When Charlotte native Dan Paustian decided to audition for the competitive cooking show MasterChef, his idea of plating a dish was putting food on a paper towel.
The pinnacle of his cooking career had been his YouTube show, “Simmer Down,” in which he and a friend would create recipes inspired by popular movies, with episodes like “License to Kale” and “When Harry Met Salad.”
It was around this time, the 27-year-old said, that he became interested in combining his two favorite things: entertainment and cooking.
Now, Paustian is starring as a top 20 finalist on the seventh season of MasterChef.
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The show, which airs Wednesdays on FOX at 8, challenges competitors with team exercises, pressured environments and mystery ingredients, all in the search of discovering the nation’s best up-and-coming chef.
Restaurateur Gordon Ramsay and bakery-owner Christina Tosi are the judges, who are both award-winning chefs. Along with an additional guest judge each week, the experts critique the competitors’ creations, technique, and inventiveness.
MasterChef was first aired in 2010 and awards the winner with $250,000 and a cookbook deal. And after getting narrowed down from thousands of aspiring chefs to only 20, Paustian is ready to win the title of master chef.
‘Turn your lady on’
During his time in college at UNC-Chapel Hill, Paustian noticed something that set him apart from his fraternity brothers: the food he cooked was actually appetizing.
“When we had any type of party, we had to have someone on the grill, and a lot of the time that burden fell to me,” he said.
“We figured out that I was the guy who could cook the food that the girls would actually eat, and that’s kind of when my love for cooking started.”
Though on the show he advised that ‘the best way to turn your lady on is to turn your stove on,’ cooking was a way for Paustian to spend time with his family before it was a way to impress girls.
He said some of his favorite meals to cook have a lot to do with his North Carolina roots.
“Maybe it’s just because I’m from North Carolina and we have more pigs that people, but there’s nothing like a really great pork chop,” he said.
“I will go to my grave thinking that North Carolina has the best barbecue in the world,” said Paustian, who prefers a vinegar base in the great barbecue sauce debate.
Becoming a master chef
After graduating from college where he studied film and media production, Paustian made the move to Los Angeles.
He was working at a restaurant as a server when the opportunity to audition for MasterChef arose. He prepared by studying the chefs at the restaurant where he worked.
“If I wasn’t working at the restaurant or doing something film related, I was bothering a chef at the restaurant asking ‘Why is this that way?’ ” he said.
In the first episode of the season, which aired on June 1, Paustian is seen introducing himself to other top 40 competitors and the 3.8 million U.S. viewers that tuned in, demonstrating his lighthearted personality.
“Part of the difficult thing for me was that I came in with the least amount of actual cooking experience,” he said.
“When we were in the top 40, all these men and women had been cooking for 15 years, and I’m sitting here like ‘I just learned how to make an omelet.’ ”
However, Paustian said the same studiousness that propelled his learning in the classroom and the kitchen is what he uses to his advantage on the show, and what helped him get to the top 20.
“My biggest strength is my ability to pick up things quickly,” he said. “I’m a very good student.”
‘We all love food, and we all love cooking’
Paustian’s favorite experience on the show is one that happened during the first episode.
“For my first apron battle, I put together these tacos that were based on what I loved,” he said.
“I used my vegetarian aunt and uncle’s recipe, I used a beer batter recipe that my grandpa taught me, and I used a cilantro-lime sour cream that I made myself.”
He said that he imagined Ramsay, a notoriously confrontational chef and television personality, would say his food was all right at best.
But that wasn’t the case. “Gordon Ramsay looked me in the eye and said ‘This is delicious.’ That blew my mind,” he said. “That’s when I knew this whole experience was worth it.”
Paustian said he admires the judges for their wonderful personalities and genuine abilities. “Gordon is so much nicer than he gets a rap for,” he said.
Paustian said that in the future he hopes to still be on camera cooking with his own show. When asked about advice he would give to aspiring chefs who don’t come from a culinary background, he said experimentation is key.
“If you think that two flavors are going to work well together, try it out,” he said. “Go to the store, buy things you’ve never bought and try it. It might end up being your favorite.”
Dan's Italian Breakfast Tacos
One Hot Italian Sausage
Green Bell Pepper
Pecorino, Parmigiano, or Cheddar Cheese
Dice all vegetables and sausage into small chunks.
Put olive oil in hot pan and add potatoes and dash of salt.
Saute for about five minutes then add diced onions, bell pepper and sausage and a dash of salt.
Once the sausage is almost cooked through, push the mixture to one side of pan and crack two eggs in the empty space.
Fry the eggs until almost solid, then use your spatula to chop them up. Mix everything together and take off heat.
Brown the tortillas over the burner, you can rub olive oil and salt on them if you want.
Fill your tortillas with your Italian breakfast scramble, then top with shredded cheese and basil!
Dan says: “This fun breakfast covers all your bases – starch, protein, vegetables – it’s not only super delicious and easy to make, but really, who doesn't love a taco?”