Masterchef In The Making
He’s won an immunity pin. He’s lost an immunity pin. And he’s one of the early front-runners in this year’s MasterChef Australia competition. Profile chats with 27-year-old Matt Sinclair, who having worked as a coffee roaster at Little Cove in Noosa for the past two years, is chasing the ultimate challenge.
profile: Tell me about your introduction to cooking.
matt: We were brought up a lot by my grandmother and great grandmother; Mum and Dad went straight back to work as soon as we were born and we spent most of our days at their place. Some of my earliest memories are of making scones and chicken soup, and always being in the kitchen with them, and that translates into where I’ve ended up.
Food has always been really big in our family, it’s always been really important. We’ve always made sure we eat well and there’s plenty of it.
That progressed when I started working in the hospitality industry. I was always front of house but I had a connection with what was going on in the kitchen, and had that curiosity. Even being a front of house staff member, on my days off I would cook and try to pick up little techniques they were using in the kitchen and see if I could recreate that myself.
profile: You’ve travelled extensively – how has that shaped your cooking?
matt: That’s where my love of those southeast Asian flavours come from. I’ve always loved them, but going there and experiencing them firsthand, in that environment and eating on the street, that’s where my passion for that style of food developed and my knowledge and understanding of it too.
profile: Cooking is obviously your passion, but you met the other love of your life, your wife Jess, while working in hospitality too...
matt: Yeah, that’s true. As soon as I got back from overseas, I just wanted to jump on a plane and go overseas again, and when people say you’ll find someone when you least expect it, that’s what happened. I went back to work at the restaurant where I was at before I went overseas and Jess was there. Originally we didn’t see eye-to-eye – I wasn’t her biggest fan, and then we started to break the walls down and built a friendship, and it took off from there.
profile: Is it true you were married in July last year and actually left your honeymoon to audition for the show?
matt: The honeymoon I wanted to plan for Jess was a surprise, and then when this came up we had to make a decision. She was all for it. She said we can go on a trip anytime, this is here and now and if you don’t take it, it might not come around again.
profile: Does she share your love of cooking?
matt: Yeah, she’s from a Croatian and Polish background, so food is massive in their family. Both of her grandmothers are alive and well, and they have a big part to play in the food culture in their family. That’s common ground for us.
profile: Have you picked up some cooking techniques from her and her family?
matt: Yes. It’s quite funny, the first time I went to meet her family, I was in the kitchen cooking and her grandmother followed me around the kitchen, changing the heat on things and adding ingredients, and I was like, ‘I get it, you’re the queen of the kitchen’.
profile: What is your food philosophy?
matt: I love big flavours when it comes to food and that is in line with the whole southeast Asian palette. It’s exciting and big and bold, but at the same time I like to keep it simple. I could quite happily braise a beef cheek and put it on a plate and enjoy that as it is – I don’t like things that are overly complicated.
profile: What made you audition for the show?
matt: A lot of people who like to cook and have a passion for food, their friends and family are always the ones saying, ‘You should go on the show and give it a shot’, and I’d had that previously but never considered it. Then one of the producers on the show was travelling up the east coast and talking to a friend of hers at a restaurant and asked if there was anyone in town who would be interested, and my mate was the head chef there and he threw my name into the hat. She called me and presented me with the application. Initially my response was, ‘No, I don’t want to do it’, and I just figured out I was scared, and came to the realisation it would eat away at me if I never took the shot.
profile: What have been your highlights on the show so far?
matt: It’s such a cliched answer, but my highlight was the moment I clicked send on the application. That for me was overcoming the fear of failure and going onto national television and potentially having my food criticised, but then going, ‘I’m okay with that and I’ve got to take this opportunity’.
profile: Your culinary idols are Jamie Oliver, Antonio Carluccio, Anthony Bourdain and Marco Pierre White. What was it like meeting Marco?
matt: He’s a thorough gentleman. Just the presence he has in the kitchen, his obvious passion for it – you can tell he loves being around people who are so keen to get into the industry he’s had his whole life in. He just absolutely loves it. However many decades he’s had in the kitchen, he still looks at it with fresh eyes.
