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July 20, 2024

Up close with Chef Gary Mehigan

Schenelle Dsouza
When people hear the name, Gary Mehigan, they almost always think of the popular cooking show, MasterChef Australia. And while MasterChef did help promote his charming persona, Gary Mehigan is so much more than that.  
Post his exit from MasterChef Australia, Chef Gary has spent his time travelling exploring new cuisines and ingredients, and of course new destinations. But if there’s one place Gary Mehigan loves more than any other holiday destination, it is India! Did you know Chef Gary has been to India almost fourteen times? That’s right, the Australian chef loves India and Indian cuisine, so much so that he makes it a point to visit India at least once a year; for both leisure and exciting food collaborations. 
Chef Gary Mehigan
Photo Courtesy: Gary Mehigan / Instagram
During the Covid lockdown, the internet saw a host of passionate home bakers, cooks and chefs share their love for food on social media, while providing the world with some delicious, easy home-cooked meals. This encouraged Gary to conduct online masterclasses to share his knowledge of cooking with aspiring chefs, home chefs and anyone with a passion for food. Soon this led to creative collaboration with Conosh, a common platform that allows home chefs to showcase their food, and partake in exciting masterclass sessions, many of which have been conducted by Chef Gary Mehigan himself.  
In June this year, Chef Gary visited India once again for a masterclass in collaboration with Conosh, where participants got a chance to learn and prepare three of his popular desserts. During his visit, LuxeBook caught a few minutes with Chef Gary, where he spilled the beans on his journey post MasterChef, his love for Indian street food, his opinions on cooking shows and more. 
What was the reason behind parting ways with MasterChef? 
I think I was getting old. Negotiations break down principally over the time we were required to spend on MasterChef, which is 7 months in a year. I wanted to do something else. We stood on the hallowed boards at the front of the studio for eleven years. We did sixteen seasons including Junior and All Stars. I remember asking the head of the head of Channel 10, “How long do you think the show’s going to go on for?” And he said, “I reckon another ten years,” and I looked him in the eye and said, “But surely not with us!” I think he was quite shocked to find that (I think) all of us had an end time, a stagnation point. And honestly, I promised my family I would only do it if I loved it. And my wife said to me, “Don’t do it because you think that we want you to do it. It’s you. So don’t come home complaining that it’s boring.” So, I promised myself very early on, that once I felt that it wasn’t my thing, I would move on.
Chef Gary Mehigan
Photo Courtesy: Gary Mehigan / Instagram
What is the difference between home chefs and professional chefs? 
(Laughs) I’m just going to upset a huge amount of people, aren’t I? I think, for me, when I started MasterChef, George (Calombaris) and I were very critical of what was put in front of us. We were like, they’re home cooks; they’ll try but won’t do well. And what we learnt very quickly was that if you’re passionate about something, if you’re driven about something, then of course you’re going to become very good. So, in many cases, unlike many professionals, the drive of a passionate home cook leads to much better fruit. And we saw that through the pandemic, people became obsessed with things like sourdough or banana bread. And it’ll be better than any banana bread from any café on the planet. So, it really does make a difference.  
A chef is under a separate set of rules: performance, accountability, responsibility. You get a hundred customers within two hours. And you must rely on speed, efficiency, and delivery. Whereas when you cook at home with a glass of wine, it’s a whole separate set of rules. And I like the fact that amateurs deep dive into something and often end up better than a professional.  
Did you watch yourself on MasterChef Australia? 
I never watched MasterChef Australia; I’m not going to watch MasterChef India (laughs). Because number one, I can’t watch myself on television, it’s very awkward. You know when you’ve been filming for twelve hours, and then you go home and hear yourself on television, it’s an awful thing! My father was a teacher, and he used to say, “I get sick of my own voice.” So, I never really watch it. The only time I watched it (MasterChef Australia) is if I was interested in how the story that developed in studio or out of studio — the integrity of that was kept through the edit process. But MasterChef was so well made that we were always thrilled. If I ever caught a glimpse of it, I was thrilled. And we always looked up the contestants and were thrilled they had a positive experience. And that is why we have stayed in touch. If you look at my phone, there’s 50 contestants in there. 
Chef Gary Mehigan
Photo Courtesy: Gary Mehigan / Instagram
Do you think MasterChef Australia had an impact on cooking shows or helped kickstart the trend of cooking shows?  
The kind of food shows I like are pure food shows, the ones that take you on a journey. I like in-depth content – food driven shows that might appeal to a small audience. MasterChef was, once upon a time in the UK, much like that. An Australian production company took it and turned it into the show we know today. And I’ve been a fan of loud shows, like Hell’s Kitchen for example. He did a show where he goes into a restaurant and fixes it – Kitchen Nightmares. So, the original series was brilliant. Then it went to America and became sensationalized, and all done for effect. And I really didn’t like it. Most of the prime-time cooking shows, I as a chef, like the idea of people who love food. But they become more of a sporting event for entertainment than they are about food. That’s not my thing. Most of the content that comes out, like for example, Pastry Masters in Australia, I won’t watch it. I know all the people professionally, associates and friends that are on the show. One of them asked me if I think they should do it, and I said “Of course you should do it. Will I watch it? Probably no!” I’d rather go to their restaurant and eat their dessert.  
