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In the kitchen with local MasterChef contestant

Wilmington cook prepares one of his favorite recipes for us and talks about cooking strategies and cooking inspirations

Have you ever dreamed of having your own master chef in the kitchen? I have — and my dream came true.

Tyler Viars, 27, of Wilmington is a top 20 contestant on Season 5 of MasterChef, which started airing last month. The filming for the episodes is done, and Viars is sworn to secrecy as to how far he gets in the show.

Last week Viars picked up some fresh catfish at Dorothy Lane Market on his way to my home, where he prepared Pan-seared Porcini-dusted Catfish with a Sweetcorn and Cayenne Puree.

“What I love about catfish is that it’s a vehicle for flavor,” Viars said.

Ohio is corn country, and Viars told me about growing up in a family that’s always enjoyed simple, delicious food.

“We love sweetcorn. We buttered (the cobs) by taking a piece of bread and buttered the bread,” he said.

He pretended he had a piece of buttered bread in his hand and showed me how his family wrapped the bread around an ear of corn and turned it to make sure it was thoroughly buttered. He said the bread took on a sweetcorn flavor.

“At the end of it, someone got to eat the piece of bread,” Viars said. “It was insane.”

To start the sweetcorn puree, Tyler sliced two garlic cloves and a shallot and put them in a medium-size pot to cook in some oil on medium heat.

Then he placed my big skillet on the stove and turned on the burner. “Chef (Gordon) Ramsay said not to pour in the oil until you’re ready to cook so you don’t burn the oil.”

Another thing: “Don’t be afraid to cook on high heat.”

Viars cooked the porcini-dusted catfish fillets until deeply caramelized, about 4 minutes. He taught me to use my ears in the kitchen. “When you hear a sizzle stop, you know it’s time to flip.”

In the case of the catfish fillets, Viars first checked the edges to see if they were still sticking to the pan. When the edges come up, you know you’re getting close. Then, when you can get the tongs or spatula beneath the fillet, you know it’s done on that side.

While the catfish fillets were cooking and the garlic and shallot became tender, Viars added frozen sweetcorn to the onion and shallot. Next he added cream cheese and a little cayenne, salt and pepper, and pureed it all, there in the pot, with an immersion blender.

Viars adjusted the seasonings in the puree. “When I’m baking, I measure,” he said. “But when I’m making something savory, I don’t. I adjust.”

When he’s cooking, he keeps a lot of tasting spoons on hand. When he was pleased with the seasonings, he spooned some of the sweetcorn onto a small platter. He tasted the small piece of “test fish” to see if it was done. “Always use a tester,” Viars said. “Don’t use your guests as guinea pigs.”

Viars chopped up some mint leaves and sprinkled them on top of the catfish. Very quickly he sliced two heirloom tomatoes — one red and the other yellow. He took two slices of each and fanned them on a small plate and topped them with a broken dressing of oil and vinegar.

“This is your lunch,” he said. “Bon appetit.”

The catfish, sweetcorn puree and simple tomato salad all tasted heavenly, and made in a matter of minutes. “When you have guests over, the food needs to be easy or prepared,” Viars said. “You want to spend time with your guests.”

Since his visit, I’ve been following his tips to up my own game in the kitchen.

Of course, I wasn’t about to let a MasterChef get away without a giving real interview, so I asked him a lot of questions:

Q. It takes incredible courage to go on a TV show and compete with a lot of other very talented cooks, especially in front of the likes of Gordon Ramsay. Where does your courage come from?

A. You only live once. I want something else. I always have. In life if you don’t try, you don’t have a chance. God wants you to do great things everyone has a talent and is supposed to use it. Fear is not a problem. Everyone has fear. But how often does your greatest fear happen? It’s what’s between the ears that gets you. I like the feeling of being uncomfortable. Teach me. Ask. I don’t know everything.

Q. What do you admire about the other contestants and the judges?

A. The judges are at the pinnacle. Joe Bastianich is a restaurateur. Chef (Graham) Elliot lost 100 pounds. That’s amazing. And Chef Ramsay is a killer. The other contestants are great cooks. Sometimes I felt inferior, but if you hang around strong people, you get strong results.

Q. What is the best thing you learned from MasterChef?

A. Discipline and time management. When you’re cooking at home, if you’re a half-hour late, you can have another cocktail. But on the show, if you’re a half-hour late, it means you lose a challenge. Or an apron.

Q. How does cooking make you feel?

A. Cooking brings me peace. It makes me happy because the food makes others happy and brings cultures together. I can “taste” the world without leaving my kitchen. Airfare these days!! Eating is my favorite “sport” but seeing others’ smiles is better than eating.

Q. What kind of cook are you?

A. I love all aspects of food. Based on what other people say, low-and-slow style cooking. Long-term cooking yields awesome results. I love to bake. I love trifles and cookies. I have cookbooks from every part of the culinary world… I believe in wasting nothing.

Q. How have you learned so much about the culinary arts?

A. I am fascinated with food and its culture. Information is everywhere! I love to read cookbooks and books regarding food. I treat them like textbooks. As a matter of fact, I am currently reading Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and Jacques Pepin’s “Complete Techniques.” Also, I utilize the internet and television. My DVR is loaded with cooking shows. First and foremost, it’s baptism by fire! I see a recipe or technique and try to execute it.

Q. What are you favorite tips in the kitchen?

A. First off, have fun. It’s about having fun. If you’re miserable in the kitchen, get out. Don’t set an exact time to sit down for dinner. It’s OK to eat at 7 instead of 6:30. The first time, follow the recipe. The second time, make adjustments. Another great tip is clean as you go. Chef Ramsay cooked for us and (the countertop) looked like he had time to spray with Windex. Also, be mindful, not wasteful. Use everything.

Q. What kitchen tool, appliance or gadget can you not live without and why?

A. Definitely a chef’s knife. Sharp knife, sharp chef. I also love food processors and my Vitamix.

Q. How about picky eaters?

A. Picky eaters are not born; they are made. Open your mind and taste buds to new food experiences.

Q. What will be the focus of your first cookbook?

A. Food is emotional, so chefs have an emotional attachment to food. They know how to butcher and break down animals. Perhaps the only aspect of food preparation they haven’t done is hunted. Hunting and preparing your own game is the ultimate emotional reward. It’s humane and we know precisely where the animal came from. I want to take chefs hunting, showcasing the beauty of an area, the culture, the game, and the chef and his or her recipe. It’s a lot more fun “cookin’ in camo.”

Q. What else is important to you?

A. Integrity is everything. You can lose a million dollars or make a million dollars, but integrity stays with you. I always made it known that I am from a small town. Besides representing my own family, I represent a small dot on the map. There are lots more small dots than big dots.

Q. Final thoughts?

A. In my family, we dine together. It helps you get to know each other. I was always at the dinner table, and we still alternate who says the blessing. Food brings people together.

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