Keeping up with ‘Chopped Junior’ winner Haley Mattes

UPDATE: Since this article was first published, Haley has returned to television, competing on an episode of Chopped Junior Champions. She continues to express her excitement about receiving a provisional scholarship offer to attend The Culinary Institute of America. We share her passion for all things food, and look forward to her future as a college student at the CIA.

Photo courtesy Food Network Television Haley Mattes works with radicchio as Chopped Junior host Ted Allen looks on

Since winning her episode of Chopped Junior, 12 year-old Haley Mattes’ life has become a whirlwind of food adventure and opportunity.

Just to start, she’s been offered a partial scholarship to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York — the most prestigious culinary school in the country.

“I really got interested in the CIA, and I knew they wouldn’t just find me,” Haley said, “so I had to get their attention somehow. I decided to write them a letter, and I didn’t even think they would respond; but they did and said they’d keep an eye on me. Then a few weeks later they called and said I could have a scholarship.”

The scholarship is provisional, so it means Haley will have to keep her grades up and stay out of trouble, but anyone who has met her wouldn’t imagine either of those things to be a problem. And the school application wasn’t a cakewalk either.

“She had to send in her grades, get letters of recommendation and answer essay questions,” said Amy Sellers, Haley’s mother.

After being awarded the provisional scholarship, Haley and Sellers arrived home one day to find a box from the CIA waiting. It was full of CIA goodies such as foam veggies emblazoned with the CIA logo, a CIA cookbook, a guide to meat temperatures and ounce-to-cup conversions, and a T-shirt that said Food is Life.

Mattes is getting public recognition around Southwestern Indiana for her culinary prowess as well. She has been asked many times about catering but must keep it to fairly informal cooking for friends because of her age and child labor laws. However, “cooking for friends” did allow her to help cater a party for gubernatorial candidate John Gregg.

“My dad’s friend threw a political event fundraiser for John Gregg in Washington (Indiana), so I cooked for it,” Haley aid. “So I got to meet him. I cooked at the house and others brought in dips and snacks, too. I made the flourless chocolate cake that won the dessert category on Chopped Junior, cheesecake stuffed strawberries, bruschetta with halved yellow and red tomatoes with balsamic reduction and basil, and a bacon and green onion dip that had cheddar and cream cheese in it.”

Where the public can come to interact with Mattes is at her Thyme in the Kitchen classes. She has taught one already in conjunction with chef April Boeke of Culinary Innovations, and will be teaching two kids’ classes, also with Boeke, on July 22. This is the perfect time for curious youngsters who love to cook to not only learn some new recipes but chat with Haley about what it was like to film a TV Food Network show — and win it.

“I was supposed to do one class at 11 o’clock, but it sold out,” said Mattes, “So they added another at 2 o’clock. I’m teaching the kids to make Caprese skewers with mozzarella cheese, tomato and basil; bow-tie pasta and chicken with a homemade marinara sauce; and brownie bites with cheesecake stuffed strawberries or ice cream.”

Between now and when her career in food can really take off on a professional level (she wants to own and be the executive chef of her own restaurant or have a Food Network show … or both), Mattes is making all she can of the opportunities at hand, talking to local chefs about their careers, tasting and learning about new and exotic foods and cooking everything she can get her hands on. She looks forward to teaching more classes and doesn’t see herself slowing down in the kitchen anytime soon.

“One of the questions on the CIA application was like, ‘At the CIA we say food is life, so what does that mean to you? ” Haley said. “I answered that I want to be in a restaurant 100 percent of the time and that I’ll never get tired of food. Even if I cook like a seven-hour dish now, I do get tired but I never want to stop cooking.”

By Aimee Blume

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-Reprinted with permissions from the Evansville Courier & Press