The last year and a half has been a bit of a rough stretch for 12-year-old Pierce Cleaveland of Oak Park – not because of the pressure of competing on the Fox Network TV show MasterChef Junior, but because of the vow of secrecy he’s taken to not discuss it with his friends.
“I’m excited but I’m overwhelmed, because so many kids come up to me and say, ‘Were you on MasterChef?’ and it’s a crazy amount; they ask me a bunch of questions, but I couldn’t answer,” the Percy Julian Middle School sixth-grader said in a recent interview.
The hit TV show’s sixth season premieres on Friday, March 2, in a special two-hour show from 7 to 9 p.m. Kids 8 to 13 compete with their culinary creations for the coveted MasterChef Junior trophy and a cash prize of $100,000.
Cleaveland said his favorite part of competing on MasterChef Junior was probably meeting the other contestants from all over the country. Seven are from the Chicago area.
Cleaveland enjoys playing soccer and volleyball, dreams of one day being an actor, dancer or a professional soccer player, he said.
“Or I could become a chef,” he added. “I love cooking at home, especially with my dad, because he was the one who inspired me to cook when I was 6 years old.”
He said he was inspired in part by River Forest resident Addison Osta Smith, who was 10 when she competed in and won the MasterChef Junior competition in 2016.
Cleaveland said he would watch the show with his family, and his mother would ask him what he would make if he were a contestant.
Asked what his favorite dish is, Cleaveland didn’t think twice: “Salad.”
“One of my favorite salads is roasted chicken and kale chip salad with romaine lettuce and spicy mustard dressing,” he said.
Cleaveland said his favorite place to eat in Oak Park is the Mediterranean-themed restaurant Citrine, 100 S. Oak Park Ave.
“The last time I was there I got the house salad, which was really good,” he said, adding that he also really loves the octopus.
Cleaveland was tight-lipped in the interview about the details of the show, careful to not reveal how many episodes in which he will appear, but he did reveal that he’s using his newfound fame to help those in need.
“I wanted to do something for others,” he said, adding that his family is holding a fundraiser to benefit the Oak Park River Forest Food Pantry.
Lauren Brightmore, food pantry development and event coordinator, said the family is having a watch party for the show and has committed to matching donations to the food pantry up to $100 a week each week Cleaveland is on the show, up to $500.
The food pantry has set up a web page where fans can make donations directly. The link will go live about an hour before the show airs, Brightmore said.
“It’s so amazing to see someone so young and so involved,” Brightmore said.
For Cleaveland, the wait is over and his big moment is almost here – and more importantly, perhaps, he can start talking about it with his friends.
“This whole process has been a year and a half; it’s been long but it’s worth it,” he said. “I’ve been keeping this a secret, and now I finally get to let it out.”