I think it’s my age. As I get older, I certainly prefer things that take a deeper dive, a quieter approach, something more meaningful.  
What is the weirdest dish you’ve tried?  
My recent trip to Nagaland involved a lot of insects, which is shocking for most people. But it’s future food. I ate silkworm, red carpenter worm and crisp deep-fried Hornby. And I know when I post it, people are quick to comment because they do not like it – not trolls, but people who are just quick to comment, and I just get rid of them, or I respond if I think they are listening. But I post it and put it into context of Naga life and Naga history. And then people are little more reluctant to go like “Oh you shouldn’t eat that!” 
Chef Gary Mehigan
Photo Courtesy: Gary Mehigan / Instagram
You’ve shared your love for Indian street food many times. What do you think about the difference between the food cooked in fine dining restaurants versus street side stalls?  
The best thing about street food is what we all know, repetition is perfection. And so, street sellers could be multi-generational – making one thing for their whole life and passing it down generations. Imagine just being there and watching these guys banging out kachoris, for example, and they’re not even looking at it. I was in Tamil Nadu watching a man throwing a paratha in the air, smiling as I film him. And I am thinking, I can do that, ‘cause I know how to make a roti or a lachcha paratha. And I go home, and my family is like what are we having for dinner, and I say we’re making paratha. And I am clumsily throwing a piece of raggedy dough, like it is so much easier when he did it. So, there’s a beauty and respect in the simplicity of the food you see in the street. Like watching a lady stretch seviyan by hand and marvelling at it and thinking it looks easy, but when you have a go and realize it’s going to take you a long time to learn how to do that.  
Have you ever tried making Indian food for your family?  
If I make something Indian, they’re either going to love me or hate me for it. Or like the recipe, they want to tell me that I’ve done it wrong. I’ve made medu vada and it took me about five go’s five different recipes from close chef friends to get it right. Kachori is similar. I’ll do a bit of a deep dive, I’ll make it. And if I make it once, I’ll make it again. Vaibhav brought me a wet grinder from India, and it weighs about 20 kg. And I haven’t plugged it in yet. I want to use it to make dosa. I love dosa and I make it in a blender, but I don’t think it’s quite right. So, things I would love to eat I’ll reproduce. When I was in Mathura, I had idli appam; it’s rice based, and it goes through a press, and it’s done so quickly. And when it’s done there’s coconut milk, jaggery and toasted coconut. And I’m the guy on the street just looking like, “Oh my God this is delicious!” 
What’s the difference between Indian and Australian cuisine? 
The love of texture! The love for temperature – cold and hot. You think about pani puri, gol gappa or raj kachori. You take a hot kachori, smash it and cover it in dahi, you put pomegranate seeds, tamarind chutney and you’ve got a riot of flavour. Australians love that. We love crispy, crunch, and gooey. We talk about molecular gastronomy and for me, Raj Kachori is a kind of molecular gastronomy. It’s a beautiful construction of a slightly fatty pastry that is deep-fried and then we put a marvellous preparation of bacterial soup, which is what yoghurt is. It’s incredible!
Chef Gary Mehigan
Photo Courtesy: Gary Mehigan / Instagram
What do you think about the patriarchy that exists in the cooking industry? 
My mum is a very plain cook, but my grandad, her father, was a chef. And he was the one who inspired me to become a chef. My grandad, when he looked after my sister and me, would spoil us rotten, And I remember he cooked a cabbage dish. And it was delicious – my sister and I ate it all up. And he told my mum that the kids love cabbage. But when my mum cooked it, it was the most disgusting thing I’d ever had. As I got older, I realized mum only boiled it, but my grandad would add a little bit of garlic, a little bit of butter – a French style, a little bit of bacon, hit it with some sherry vinegar and it was delicious. So, I asked my mum, “Why are you such a plain cook?” And she told me that when she grew up in the 50s and 60s, grandad was always at work. And her mother was from the North of England and her cooking was even more plain. So, it is a generational thing. But it has changed; in Australia is has completely changed. Boys are, of course, a little bit embarrassed. When I was a young chef in college, all my friends were becoming architects and lawyers, builders, very manly things. Suddenly, I realized that cooking wasn’t a particularly manly thing to do, which was ridiculous. And thank goodness! If you ask a man in Australia today if he thinks cooking is not a very manly thing to do, they will look at you like you’re a being from another planet.  
What do you think about the culture of food influencers and the new trend of clicking food pictures for Instagram? 
When it started to happen, restaurants got really upset about it. There was a ban on photography initially, but in the end, people just accepted it, thinking, – You know what, if I’m looking to go to a restaurant, what is the first thing to do? I don’t know about you, but I’m going to check out their Instagram, check out what food they’re serving and decide that it looks good, and I want to go there. I just think it’s an incredible medium. I don’t take a lot of food pictures, but I would still much rather look at food pictures than a menu. I don’t take the pictures myself, but I do post them.
Chef Gary Mehigan
Photo Courtesy: Gary Mehigan / Instagram
What is your comfort food? 
Depends on the season. Right now, it’s winter in Australia, so Ramen, Vietnamese Pho. My coriander and mint chicken is one of my family’s favourite dishes. But it changes with the weather. 
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Schenelle Dsouza

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