I’ve never met Sammy Vieder, but we live less than a mile apart and I’m pretty sure we’re related. Not related as a result of the sprawling extended family I married into almost 12 noisy years ago. Nor to be confused with my brother Sam, my cousin Sam, my nephew Sammy or my grandma’s second husband’s sister’s grandson from Miami Sam, who introduced me to Blue Apron when he worked there.
No, Sammy and I are related in some cosmic/karmic way. Or so I came to believe after watching the then-12-year-old Huntington Woods resident and Hillel Day School student conduct his culinary craft on Fox’s MasterChef Junior.
If, like I was until six weeks ago, you are unfamiliar with the joy and anxiety of MasterChef Junior, you’re six seasons behind on the show, which is itself a spinoff of British and American versions of MasterChef and one of multiple precocious pre-teen entries into the prodigious genre of cooking contest television.
Watching Sammy cook up a storm — his Mascarpone-Stuffed Chicken would make Julia Child feel juvenile — I knew how Salieri must have felt when he heard the preternatural power of Mozart’s music.
After all, I was the food editor of the Columbia Daily Spectator — the ninth largest English language daily afternoon paper in New York City — when I was but 1.5 Sammys old. Now 3 Sammys in age, I have to stare down Lola, our mouth-breathing geriatric Newfoundland, for my kids’ grilled cheese crusts, and I guess poorly one way or the other at the readiness of avocado. To say nothing of my propensity for spilling. So much spilling.
My Sammy-induced food envy came to a fever pitch on April 13, during an episode featuring Blue Apron. If, like I was until six months ago, you are unfamiliar with the joy and anxiety of Blue Apron, it’s a service that sends a box of fresh foodstuffs to your house weekly with the ingredients for family meals.
On this fateful night, the top 12 “home cooks” (the Fox Broadcasting Company does not endorse or condone child labor) each received the same 10-by-12-by-14 inch Blue Apron box that greets/taunts me from my front porch every Wednesday. But instead of an easy-to-follow recipe replete with pictures, key words in bold and parenthetical tips that I can usually turn into a meal, the box contained … my incomplete taxes.
Actually, it was scarier. The boxes were empty. Sammy and Co. each had a mere 45 minutes to pick out ingredients à la Supermarket Sweep and create and concoct an original meal entirely from scratch to be promptly adjudicated by the three world-renowned chefs and restaurateurs, adults who must feel like the old Arnold Schwarzenegger Terminator trying to understand the liquid metal capabilities of the newer Terminator sent back to the present from further in the future.
Sammy wielded his slotted spatula with the fearless instinct of Jackson Pollock making fractals out of splatter paint and whatever fell out of his pockets onto the canvas. Did I mention Sammy has braces? Sammy has braces. As far as a I can tell, they are not Skynet liquid metal braces.
When Sammy’s Seared Steak and Brussels Sprouts served over a bed of polenta won the judge’s admiration, my fever rose.
When he won the week’s challenge and the judges announced that his recipe would be an official Blue Apron meal, ingredients and instructions shipped to porches across the country, my fever broke.
Through the cold sweat, I felt a sense of calm wash over me. At first, I wasn’t sure why. Then I realized that the point of all this wasn’t for me to measure the value to my family, community and society of myself based on how well I could cook Sammy’s recipe. The point was for me to measure the value to my family, community and society of my children based on how well they could cook Sammy’s recipe.
Think Salieri has kids and all his unaddressed issues with Mozart make him like the Tiger Mom or Tiger Woods’ dad. But instead, like the ingredients themselves, the outcome was organic — the result of my kids’ Sammy-inspired interest in cooking food and eating it. Sammy is like their Mary Lou Retton meets Michelle Obama, all wrapped in the relatable package of a giggly mensch growing up in “The Woods.”
And how did the home cooks cook at home?
My requests to be addressed as chef — “Yes, chef,” the contestants say like cadets — were roundly rebuffed. Still, the show must go on.
Since Judah and Phoebe are nearly four years older than Sammy (combined), I felt I should replicate the show’s degree of difficulty by doing it the day Phoebe had a field trip to the Ann Arbor Hands-on Museum, Garden Club and soccer and Judah took the M-STEP (think MEAP test with more mouse clicking and less bubble filling) and then his 9-year-old pediatrician appointment (no shots, yes ice cream).
The Brussels sprouts were no match for Phoebe, a highly enthusiastic chopper who still boasts all her fingers. Prior to drizzling them with olive oil and tossing them with freshly ground pepper and sea salt, she kept eating the halves out of the bowl. Having to ask your 7-year-old to please stop eating the raw Brussels sprouts so there will be enough of them for a dinner that she is cooking is the parenting equivalent of getting a papercut from the winning Powerball ticket.
Once Judah realized the right way to turn the knobs of the stove, he plowed through the polenta, but not before heating the garlic and shallots until soft and aromatic. The polenta had a perfect, lump-free consistency owing to his whimsical whisking. He had more success cutting the rosemary with scissors but struggled adding the rosemary when he forgot what rosemary was.
In the interest of time — and in hopes of the only blood being bovine — they served the steaks whole rather than sliced. Mine was perfectly prepared to my preference (medium rare); my wife’s was ruined at her request (medium well). I took the parental prerogative to put Phoebe’s back on the range for a minute, as it could still be heard faintly mooing.
All told, Judah and Phoebe’s dinner, as Gordon Ramsey described Sammy’s, was “elevated beyond belief.”
Sammy: This message is just for you. Everyone else can stop reading. By sheer probability of Huntington Woods in warm weather or Jewish geography otherwise, chances are we will meet in the weeks ahead. In case I get star struck when we do, I want to thank you here and now. Thank you for reminding me that there is a happy medium between just living to eat or eating to live. Thank you for your humility, humanity and compound butter. And thank you for helping my family along our long exodus from the bondage of mac and cheese to the promised land of leafy greens and tender proteins.
You, junior or no, are a master chef.
Kids in the Kitchen
Meet Sammy from MasterChef Junior at a family-friendly fundraiser for Friendship Circle. Audience members will challenge Sammy’s cooking skills and hear about his experiences on the show. Professional chefs will demo and offer samples of tasty snacks.
Ticket price, $30 per person, includes light refreshments and tastings. At 1:30 p.m. Sunday, June 3, at the Soul Cafe Event Hall, 5586 Drake Road, West Bloomfield. Register at friendshipcircle.org/events/kids-in-the-kitchen.