This article originally appeared in Northern Virginia Magazine
In the kitchen of celebrity teen chef and TikTok sensation Matthew Merril, everything seems to rise and cook fast, including his career. When the 18-year-old Great Falls native leaves for his freshman year at Cornell University this fall, he will pack an enviable résumé bulleted with television appearances, product ambassadorships, and influencer marketing successes, along with the latest accomplishment of being sole author of a legit cookbook, Teen Baking Bootcamp: 60 Essential Recipes to Take You From Amateur to Pro. Not to mention that he earned enough through these endeavors to cover the bulk of his college tuition.
No one tells the story of Merril’s remarkable journey better than he does, and he repeats it often in zany, fast-paced cooking segments on his TikTok (@matthewinthekitchen) and Instagram (@mmerril) pages, where he demonstrates how to whip together everything from cookies to a formal Thanksgiving dinner. His most ardent fans watched him grow up on the screen, from a squeaky, cute child contestant on multiple Food Network cooking competitions to a robust, sometimes-whiskered young man with a slightly irreverent sense of humor, booming voice, shock of unruly brown curls, and those bright blue eyes that helped him capture a TikTok following of more than 2.5 million.
The Power of Yes
As a child, Merril always dreamed of being on television, but he credits his success to one moment when he was 10 years old: the day his mother, Rita Roy, finally said yes to his pleas to apply to be on the Food Network Kids Baking Championship. “I watched the pilot on television and thought I could do that as well or better than anyone on the show,” Merril says.
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 isn’t really our world, that we aren’t TV show kind of people,” Roy says. “I was a busy mom with two other children, always running to sports, music, dance lessons. But he had his heart set on it and kept pestering me, so I finally said sure, thinking he would never actually do it.”
That magical yes was all Merril needed. “I searched online and found the casting page on the Food Network website, and then I used my mom’s kitchen computer to draft an email in her name,” Merril says. Roy came home to her son excitedly telling her about the email he had written, and she was stunned. “‘I seriously hope you didn’t send that because it is not OK to pretend that you are me in a letter,’” she scolded. Merril showed her that the email was still in her in her draft folder. “First, I could hardly believe that a kid his age knew about draft folders, and then I had to laugh because the email was so funny,” Roy says. Merril had employed the most impressive words from his sixth-grade vocabulary homework. “Dear Food Network, My son Matthew would be jubilant to be on your show,” was how he started the letter. “I thought, how do you say no to this? So I said, ‘OK, great job, this is a great email,’” says Roy. “I didn’t change anything and clicked send, being certain it would end up in a big black box and no one would ever read it.”
But Merril did hear back, with a phone call two weeks later, followed by Skype calls, mock videos, and in-person auditions in Los Angeles before receiving news on his birthday that he was selected to be a contestant on Kids Baking Championship season two, where he won the macaron challenge and made it to the finals of the eight-episode show. “The best birthday present I ever received,” Merril says. That experience paved the path to other Food Network appearances over the coming years, including Chopped Junior, Guy’s Grocery Games, Holiday Baking Championship, and Valerie’s Home Cooking. Merril 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 as a finalist,” Roy says. “The lesson there is that sometimes when you don’t win, you win. He got invited to do more shows for Food Network and truly had a charmed and amazing childhood.” Merril even tried running his own Great Falls–based macaron baking company before realizing it left him no time for homework or school activities.
Roy acknowledges that things might be very different today had she said no when Merril begged her to let him apply to be on the show.
“Sometimes, you have to listen to your kids’ desires and honor them,” Roy says. “Not that we want to prescribe their future, but we tend to want to put our kids on a set path that we think will help them be successful,” she says. “Matthew seemed to be taking himself completely off the path that we thought would be better, but now we see that it was the right thing for him. I was so close to saying no, and I now realize the impact that would have had.
“Matthew owns this journey, and he is driving this,” 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 challenges and success feel like, he can apply that success and confidence to anything that’s ahead. People ask if he’s going to be a chef after college, and he says he doesn’t know. I love that he’s not deciding right now.”
Self-Taught Culinary Prodigy
Merril says that neither of his parents really cook. “I think that’s why I stepped into the kitchen when I was little, because it wasn’t getting used much and was an open playing field for me,” he laughs. All of Merril’s culinary knowledge is self-taught through reading books, watching videos, and trial and error. “I don’t know who it belonged to, but when I was young, I found an old pastry school textbook in our house. I loved flipping through the pages, studying the different techniques and how to make super intricate desserts,” Merril says.
