Local optometrist Matt Houck prepares for his ‘MasterChef’ debut

MasterChef viewing party

Big Grove Brewery and Taproom, Iowa City — Wednesday, May 30 at 7:00 p.m.

Iowa City local Matt Houck prepares for his debut on FOX’s MasterChef. – photo by Frankie Schneckloth

Iowa City resident Matthew Houck is ready for battle. Next week, he’ll go head-to-head with home chefs from across the country competing for a coveted white apron on FOX’s MasterChef.

Houck, an amateur chef and optometrist at McDonald Optical in Iowa City, applied for a spot on the food-focused reality show last October. A long drive to Nashville for an initial audition required Houcks to prepare a signature dish for a group of judges.

“It’s supposed to be your signature dish, but I don’t often cook things more than once usually. Braising short ribs is something I’m really good at; so I made a braised short rib dish. One of the judges was Viet Pham, he came around and tried my dish and asked me some questions and he asked me questions about the puree I made, how I made it, how I did my shortrib. I just remember him smiling and saying ‘Yeah, that was really good!’ and then he walked on to the next contestant.”

Afterwards, Houck found out he had been selected to move along through the audition process which ultimately resulted in a spot on the show’s ninth season.

For those not familiar with MasterChef, it’s intended to be an arena for talented home cooks to compete for a chance to go pro. It features a panel of judges including the infamous Gordon Ramsay along with Joe Bastianich and chef Aáron Sanchez who guide the cooks through various competitions and decide which ones are eliminated in each episode.

The first episode on May 30 will feature the top 43 home chefs in the U.S. vying to win a white apron from one of the celebrity judges. The symbolic white apron offers the contestant a spot on the chef’s team and an opportunity to progress to the next round. Each judge has eight aprons to give, so Wednesday’s episode will see the top 43 be cut almost in half to just 24 contestants.

“Obviously I want to win MasterChef. I’m gonna go for the title. The title is a MasterChef trophy, $250,000 and a cookbook deal. I’ve always aspired to do it; that’s the ultimate goal. Even if things don’t turn out, it will be a great experience and it’s going to show me where I’m at with cooking,” Houck said.

As far as where he’s at with cooking, he’s come a long way in a short time; Houck only recently developed a hunger for the artistry of the culinary world. A self-described picky eater until about five years ago, as a child, he’d often sit at the dinner table and pout for two hours avoiding eating his peas. Peer pressure from friends in high school changed his eating habits.

“I would always sit with my friends at school and they had these premade sandwiches in the cafeteria that had tomatoes on them. At that point, I wouldn’t even eat tomatoes and lettuce! I was just too embarrassed to take the tomatoes off in front of my friends and let them know how picky I was, so I just started eating them, and slowly I realized I actually wanted to have the tomatoes on there. I wasn’t dreading eating them on the sandwich,” Houck remembers.

As his palate developed, so too did his interest in the preparation. Houck cites a gifted copy of The French Laundry Cookbook as his original source of inspiration. The appetizing photos of artistic plating and good commentary throughout were key components and from there he explored the specific methods of other Michelin-starred chefs, learning and growing with each dish he prepared. Now, just a mere two years later, it’s not uncommon to find Houck preparing sous vide steak and edible fruit bubbles and chronicling it all on his food blog.

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“You know, optometry and cooking aren’t totally related, but there’s kind of similar aspects with both that have tied it together for me. I’m a big believer in eating with your eyes first. That’s what I did my whole time growing up, I would look to see what’s on the plate, what’s in there so I could pick around it. I love optometry, but cooking is something I do right when I get home. It’s something I’m thinking about after I’m done with patients for the day.”

So where does Houck dine when his home kitchen needs a break?

“I love Cobble Hill in Cedar Rapids; it’s an underappreciated one. Out of all the Michelin-star restaurants I’ve been to, it’s better than any I’ve been to. There’s a lot of restaurants around here actually that are underappreciated.”

The first episode of MasterChef airs Wednesday, May 30 on FOX at 7 p.m. central. Join Houck and his cheering squad for a live viewing party at Big Grove Brewery and Taproom at 1225 S Gilbert St, Iowa City.