By Haley Frederick
Pittsburgh Current Managing Editor
The 10th season of MasterChef kicks off tonight on FOX at 8 p.m., and this season, Pittsburgh fans have a clear contestant to root on. Michael Silverstein, a real estate flipper from Pittsburgh, is one of the 36 home cooks that was chosen from tens of thousands to compete.
Silverstein spoke to the Current about his love of food, seizing an opportunity and the intense pressure of being on one of TV’s biggest cooking show.
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I was born and raised outside of DC in Maryland. I came to Pittsburgh in 2005 to attend Carnegie Mellon University to study real estate development in the school of business with a double major in architecture. After graduating in 2009, I worked for a small tech company in the South Side and then after three years, made the full leap—quit my job and started my own business doing real estate. I really wanted to get into flipping houses. It’s been about 6 years now with my own business. I’ve bought, renovated and flipped over a dozen properties in the Pittsburgh area.
Have you always enjoyed cooking?
I’m an avid home cook—never professionally trained, but I’ve really studied food most of my life. My fiance and I travel the world and make a really strong effort to immerse ourselves in the food of wherever we’re traveling. That’s been a huge source of inspiration for me.
About a year ago I was at an unhealthy weight and I decided to start taking care of myself. I started a low-carb keto diet in May of last year, which has really changed my life. I’ve lost 80 pounds and have become very passionate about cooking healthy food that tastes amazing and does not feel like “diet” food. I’d say that’s kind of my specialty at this point.
I created an Instagram account (@chefmichael.keto) to document and share the recipes I was developing within the structure of keto and the account started to grow at a rapid pace pretty unexpectedly. There’s a lot of diet food out there that is based around eating very light foods and salads and plain grilled chicken—I don’t believe that’s the way to find success in weight loss. You should always love what you’re eating and that’s really what I’m on a mission to prove: that you can enjoy food and be healthy.
How did you get on the show?
My fiance and I were watching season 9 at home, and they aired a commercial that said they were on a search for the best home cooks in America. My fiance was like, “You’ve got to do this!” He really encouraged me to get out of my comfort zone. But I was like, “I’m not going to drive to New York City for a one in a million chance that I’m going to get anywhere with this.” It seemed almost silly to me. So we filled in an online application [instead], and kind of forgot about it.
A couple of weeks later I got a phone call inviting me for further auditioning in New York City. I gathered my things and shipped out to New York three days later. They asked me to bring a signature dish that would communicate to the judges who I was as a cook. I brought a really beautiful keto-friendly dinner that had roasted duck and celery root puree. And I brought that in a cooler to Times Square. I went to several rounds of auditioning and eventually got an invitation to be flown out to LA. What started as 20,000 people around the country auditioning was narrowed down to 36 people that made it to the first episode of the show.
When you got to set, was it everything you imagined?
The set was incredible. You never really know what the reality would be from watching the show, but it was beautiful. It was huge and there must have been what felt like a hundred cameras. Being on a prime time television show set was really, really impressive and intimidating actually.
What can we expect to see in the first episode on Wednesday, May 29?
The 36 of us cook for the three celebrity judges and need to be unanimously approved as the final audition. There will be 20 people out of the 36 that will be given one of these coveted spots on the show.
What was it like meeting the famous judges—Gordon Ramsay, Aarón Sánchez, and Joe Bastianich?
Me—a home cook who’s never been formally trained is presenting my own food to Gordon Ramsay? It’s a little crazy. The judges were larger than life the way that they commanded the room. It was exciting and it was intimidating because this was really my one shot. There was a lot of pressure. It’s quite literally a once in a lifetime opportunity and I took it very seriously. I studied and practiced my cooking for months leading up to this. I probably bought 10 or 12 famous culinary books and studied everything from French sauces to butchery to Asian cuisine. I wasn’t going to waste this opportunity. Even more so, I didn’t want to look foolish on TV.
[Being on MasterChef] is definitely the most exciting thing that’s ever happened to me. I’m very used to high-pressure environments. I basically gamble every day with my job with sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars on real estate projects. This show made that seem easy. It was the hardest thing I’ve done in my life and also the most exciting.
When you’re cooking on the show are you thinking about the millions of people watching? Or are you able to put that out of your mind?
Oh, you’re definitely thinking about that. You have to get really comfortable with the fact that there’s five cameras pointing at you from every angle at any given time. You can’t forget about that completely. But at the end of the day, we had to stay focused on the food.
I only had 45 minutes to cook in real time for the judges. It really was real. We didn’t have a chance to practice things, we had to show up and the camera just started rolling. You get out on set and it’s your turn to cook for your life. All these months of work and practice and taking a huge risk and flying away from my business that I work so hard to maintain and getting to L.A. and having 45 minutes that could change your life—it was a lot of pressure. I tried to harness that pressure into energy. As soon as it was my turn and the clock started, I just had fun with it. I knew what I was cooking, I felt good about my dish and I just gave it all of my heart at that moment and hoped for the best.
Tune in to FOX Wednesdays and Thursdays at 8 p.m. to follow along with MasterChef season 10.