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Iowa City optometrist tests taste buds on TV

Matt Houck competes in latest season of 'MasterChef'

Matt Houck competes on “MasterChef” on the Fox TV show. (Fox Broadcasting)
Matt Houck competes on “MasterChef” on the Fox TV show. (Fox Broadcasting)

When Matt Houck was growing up, he usually didn’t want to finish his vegetables.

“I used to be a really picky eater until about five years ago. I wouldn’t eat tomatoes, I wouldn’t eat lettuce, things like that,” he said.

A lot has changed since then — the Iowa City optometrist is a contestant on this season of “MasterChef.”

Home cooks from across the country auditioned for the Fox reality TV show, hosted by celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay. Houck and 23 others will vie for a grand prize of $250,000, a cookbook deal and the title of America’s Master Chef.

The first two episodes aired May 30.

Houck became interested in “MasterChef” two seasons ago, when he was inspired by season champion Shaun O’Neale. The presentation of dishes — making food not only taste good but look beautiful — captured his imagination.

He started an Instagram account and began posting photos of his own dishes, spending his evenings teaching himself from YouTube videos, studying the efforts of Michelin-starred chefs, with varying degrees of success

“I’d see patients, do charts and go home and didn’t have much to do,” he said. “I’ve been very meticulous, obsessive almost, in finding videos online.”

He said his efforts often failed, but he kept at it, and kept following the efforts of “MasterChef” contestants. Last year, when he saw “MasterChef” season eight finalist Jason Wang — whose partner has family in Iowa — was hosting a pop-up dinner at Three Pines Farm in Cedar Falls, he took the afternoon off to attend and get the chance to talk with Wang about what it was like being on the show.

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Born in Indiana, Houck moved to Iowa City almost two year ago and works at McDonald Optical. He said his interest in cooking combines his love of the sciences, his passion for all things visual and the appreciation of good food that helped kick his vegetable aversion.

“When I was in college my parents got me ‘The French Laundry Cookbook,’ and it just kind of captured me with how artistic food can be. There’s also a science to it it was fun to see all of that kind of come together in one thing,” he said.

He said he took his passion for locally sourced ingredients, as well as his love of beautiful plating, to “MasterChef,” starting with his audition in Nashville, where he cooked bourbon-braised short ribs, featuring bourbon from Swisher-based Cedar Ridge Winery and Distillery.

Though Houck is sworn to secrecy about how far in the season he makes it, he said no matter what happens, he’s not planning to leave optometry. Part of that is the reality of student loans, which require a steady income to pay off.

But he hopes cooking plays a bigger part of his life, perhaps through things like pop-up dinners.

West Des Moines college student Samantha Daily also is competing on the show. MasterChef airs on 7 p.m. Wednesdays Fox and streams on Hulu.

l Comments: (319) 398-8339; alison.gowans@thegazette.com

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