If you saw Nikki Bidun and Olivia Acosta together, you might think they’re just regular ol’ kids. But when you hear their conversation slip into the specifics of sous vide cooking, you quickly realize that this duo is different. Here’s why: The girls became friends as contestants on Top Chef Junior, having spent several months together in Los Angeles while filming the Universal Kids show. During the season, Nikki, 12, who was just crowned the Top Chef Junior champ, helped Olivia, 11, make chicken wings for the first time, and they laughed together when Olivia hit a target with a football to dunk head judge Curtis Stone into a water tank.
Off-camera, the girls bonded over bullet journaling, a dumpling restaurant near the studio (“we went almost every day,” says Olivia), and a mutual obsession with cooking. “When we weren’t filming, we’d grill steak on the rooftop deck or watch episodes of Chef’s Table or research restaurants in the area,” Nikki says. At five-eight, she’s a full foot taller than Olivia, and the girls tend to fall all over each other as they talk and giggle. Even eliminations couldn’t keep them apart: In the finale, Nikki brought Olivia back as her sous chef to help prepare her winning short rib ragu.
Back home in the New York tristate area—Nikki lives in Manhattan and Olivia is a Jersey girl—they get together whenever they can. They both started seriously cooking around age seven after outgrowing the basic kid-friendly stuff like baking cookies. Today the chefs are making homemade gnocchi with a spinach–Brussels sprout pesto and Parmesan crisps. Gnocchi is a great thing to make with friends, Olivia says: “You just roll the dough around your fork over and over again. You can talk and talk and play music and relax.” Olivia listens to Sara Bareilles while she cooks; Nikki is more of an AC/DC fan. For dessert, they’re making lemon posset, a custardy dessert similar to panna cotta. “Didn’t I tell you it’s better than curd?” Olivia squeals as her friend takes a big bite. How sweet is that?
"Some people underestimate me as a kid chef," says Olivia. "But when I start talking about my techniques, they're pretty impressed! It's fun to surprise people."
Gnocchi with Brussels Sprout & Spinach Pesto and Parmesan Frico
“We didn’t want to make a pesto you can get out of a jar,” says Nikki. So they add browned Brussels sprouts to theirs, giving it a charred flavor. The frico double as a midcooking snack.
Recipe: Try Nikki and Olivia's Gnocchi with Brussels Sprout & Spinach Pesto and Parmesan Frico
Recipe: Try Nikki and Olivia's Lemon Posset
"Most of my friends don't love to cook," says Nikki. "So it's great to talk to Olivia about these things because she gets it."
For more mealtime fun, check out Yum-o!, Rach’s nonprofit organization. You’ll find recipes, ideas for improving food in schools, and stories about people who are changing the way America eats. How cool is that?!
Watch Top Chef Junior weeknights at 8/7 Central on Universal Kids.