It was incredibly surreal to sign up for a cooking competition and then within a couple of weeks you’ve got a king like Marco Pierre White walking in, and to shake the guy’s hand and have a few words with him, it’s mind blowing and it’s one of those life experiences you chalk up and you’re never going to forget that.
profile: Was there anything you took away from spending time with him?
matt: In the week that he was there I went into an elimination and I had to cook, and in the tasting room I got pretty emotional. And that’s not uncommon for me, but for him to say, “I want you to do me a favour; you’re going to need that emotion if you’re going to pursue a career in this industry – you need to be driven by that, you need to use it to your advantage, because it means that you care about what you do”. That was a pretty intense moment for me and definitely words I won’t forget.
profile: Tell me about winning the immunity pin?
matt: When Matt Preston is calling out the wrap sheet of these boys (Thomas Woods and Hayden McFarland from Woodlands House in Melbourne), where they’ve been and what they’ve achieved, you can’t help but be incredibly intimidated and you want to give it everything you’ve got, but it’s a tough spot to be in. Then when you do pull it off, I remember the first feeling I had was guilt – these boys have come in and put their reputation on the line and you feel a bit bad. But these guys are coming into a foreign kitchen. They’ve never done this before, the environment is next level, and we've had a few weeks in there now so we've got a bit of a rhythm, so it definitely works in our favour.
profile: It wasn’t long before you ended up needing to use the immunity pin to save yourself. What went through your mind?
matt: I had to ask myself, am I going to be happy to pack my bags and walk out of this kitchen with an immunity pin still on my chest? Do I want to risk my position? No, not yet. I didn’t want to take the gamble.
profile: Watching the challenge from the gantry, were you happy you made that decision?
matt: Yeah, I was. I watched some of the stronger cooks down there and they tripped up on the simplest ingredients. There were some other ingredients down there, going along that line, that were very difficult, so if you got stuck on them and you had to hero that (in the next cooking challenge) you would have been in a bit of trouble.
profile: What has the show taught you?
matt: The biggest thing is how important it is to have failures and this is what the boys (Gary Mehigan, George Calombaris and Matt Preston) say to us – that if you’re not having failures then you’re not pushing yourself, you’re not learning, you’re not growing. Initially it’s hard. You have a bad day in the kitchen and you're like, ‘Oh god, what am I doing here?’ and it starts to play on your mind – am I good at this and do I love food enough? And then you get a little bit of confidence and you look at bad days in a different light and think, ‘Okay, tomorrow, what will I do differently?’
profile: What are your plans for after the show?
matt: We want to get our food truck up and running. Before the show, my mate and I had been planning it for quite a long time and it got put on hold. So as soon as the show is done we’ll pick up where we left off and the aim is to hit big markets and festivals, but one of the main things we want to be pushing is onsite catering, private functions and things like weddings. The Coast is a huge destination for it and I feel like the traditional style of having your wedding at a restaurant, people are moving away from that. They want to find their own locations and have it on properties and things like that. That’s what we’re really keen on.
profile: With that in mind, did you incorporate that into your own wedding?
matt: Yeah, we had our wedding at our house. My dad is a landscaper and concreter by trade, so we spent 12 months on the yard getting everything organised and the guy that I’m going into business with, we sat down with him and organised our menu and got another couple of chefs on board. It was incredible – we had about 100 people there and we just laid it all on and tried to look at it as a trial for what we want to do in the future.
profile: If you were to win the competition, what would you do with that opportunity?
matt: To be honest, I’d still want to do what I want to do. I don’t think it would change a whole lot for me. Other opportunities would come to my attention and I’d love to be able to manage a bit of both, but at the same time, we’ve had this plan and this dream for a long time and to me, that’s at the forefront of my mind and I’d want to carry on with that.
MasterChef airs on TEN, Sundays to Thursday at 7.30pm