Set your DVRs to find out whether Huntington Woods’ Sammy Vieder made the cut.
Ever since he was a preschooler, there was always at least one on Sammy Vieder’s nightstand.
“I don’t ever remember him not having a cookbook to read,” recalls his mom, Stacy Vieder. “He had a dictionary of cooking terms and when he was really little I would read different passages to him.”
Vieder, now 13, says he accidentally stumbled upon his passion about a decade ago when he walked into his family room while there was a cooking show on TV in their Huntington Woods home.
His mom, who was the only other person home at the time, was not watching it. She’s not a cook. She half-jokingly says most of their meals come from a take-out container. She guesses that she may have been flipping channels and left the room after randomly stopping on the Food Network Channel.
“Honestly, I didn’t know how to control the television so I just watched it,” recalls Vieder, who obviously liked what he saw.
Years later, while many kids his age were rattling off sports statistics and discussing their favorite players, young Vieder was following some of his favorite television chefs including Bobby Flay, Anne Burrell and Sandra Lee. “I watched the same episodes over and over again,” says Vieder, who comes from a long line of non-cooks. The only cook in his extended family was his great-grandfather Sam (yes, he happens to be named after him) who owned a restaurant in Ferndale called Sammy’s Deli.
“I have definitely taken over the kitchen,” Vieder says. “Although it wasn’t too much of a fight from my mom or dad.
“One time, my mom was rushing around the house, like a crazy person, and she asked if I could just look in the fridge and make dinner,” he says. “We had some leftover chicken, spinach and too many condiments to count. I ended up making this awesome honey balsamic-glazed chicken with wilted spinach and I served it over some Israeli couscous. My family was pretty impressed!
“I love how I can make people happy when I’m cooking,” Vieder says. “People unite over food, and to be the glue that holds everyone together is really cool. When I’m cooking, I feel an adrenaline rush.”
Vieder, who used to discuss episodes of cooking programs with his Adat Shalom preschool teachers, will soon be watching himself on a popular television cooking show. When the sixth season of Fox’s MasterChef Junior premieres with a special two-hour episode at 8 p.m. Friday, March 2, Vieder can be seen as one of 40 contestants chosen after a nationwide search — which family and friends will celebrate with a viewing party at a restaurant.
The contestants on MasterChef Junior are between the ages of 8 and 13 and compete in timed cooking challenges judged by a panel of well-known chefs: Season six judges are host Gordon Ramsay, Joe Bastianich (Del Posto, Eataly) and Christina Tosi (Momofuku Milk Bar).
Called the “best young home cooks in America,” by Ramsay, contestants on MasterChef Junior know how to create and plate dishes that appear to rival a meal served at some of the world’s finest restaurants.
These kids seem to understand the art and science of great cooking and use their skills to impress the judges and viewers alike. Those who don’t measure up are eliminated until one contestant walks away with the MasterChef Junior trophy and $100,000.
Of course, Vieder can’t say or even hint at who won the show or how far he got. Contestants (and their parents) sign lengthy legal documents outlining the do’s and don’ts of being on the reality show and face hefty penalties for violating the confidentiality agreement.
“People are always saying: ‘Oh, you can tell me. I’m not going to tell anyone.’ Still, I don’t say anything,” Vieder says.
While viewers are awed by the creations that come out of the MasterChef Junior kitchen — some of these pint-size chefs know how to make (and pronounce) dishes like croquembouche (a gorgeous tower of cream puffs held together with caramel and sugar) — viewers can’t help but wonder how an 8-year-old (or even a 13-year-old) can concoct such an elaborate dish, let alone do it in an hour. It seems inconceivable.
Vieder’s response to the improbability: “All these kids are very talented. Every night most of them will, instead of just chilling, spend their time studying and memorizing recipes.”
Mom Stacy adds: “The kids would hang out at night or in the hotel pool during their free time and talk cooking or play games like ‘give me a mystery dish’ or another called ‘chopped,’ where they’d give each other four random ingredients and each had to come up with a dish. These kids have an incredible passion for cooking and you can tell they get a lot of pride from their dishes.”
That’s not to say that Vieder and the other contestants didn’t pick up additional cooking skills from being on the show. There were times when the cameras weren’t rolling and the kids had additional training to hone their skills. But during the on-screen challenges, it was all them.
In addition to cooking and taping the show, there were the mandatory school hours to fit in — 15 per week. All the contestants worked with tutors on age-appropriate schoolwork. This presented a bit of a problem for Vieder, a student at Hillel Day School, since none of the tutors spoke Hebrew. Getting back to school was a struggle, but Vieder managed to pass all his classes despite being away during the fall of 2017.
In 2015, Vieder first auditioned for the fifth season of MasterChef Junior but was eliminated in the final round. So when asked to try out again, he was ecstatic over the possibility of being on the show he’d been watching since it first aired in 2013.
Last June, right after Vieder finished seventh grade, he and his mom went to Chicago to audition for the second time. Four months later, he was one of 40 kids invited to Los Angeles where 24 of the 40 would get a MasterChef Junior apron — their ticket to compete on the show.
“I was nervous about failing. I didn’t want to get an apron and then be the first one out because I did so much interviewing and preparing. Once on the show I was nervous about cutting myself, getting burned or dropping a dish. You can work hard for 59 of the 60 minutes you’re given in a challenge and if you drop it, you’re done,” he says.
“The challenges were really intense. You’re there and you’re thinking ‘Oh my God, I’m in the MasterChef kitchen cooking with all their fancy equipment.’ At first, I felt the pressure of the cameras, but I quickly learned to ignore them.”
Vieder, along with his mom, spent an unspecified amount of time living in a California hotel (they can’t say how long because that would lead to speculation about how long he lasted on the show and if he won).
Accompanying her son meant being away from her husband, Jason, and two other children, Gabe, 10, and Lindsay, 7.
“Jason stepped up to be Mr. Mom while I was gone. He was truly fantastic,” she said of her husband, an emergency-room physician at Henry Ford Hospital in Dearborn. “The house was definitely a lot cleaner and quieter while Sammy and I were gone.”
While Vieder and the other contestants were taping or attending school, a parent or chaperone had to remain at the studio. Stacy said she passed the time by planning Sammy’s June 2017 bar mitzvah (he had a cooking theme), reading and talking with the other parents.
Vieder says his favorite part of being on the show was getting to know the contestants. When he celebrated his bar mitzvah last June, a highlight of the weekend was having a handful of his new friends travel to Michigan to celebrate with him.
The Vieders are relieved that the season is finally here. “His friends started to not believe him,” Stacy says. “He’s ready to finally be able to share the MasterChef Junior experience with family and friends who have been patiently waiting for the show to air, and he hopes everyone enjoys watching the show as much as he enjoyed being a part of it.”
MasterChef Junior’s sixth season premieres 8 p.m. Friday, March 2, on Fox.
Jennifer Lovy Contributing Writer
Brett Mountain Photographer