Through his television appearances, Merril had a chance to meet celebrities in the field: Duff Goldman, Valerie Bertinelli, Guy Fieri. Later, he even had playful virtual dialogue with famed chef Gordon Ramsay, who gave a somewhat snarky, yet viral, TikTok response to Merril’s demonstration of Ramsay’s scrambled egg recipe. “I poked some fun at Gordon Ramsay’s unusual metric of a ‘knob’ of butter,” says Merril. “Even though his response was critical, I was honored that he even watched anything I was cooking, so that was exciting.”
In middle school, Merril was tapped by Avocados from Mexico to be a brand ambassador, filming commercials and performing live cooking demonstrations across the country. Although Merril is best known for his baking, he spends equal time cooking mealtime dishes. Even so, he says his family usually prefers “to support Northern Virginia’s great area restaurants” 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, Merril decided to pull back on television a bit when he started his freshman year of high school. “I wanted to put school academics and activities like sports and theater at the forefront while continuing to teach myself culinary skills.” He was a sophomore at the start of the pandemic and turned to TikTok out of boredom.
“I made a fun compilation video to share with my friends about my days on Food Network, but one day it went viral, with lots of comments asking me to post cooking videos,” Merril says.
“My dad works in digital media for medicine 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,” Merril says. “The first ones were really silly and actually pretty bad, but over time, I learned techniques that made them more interesting. I watched my views climb from 10,000 to 20,000 to 100,000, and my followers were going up by the same measure. Within the first year, I gained a million TikTok followers, and now I have 2.5 million.”
Merril’s videos may be humorous and at times a bit goofy, but they are packed with bona fide cooking knowledge and helpful tips. “As my videos got better, I started getting recognized by brands that wanted me to work with them through influencer marketing. The first one to contact me was Edible Arrangements. They sent me guidelines for using their products in a video, and then they compensated me — so basically a commercial for them,” he says.
“As I gained more followers, I worked with brands like Disney Channel, Walmart, and the most exciting for me, Pillsbury, which had me judge a baking competition for them as well as promote new products,” says Merril. “I felt really VIP because I got to be on the other side of the judging table for baking. It was a full-circle moment for me because Duff Goldman from Kids Baking Championship was the co-host of that baking competition.” Until recently, Merril was under 18, so his mom has helped him negotiate business offers, and a family friend who is a lawyer looked over bigger contracts.
In March, Page Street Publishing Co. released Merril’s 176-page cookbook. Editor Marissa Giambelluca says she first noticed Merril on TikTok. “I saw a video of him 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 reached out the next day,” she says. Merril received an offer to bypass the usual agent and pitch process to work directly with the publisher.
“I asked Matthew to write a cookbook because his recipes are really special — they’re delicious and unique, but approachable 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 replicate. The approach has to be organic, and he just has that something special. Plus, he has a great personality that I knew would captivate an audience,” says Giambelluca.
Merril was only 16 when he received the offer. “It was a dream of mine to write a cookbook before I finished high school,” he says. Over the year that followed, Merril wrote every recipe and paragraph himself, a process he says used every skill he learned in school. After weeks of going through edits, it was finally time for the photo shoot. “I had six days to shop for and cook all 60 recipes during 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 Merril wishes he had access to when he was learning to bake. And check out the blue and pink apron on that cover — it’s the same one Merril wore on Kids Baking Championship.
What’s on the Menu in Merril’s Future?
After years of balancing a full-time social media job with high school academics and extensive extracurriculars, Merril has mixed feelings about graduating. “It was a really weird two years during COVID, and I enjoyed things finally getting back to normal, with the arts and school plays and sports.” Merril will attend Cornell University in the fall to study hotel administration. “I have a niche interest, so it seems a good fit as a business degree that centers around the restaurant and food industry,” says Merril. “Social media is great, and I’m so grateful for that experience, but it’s ephemeral at the end of the day, and it works in trends. You can’t stay popular on social media forever, but I would like to continue doing it while I try branching out in different directions that have long-lasting impacts.”
Merril says he already found a roommate through social media and is excited to try out the kitchen in his new dormitory. And his followers can’t wait to see what he cooks up next.