but I thought he handled it exceptionally well and held his emotions in check,” Paul adds.

Nemo says fellow competitor Jonah Anderson, from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania became a friend during the show.

“He was probably the person I talked to the most during the show,” Nemo says. “And I really liked talking to the set people, too, they were really nice.”

“These kids are very young and Nemo was the youngest,” Paul says. “They’re only 10 to 13 years old, but even at that young age it was such a dream for many of the kids and it was something they had watched throughout their childhood.”

“It was really joyous,” Paul adds. “They were so excited and especially at the beginning all the children were so excited to be on the site and see Duff and Val and that part is very gratifying for parents to see their child reach something they strove for for a long time.”

Nemo says one of the most challenging parts of the competition was making things for the first time on the spot.

“I had never made a blueberry cake, so before I had to wing it on the show,” he says.

His advice for other kids hoping to follow in his footsteps is to aim high?

“I would just say dream big and go for it,” Nemo says. “It’s so important to believe in yourself.”

Kids Baking Championship airs every Monday at 9 p.m. on Food Network. Season 9 premiered on Dec. 28. Catch the finale on Feb. 15 at 10 p.m. immediately following the semifinal.

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