How This Great Falls Teen Chef Became a TikTok Sensation

In the kitchen of celebrity teen chef and TikTok sensation Matthew Merrill, everything seems to be cooking faster and faster, including his career. When the 18-year-old Great Falls native heads off for his freshman year at Cornell University this fall, he’ll pack an enviable resume, including television appearances, product ambassadorships, and influencer marketing successes. A legit cookbook, Teen Baking Bootcamp: 60 Essential Recipes to Take You from Amateur to Pro. Not to mention that he earned enough to cover a large portion of his college tuition through these endeavors.

Photo by Christine Boggs Paper

No one tells the story of Meryl’s remarkable journey better than she does, and she often repeats it in no-nonsense, fast-paced cooking segments on her TikTok (@matthewinthekitchen) and Instagram (@mmerril) pages, where she shows how to whip everything together. From cookies to a formal Thanksgiving dinner. His ardent fans watched him grow up on screen, from a loud, cute kid contestant on many Food Network cooking competitions to a young man with a strong, sometimes wry sense of humor, a booming voice, a shock of unruly gray curls. , and those bright blue eyes that helped him capture more than 2.5 million TikToks.

The power of yes

As a child, Meryl always dreamed of being on television, but she credits her success to a moment when she was 10: the day her mother, Rita Roy, finally said yes to applying to be on the Food Network. Kids Baking Championship. “I watched the pilot on television and thought I could do it as well or better than anyone on the show,” says Merrill.

Roy, who is CEO of the National Spine Health Foundation in Reston, says she remembers the request. “At first I kept ignoring it, explaining that television wasn’t really our world, that we weren’t TV show kind of people,” says Roy. “I was a busy mom with two other kids, always running around to sports, music, dance lessons. But he had his heart set on it and kept pestering me, so I finally gave in, thinking he would never actually do it.

That magic is all Meryl needed. “I searched online and found a casting page on the Food Network website, and then I used my mom’s kitchen computer to draft an email in her name,” says Merrill. Roy came home excited to tell his son about the email he had written, and she was shocked. “‘I seriously hope you don’t send that because it’s not right to pretend you’re me in a letter,’ ” she scolded. Meryl pointed out that she still had the email in her drafts folder. “At first, I couldn’t believe a kid his age knew about draft folders, and then I had to laugh because the email was so funny,” says Roy. Merrill used the most influential words from her sixth grade vocabulary homework. “Dear Food Network, my son Matthew would be delighted to be on your show,” is how he began the letter. “I thought, how do you say no to that? So I said, ‘Okay, good job, that’s a great email,'” says Roy. “I didn’t change anything and click send, it will end up in a big black box and no one will ever read it.”

But Meryl heard back two weeks later with a phone call, Skype calls, mock videos, and in-person auditions in Los Angeles before receiving news on her birthday that she had been chosen to be a contestant. Kids Baking Championship Season two, where he won the macaron challenge and reached the finals of the eight-episode show. “Best birthday present I’ve ever received,” says Meryl. That experience paved the way for other Food Network appearances in the years to come, including Kata Jr, Boy’s grocery games, Holiday Baking Championshipand Valerie’s home cooking. Merrill was scheduled for more, but then the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

“Matthew became a fan favorite, but he didn’t win the competition and ended up as a finalist,” says Roy. “The lesson there is that sometimes when you don’t win, you win.” It left him no time for homework or school activities.
Roy admits that things could have been very different today if she hadn’t had Meryl beg her to apply to be on the show.

“Sometimes, you have to listen to your kids’ wishes and respect them,” says Roy. “It’s not that we want to write their future, but we want to put our children on a path of thinking that will help them succeed,” she says. “Matthew seemed to completely take himself off the path that we thought would be better, but now we see that it was the right thing for him. I was very close to saying no, and now I feel the impact of that.

“Matthew owns this trip, and he’s the one doing it,” says Roy. “That’s where his success comes from—it comes from him. You have to trust and allow things to happen on their own merits. Now that he knows what a challenge and success feels like, he can apply that success and confidence to anything going forward. People ask That he’s going to be a chef after college, and he says he doesn’t know. I love that he’s not making a decision right now.”

A self-taught culinary prodigy

Meryl says her parents don’t really cook. “I think I got into the kitchen when I was younger, because it was unused and was an open playground for me,” he laughs. All of Merrill’s culinary knowledge is self-taught through reading books, watching videos, and trial and error. “I don’t know who it’s from, but when I was young, I found an old pastry school textbook in our house. I loved flipping through the pages, studying different techniques and how to make super complicated desserts,” Merrill says.

Through his television appearances, Merrill had the opportunity to meet celebrities in the field: Duff Goldman, Valerie Bertinelli, Guy Fieri. Later, he even had a playful virtual dialogue with celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay, who gave a somewhat creepy, but viral, TikTok response to Meryl’s demonstration of Ramsay’s scrambled egg recipe. “I had some fun with the unusual metric of Gordon Ramsay’s ‘knob’ of butter,” says Merrill. “Even though his reaction was critical, I was honored to see anything I cooked, so that was exciting.”

