Concord boy cooks his way to reality TV
CONCORD — Ten-year-old Sam Brock wears many hats. He’s a fourth-grader at The Fenn School in his hometown of Concord. He’s an avid Patriots fan. He collects basketball sneakers.
But starting on Feb. 9, a chef’s toque might be the most appropriate hat for Sam, as he joins 39 other contenders between the ages of 8 and 13 to compete on the fifth season of Fox’s “MasterChef Junior,” a nationally televised competition for kids who like to cook.
Sam’s earliest memories of cooking go back to when he was 4 years old and habitually watched his father make him his favorite breakfast of scrambled eggs. “One day,” recounted Sam, “I thought, someday my dad’s not going to be here for me, so maybe I should learn to make scrambled eggs myself.”
Intimations of mortality aside, Sam’s father, Mark, was happy to teach his young son everything he knew about cooking. His mother, Jennifer, is less interested in culinary pursuits — but always willing to grocery shop ahead of Sam’s kitchen conquests and clean up afterward.
Sam gradually expanded his repertoire. He made a meatloaf recipe given to him by one of his grandmothers and an apple pie from the other. He made cookies (“bigger than my head,” he noted) with his elder sister, Lilly, and key lime pie for his fencing coach. He watched cooking shows on TV and downloaded recipes from the Internet. When his father made a reference to Gordon Ramsay, Sam looked up the culinary celebrity on YouTube and started re-creating Ramsay’s recipes as well.
“I find it very satisfying to put a lot of stuff into a bowl and mix it together and see what color it turns,” he said. “I like watching dry ingredients turn into wet, make a sauce, figure out ways to make it thinner or thicker, or change it just by tasting.”
In the fall of 2015, Jennifer Brock glimpsed a notice about Boston-area auditions for “MasterChef Junior” in a school newsletter. “I mentioned it only very briefly to Sam and then went off to book club,” she recalled. When she returned home later that night, Sam had downloaded and filled out the entire application — motivated in part, perhaps, by the fact that Ramsay, his culinary hero, is one of the judges.
His mom took Sam to the Boston-area open call. Subsequent auditions soon followed — and then Sam received the long-awaited news that he had made the final cut and was invited to Los Angeles to compete in the televised contest.
The whole family mobilized to help the young chef get ready. Sam’s sister Lilly joined him for baking projects. His mom solicited a friend who works as a personal chef to help Sam bone up on some basic kitchen skills. “She helped me with things like chopping,” Sam said. “I knew I could cook, but Sarah helped me learn to cook fast.” She taught him the concept of mise en place — having all the parts in place.
And before long, Sam and his mother were boarding a flight to LA. None of the competitors in the weekly elimination contest knew how long they’d be staying; you could gauge how much confidence each family had, Jennifer said, by how many changes of clothing they’d brought.
Sam was awed when he first saw the kitchen where the show is taped. As a viewer, he had assumed it was mostly a fabricated stage set, but what awaited him was in fact a full-scale professional kitchen. “It was really cool to see the stations,” Sam recalled. “It was so organized. Everything was all set up to go.” It was just as his mother’s chef friend had taught him — mise en place.
He and his mother settled in quickly to the quirky routine of taping a show: the early-morning wake-ups and bus rides from the hotel to the set; grooming sessions with his personal stylist; the hours of tutoring to keep up with his schoolwork as required by California law; and daily cooking classes to prepare for each challenge. “At cooking class, you’d have a grown-up helper who could go fetch things or stir,” Sam explained. “You really got to know the helper. It was fun because they were professional chefs, but you kind of got to be the boss of them.”
On nontaping days, the network arranged field trips, which not only kept the kids busy during their downtime but helped them get to know one another outside of the competition. Sam now numbers some of his fellow contestants among his best friends.
Sam considers his signature dish to be chocolate cake with hot fudge and mint whipped cream, but he’ll try making anything he thinks he might like to eat, from tarts to compotes to steak on the grill. A still unmet goal is to make Peking duck. And Sam sees benefits to his cooking beyond the gastronomical. “My dad and I make nachos to eat during every Patriots game,” he said. “And the Patriots always win. So now it’s like a superstition: We have to make nachos.”
With the taping behind them, Sam and his family, like all the other contestants, are sworn to secrecy about how the contest ends; the results will unfold as the TV season runs its course. Sam has pledged to donate half of any winnings he collects to Open Table, a social services organization that provides meals and pantry goods to those in need.
The fifth season of “MasterChef Junior” premieres on Fox on Thursday, Feb. 9, at 8 p.m.