The lightly sweet, popcorn-like aroma of arroz con gandules (rice with pigeon peas) lingered as Freeporter Anjelica Espinoza, 13, also known as Chef A.J., plated the rice beside the traditional Puerto Rican pernil (roasted pork). It has been two years since A.J. appeared on Fox’s “MasterChef Junior,” but she continues to cook, while quietly waiting for her own reality TV series to start filming.
When casting directors approached A.J. to ask whether she was interested in starring in a show, she gladly accepted the offer. Casting directors, A.J. and her family were told, were seeking a loud family with a precocious young star — someone like A.J.
Her family is not permitted to disclose details about the show, but A.J.’s mother, Elizabeth Bizelia-Espinoza, said it might be filmed in Freeport or Los Angeles. The script will be revealed to the family when the show starts production. They believe, however, that it will focus on the daily life of an aspiring actress and chef, played by A.J.
Bizelia-Espinoza said she hopes the show will give her the opportunity to help other mothers who have children who aspire to be actors because she feels connected to their journey. “I understand what fellow “mom-agers” like me are going through as a daily struggle of putting your kid out there, while still being a mother, a wife and taking care of business,” she said. “I’m hoping to also get some of my friends to be on the show with us, if it’s allowed.”
A.J. said she looks forward to launching her acting career and hopes the show is a success. “There’s going to be some funny stuff on this new show, because we’re a loud and funny family,” she said, giggling. “I can’t wait to have the cameras around me all the time. I’m looking forward to putting ourselves out there because, the possibilities are endless for what I can do with my future.”
Even though Bizelia-Espinoza knows their lives will change, she is confident in her daughter’s good nature, she said, she hopes to encourage her to stay true to herself.
“I’m not worried about publicity and press changing our lives a lot because my daughter is a good kid,” Bizelia-Espinoza said. “If you know who you are, and you keep true to who your children should be, then your two feet will stay on the ground and not up in the sky. I think we can handle this because we’re a good, solid family.”
Before appearing on “MasterChef Junior,” A.J. played background roles in shows like “Orange Is the New Black,” “Law and Order,” “Blacklist,” “Blacklist: Redemption” and “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee.”
Though she enjoyed the experience of being on set, she said, the roles left her wanting more opportunities, because she only appeared in the background and had no scripted lines. As she searched for leading roles, she auditioned for “MasterChef Junior,” which allowed her to combine her love of cooking with acting.
“It was a lot of fun being on screen for the show, and cooking food to be judged by a panel was a really interesting experience,” A.J. said. “I also got to learn how to remain calm, to smile and listen, no matter what I’m feeling, while I’m on camera.”
Cooking has long been a big part of her life. Her mother started teaching her to cook when she was four. Two years later, she took over the kitchen in their home, making dinners for her family. She enjoyed combining different foods, and the results amazed her family members — especially her mom, who A.J. said is her biggest supporter and critic.
“If my daughter asks me a question about anything outside of cooking, I’ll tell her the truth, because that’s my baby, and I want to keep her safe,” Bizelia-Espinoza said. “But when it comes to cooking, I don’t need to be a critic because she’s better than me.”
Throughout the month-long training and filming of “MasterChef Junior,” A.J. said she loved projecting her personality in front of the camera while learning to maneuver in a professional kitchen. After leaving the show, she took some time to work on her cooking skills. Then, she auditioned for the Food Network’s “Chopped Junior” — another reality show with a cooking competition, which aired last December. A.J. was eliminated the first round of the contest, but she has auditioned for other shows and opportunities.
These days, A.J. and her family are just waiting to bring Hollywood to Freeport or travel to Los Angeles to start a new chapter of their lives.