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Sunday, May 9, 2021

“If You Are Naturally Curious About Food, Inspiration Comes Easy”: A Freewheeling Chat With Masterchef Gary Mehigan

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It wasn’t easy for Masterchef Australia fans across the worlds to say goodbye to chef Gary Mehigan who had been a part of the show for eleven long years. Even the ones who do not identify as excellent cooks took to Twitter to talk about the sensational trio of judges George Calombaris, Gary Mehigan, and Matt Preston, and how things won’t be the same without them. It was always intriguing for us to know if chef Gray even knew about his astounding popularity in India, in our exclusive chat with him we learned he has not only been here a couple of times but is also a massive fan of Indian food. Chef Gary along with Chef George recently took a special masterclass in collaboration Conosh. The Home chef-based culinary experiences platform is celebrating its second anniversary.

(Also Read: “India Has Given Me An Opportunity That I Would Never Have Imagined”: A Freewheeling Chat With Australian Celebrity Chef Sarah Todd)

Chef Gary shared his excitement about his Zoom Masterclass, “We had 350 people, I have done 5 Zoom classes all over in 7-8 moths, I am hoping it is going to continue being a trend”, he quipped.

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The pandemic may have brought our lives to a standstill, but it has also been a rediscovery of sorts for many, the chef particularly seemed rather kicked by the idea of virtual sessions and how it has gotten the world closer and revived the sheer joy of cooking at home.

“My mother is still in UK, they are emerging out of very long lockdown, she is cooking all sorts of things and she is quite good at Zoom which makes me laugh”, he added.

We sat down with the Masterchef Australia chef for a quick tete a tete. Excerpts..

1. What would be your ultimate comfort food?

It is really difficult to answer. The new book that I am writing has about 300 recipes. At the moment the working title of the book is ‘Gary’s Essentials’, and every time I write a recipe I go like ‘oh I like that one’, then I have to test and try it a couple of times. So, it is really hard for me to pin down my ultimate comfort food. It also depends on what time of the year, so last night for example, I cooked a homemade Italian ragout with plenty of red wine. Then I made a home-made semolina pasta and just tossed it together with some local forage mushroom and a little bit of parmesan over the top and it was just delicious, rich and warming. Then there are things like- the perfect roasted chicken, which for me is hard to beat with all the trimmings. In the winter it could be smashed roast potatoes, roasted pasta and garlic. But may be in summer, you know, it may differ.

2. A kitchen tool you swear by

I just bought a new set of knives, and this time I have really spoiled myself with some handmade, stonewashed knives. So they are all kind of covered and the steel has been laminated, it has got different textures in it.
I am 54 years old and I am always sworn by the fact that I have one or two favourite knives that I have had for twenty plus years that I still look after and sharpen myself. So I am really excited about the fact that I am buying something that is probably very unique and I don’t think anybody has a set like these. So, sharp, good knives that last a lifetime is kind of a chef’s essential.

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3. What is the most difficult ingredient you have had to work with?

There are a limitless number of those. In an Australian context, the reemergence and the rediscovery of the native and indigenous ingredients is something we are really thrilled about here . I think, it is happening very much the same way around the world. In India there are champions of local ingredients and things that you may have taken for granted or have disappeared off the regular food radar are kind of reappearing. In Australia, there are things that are very difficult to use. Things like native pepper, Davidson’s plums or wattleseeds- these are all typical ingredients, chefs particularly have known about for many years but have found it  hard to integrate them into dishes smoothly. They are some difficult ones, and unlocking their subtlety or their complexity, or using them appropriately is an interesting challenge. So yes, I would include those, because they could be quite astringent. Native ingredients like salt bush for example that grows in coastal areas is another example. They are quite a difficult bunch of ingredients to use. But if you get it right, they are very beautiful. The same thing is happening in India with many of the indigenous ingredients slowly being incorporated into dishes.

4. Do you follow any viral recipes? Anything that has caught your eye?

During lockdown, I suppose tiktok drove me a little mad (laughs). Certainly, during lockdown we had the emergences of so many different recipes. From sourdough to babka, basque cheesecake for example, how many times do we see that pop out? So yes, some of them (do) feel like, ‘ya I have seen that’, but some of them seem interesting. But what I love about these is the fact that people have rediscovered some of these things and people have gone crazy for them. So, I like that.

5. Is there any recipe you would like to see go ‘viral’?

I’ll take example of an Indian recipe. So, it is a very normal thing In India. But Helly Raichura who was on Masterchef this year, she did ‘pasta but not pasta’ where she took khandvi and instead of rolling it up, she used it as a pasta sheet. And you could see all these comments going, ‘oh my God. It has been in my family for years and years but I have never imagined it to be done like that’.  I went to a restaurant in England and it was just a very light way of eating Khandvi, and you know it deserves more hype. It is such an honest simple recipe, that I am sure it can be made it into million different ways. I wouldn’t mind seeing that go viral.

6. A kitchen tip that has changed your life

Ah! That is a difficult one to answer. What I have discovered, as I have grown older as a chef is that somethings I have been making for many years, and I have made them the way I was taught, carried it forward without questioning it. And sometimes I rediscover the dish, dig deeper and find out so much more to it. For example, there is this Italian dish called cacio e pepe which means cheese and pepper. In its simplest form, it really is just pasta tossed with parmesan cheese and pepper but when you make it properly or talk to someone who is really ‘traditional’ it is actually very complex. And, if you don’t follow it step by step. It is the difference between pasta that tastes like cheese and pasta that is like ‘the best pasta dishes you have ever tasted in your life’. It is difficult to describe, the more I have rediscovered over the years, the more I have realized that as simple as these dishes may seem, if done beautifully, can be taken on to the next level.

The same thing goes for bread. During lockdown people were baking and rediscovering the joy of sourdough and actually when you relearn that-it is so simple, but understanding it and appreciating it is so difficult.

7.  As a chef, how difficult is it to stay inspired especially in these times?

I think, it is all about how much you love it. If you are passionate about it and you are curious I think there isn’t much to worry. Like I am sitting in my office surrounded by 600 plus books that I have collected over the years, full of recipes and inspiration. The hardest thing for most of us is that we are not travelling, and as a chef, travelling is one of our most ready sources of inspirations. For example, the first time I went to Mumbai, Bangalore or Saigon,  it comes easy,  the inspiration comes easy. But I think if you have got that natural curiosity or passion- it is different. It becomes more about self-discovery and self-exploration rather than watching somebody else do it and then get inspired by him. I think those of us who love it, who love food, it is easy.

8. Your favourite Indian dish?

In an Indian context, I love dishes like fish moilee. I cook it regularly at home I got a recipe from chef Alex Saji who is from Kochi, Marriott. He gave it to me four or five years ago and I still make that recipe at least once a week. It is delicious and it is simple too.  So light, uncomplicated and fresh. I enjoy fish dishes a lot, something like Bhapa Ilish. I had it in Kolkata, the strong flavour of mustard oil is particularly very addictive. Then, I like rich, complex dishes that I possibly won’t cook at home, Nihari for example, done traditionally, little fatty and cooked slowly, alongwith some bread. These are all the things that get me excited

About Sushmita SenguptaSharing a strong penchant for food, Sushmita loves all things good, cheesy and greasy. Her other favourite pastime activities other than discussing food includes, reading, watching movies and binge-watching TV shows.

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