“I practised making appams at home till I got them right,” says Gary Mehigan, adding seriously, “Also idlis and hoppers.”
Gary is best known for his pivotal role on MasterChef Australia, arguably the world’s most popular food and cooking show. In Chennai for the ‘Ozfest’ (organised by the Australian Trade Commission in partnership with Hyatt Regency), he talks about his fascination with Indian food. “I’ve been eating everything: Mumbai's sev puri. Goan sausages, Rajasthani dal-bati. I love the paneer and yoghurt here. I love curry leaves,” he pauses for breath and adds with a grin, “Really. I’m like a kid in a candy store right now.”
This obsession with food makes for great TV. “When we began filming MasterChef, we didn’t think it would become the sensation it did. What makes it special is the fact that three of us (Chef George Calombaris and food critic Matt Preston) get on exceptionally well. And we love food. I mean really love it. It’s ridiculous,” he laughs. “As they’re setting up the cameras, we’re talking about food. During breaks, we talk about food. There’s a sparkle in our eyes when we eat. Our conversation on camera never sounds forced, because this is how we always talk.”
The Ozfest comprises a cook off between Gary and Gopi Nandakumar, (Executive Sous Chef, Hyatt Regency). Their challenge is to use Australia’s Mulwarra lamb in different ways. Gary begins by seasoning lamb cutlets with piastachio dukkah and roasted harissa. As he sets the meat on a grill, it hisses violently. Looking at the cocktail party crowd pressed around him, camera phones aloft, he says, “If it sets the fire alarms off — run.” They giggle nervously, taking a step back and then one more when Chef Gopi’s jar of oil crashes to the floor.
A party, clinking with wine glasses and loud conversations, is hardly the ideal setting. Despite Gary semi-seriously snapping, “You never learn anything when you are talking. It’s also very distracting,” to the crowd, the noise barely abates. Nevertheless the chefs work steadily through the chaos, plating and serving up two dishes each in about 40 minutes. Gary’s made a slow roasted shoulder of lamb with cumin served with Israeli cous-cous. His second dish are the char-grilled lamb cutlets. Gopi presents braised spiced lamb shanks and galouti kebabs.
As the demonstration ends, the clutch of MasterChef enthusiasts ask about the judging process. “Some elements are subjective,” says Gary, “But we know what good food is. If it’s delicious it goes up the ladder. But, it doesn’t matter how pretty it is. It doesn’t matter how complicated it is. If it doesn’t taste good, it’s out.” He pauses to pop some char-grilled lamb cutlet into his mouth. “We call them chef’s snacks,” he chuckles, before sneaking a couple of galouti kebabs off Chef Gopi’s display table.
Once the event ends, in a quieter part of the now smoky ballroom, Gary discusses the snowballing interest in food, prompted by MasterChef. “‘Foodie’ used to be a term for a small group of people who loved farmers’ markets. We’ve introduced it to everybody. Now when people talk of cheese, they want fresh buffalo mozzarella. Now children have a culinary repertoire. When we see these changes, we feel proud.”