@gordonramsayofficial #duet with @matthewinthekitchen There’s only one knob in this recipe and it’s not butter!! #fyp #ramsayreacts #tiktokcooks ♬ Original Soundtrack – Matthew Merrill

In middle school, Meryl was tapped by Avocados from Mexico to become a brand ambassador, shooting commercials and performing live cooking demonstrations around the country. Although Merrill is best known for her baking, she spends an equal amount of time cooking. Still, he says his family generally likes to “support the great area restaurants in Northern Virginia” when it comes to dinner. “Our family favorite is The Old Brogue in Great Falls. It has a fun atmosphere, and I love their chicken pot pie.”

A viral sensation

A student at St. Albans School in Washington, DC, Merrill decided to get back into television a bit when he started his freshman year of high school. “I wanted to put myself ahead of school academics and activities like sports and theater while continuing to teach myself culinary arts.” He was a sophomore at the start of the epidemic and turned to Tiktok out of boredom.

“I made a fun compilation video to share with my friends about my days on the Food Network, but one day it went viral, with tons of comments asking me to post cooking videos,” says Meryl.

“My dad works in digital media for medical education, so I grew up watching him edit videos. I have access to Apple Final Cut Pro, so I learned to make videos using my iPhone and some tripods,” says Merrill. “The first ones were really stupid and actually pretty bad, but over time, I learned techniques to make them more interesting. I saw my views grow from 10,000 to 20,000 to 100,000, and my followers grew accordingly. In the first year, I started TikTok. Got 1 million followers, and now I have 2.5 million.”

Meryl’s videos can be funny and sometimes a little silly, but they’re full of real cooking knowledge and helpful tips. “As my videos got better, I started getting recognized by brands who wanted to work with them through influencer marketing. The first person to contact me was Food Systems. They sent me guidelines for using their products in the video, and then they compensated me – so basically Professional for them,” he says.

“As I gained a large following, I worked with brands like Disney Channel, Walmart, and most exciting for me, Pillsbury, which gave me the opportunity to judge baking contests for them as well as promote new products,” says Merrill. “I felt really VIP because I was on the other side of the judging table for the baking. It was a full-circle moment for me because from Duff Goldman Kids Baking Championship He was a co-host of a baking contest.” Until recently, Meryl was under 18, so his mother has helped him negotiate business proposals, and a family friend who’s a lawyer looks after big contracts.

Teenage writer

In March, Page Street Publishing Company released Merrill’s 176-page cookbook. Editor Marissa Giambelluca says she first saw Meryl on TikTok. “I saw a video of making brownies with espresso powder that I ended up making that night because I couldn’t get them out of my head. Of course, they were delicious, and I had them the next day,” she says. Merrill received an offer to bypass the usual agent and pitch process to work directly with the publisher.

The Teen Baking Bootcamp Cookbook
Photo courtesy of Page Street Publishing Co

“I asked Matthew to write the cookbook because his recipes are really special – they’re delicious and unique, but accessible at the same time. Matthew is able to teach people how to bake in such a fun and informative way, and that’s hard to duplicate. The approach is organic. Should be, and he has that something special. Also, he has a great personality that I knew would captivate the audience,” says Giambelluca.

Meryl was only 16 when she received the offer. “I dreamed of writing a cookbook before I finished high school,” he says. Over the next year, Merrill wrote every recipe and paragraph himself, a process he said used every skill he learned in school. After weeks of editing, it was finally time for the photo shoot. “I had six days to shop and cook all 60 recipes in the first six photo days, with the last day reserved for the cover.” The end product is a book suitable for both teens and adults, full of techniques, tips and explanations that Meryl wishes she had access to when she was learning to bake. And look at the blue and pink apron on that cover – it’s the same one Meryl wore Kids Baking Championship.

After years of balancing full-time social media work with high school academics and extensive extracurriculars, Merrill has mixed feelings about graduation. “It’s been a really weird two years during COVID, and I’m glad things are finally getting back to normal with the arts and school games and sports.” Merrill will attend Cornell University in the fall to study hotel administration. “I have a particular interest, so it seemed like a good fit as a business degree centered around the restaurant and food industry,” says Merril. “Social media is great, and I’m very grateful for that experience, but it’s short-lived at the end of the day, and it works on trends. You can’t stay popular on social media forever, but I like it when you try to branch out in different directions that have a long-term impact. I want to continue.”

Merrill says she has already found a roommate through social media and is excited to use the kitchen in her new dorm. And his followers can’t wait to see what he cooks up next.

This story originally ran in our August issue. For more stories like this, subscribe to our monthly magazine.

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