Meet MasterChef Gary Mehigan
You know him as one third of the judging panel of MasterChef Australia, but what you may not know is Gary Mehigan really wanted to be an engineer, he’s a bit of a spice freak and his favourite ingredient is chicken. Profile Gourmet Editor Nicole Fuge finds out more in this exclusive interview.
You’ve been a chef for over 30 years, tell us about your introduction to food and cooking.
I wanted to be an engineer like my dad or an architect, all the things little boys want to do. But it started with my grandfather, he was a chef. I don't think it struck me that he had this very cool job and was very creative and was always cooking delicious things and it was when I was about 14 years old that the penny dropped and I love what he does – he can make bread and he can chop an onion and make something delicious and it really captured my interest.
I got a job in a little hotel on the weekend to earn money, thought the chef there was really cool and I wanted to be just like him, but when I look back he was pretty bad. But that’s where it started and he really fostered that interest and made it really clear from early on that it was going to be a tough career and lots of hard work. I just pushed through and I’ve always loved what I do, people ask me what else I would do and I say, nothing, I love this.
What made you want to pursue it as a career?
There’s something about being able to create something, make something. It also appeals to how my brain works, my dad always used to laugh at me, I’m not very meticulous, I’m not very patient, so I’d be given a task, something mathematical and I’d just get frustrated and screw it up and walk away, or I’d be trying to change something on the car and get fed up with it and smack it with a spanner and walk away.
He’d go, ‘you’re never going to be an engineer, you don’t have the patience,’ whereas in the kitchen it’s fast and furious and instantaneous and if you make a mistake you can rectify it, you can do it again, you’ve got another meal you’re plating up and putting out.
That thrill, when I went to work in that hot, steamy, typical kitchen everyone imagines, I loved it, I loved the rawness and the intensity of it. And I still get that thrill from service, you’ve got 150 people to serve in two hours and everything is tightrope, I love it.
You moved to Melbourne in 1991, what made you fall in love with Australia?
There’s a pivotal moment in my life actually, sitting in Fitzroy Gardens at the top end of the city in Melbourne and looking up at the blue sky and going, I want to live here. And that was before I travelled, once I started travelling and getting out an hour-and-a-half from the city into the Yarra Valley and drinking wine where the vines are growing, or jumping on a plane and going to the Barrier Reef and swimming in crystal clear blue water, I just fell head over heels for it, and haven't been anywhere like it, so the idea of going back to England was never on the cards.
Having been trained in London at The Connaught Hotel and Le Souffle at The InterContinental, under two of London’s luminaries of the time, Michel Bourdan and Peter Kromberg, what were the major points of difference you noticed in Australia?
From a professional perspective it was very different, I’d come out of London, it was a very strict style of food, they used to call it Franglaise which is French influence, very technique driven, very process driven. You still eat that sort of food when you go to London, to be honest, in all the Michelin star restaurants, because that’s the style.
I still love that food, still cook that food, but when I came here, the multiculturalism was more on display, in Chinatown and Victoria Street in Footscray was Vietnamese – so very distinct areas and close to the city and easily accessible too, where there was a whole lot of different food on show.
Going to Victoria Street and eating Vietnamese coleslaw spring rolls and coriander and Vietnamese mint and pork skin, all these things I’d never eaten before, there's a whole new level of flavour rather than just that French-English style. The other thing I noticed, I was very head-down, a bit bullish and a very good Australian friend of mine said to me, you need to understand one thing about Australians, they hate authority and I didn't understand, until that point, why I was finding it difficult to motivate my team and get stuff done, I expected a, ‘do this’, ‘yes’. Whereas Australians always ask why.
It took about six months for the penny to drop, we hate authority and it’s a loveable disdain for authority that gives us that little edge, and we do want to know why.
Once I figured that out and that lovely sense of optimism we have in Australia, it reinforces the idea that this is where I want to live.
You headed some of Melbourne’s most prominent restaurants, before opening your own restaurant Fenix in 2000 and the Maribyrnong Boathouse in 2005. You have since formed a catering company, Big Kitchen Events and opened a second café, 64 Sutton Street, in North Melbourne. How did you handle that shift from working in a restaurant to running your own business?
I felt before I did it, that it was a natural progression for my career. I felt when I was in the middle of doing it, it wasn’t a natural progression at all. I’d had an entrepreneurial moment and it was a massive mistake, what you realise is you go from doing what you love – which is cooking and creating; to cooking, creating, doing the books, catching up, managing and recruiting staff, marketing and doing all those other things.
I took it as a challenge and I learnt an enormous amount in the first two years of running my first business, just embracing the stress, prioritising, motivating a group of people, keeping customers happy. I think I read every business book on the planet within two years, everything from The E-myth, Good to Great, How to win friends and influence people, anything. I’d gone from being a book nerd with food to a book nerd on how to run a business and manage people. Now I’m just back to a book nerd with food, it’s okay.
It’s an enormous challenge and this is something we talk to our contestants about on MasterChef all the time, it’s not something you enter into lightly, there’s such a massive rate of failure in hospitality, particularly restaurants and cafes. You look now and there’s never been more cafes on our high street, the cannibalism, the rate of failure is really high and we have a responsibility with our MasterChef contestants to improve the focus, channeling their energy and getting them to think about how they’re going to do it and what they want to open, it’s that visualisation – what’s it going to look like when it’s done, what’s it going to be serving, what are my customers going to look like? It seems obvious after 16 years in business but it never is, we still all make the same mistakes.
How did your MasterChef journey begin?
I’d done a bit of TV as part of a strategy to promote the restaurant and what I did and being an expert in my field, and that included doing some free editorials for magazines and newspapers and food festivals and a bit of TV, a bit of radio, a bit of anything.
So I’d done a series called Good Chef, Bad Chef and Boy’s Weekend (we had way too much fun and had to be sat down at one point and told it actually wasn’t a boy’s weekend, we had some fun. And I realised I was quite heavy back then, I was pretty fat, about 107 kgs and I’m 96.5kg now, I’ve drifted down slowly). I’d also done little spots on morning TV like Bert Newton and Good Morning Australia, my agent, who is a long term friend of mine said, ‘Do you want to apply for MasterChef, they’re auditioning’, and I said, ‘Yeah I love the show in the UK, it’s fantastic,’.
I rang George and said, ‘Are you going to audition for MasterChef?’ and I said I might see you down there. I remember seeing Matt and a number of really good and high profile chefs and thought it’s very unlikely I’m going to get a second call and I got a second call. I rang George and said, ‘did you get a second call?’ and he goes, ‘Yeah I have’.
We actually auditioned the second time together, so they’d picked us out and thought, ‘we like these guys’ and the idea was to see whether we got on and could talk about food. Both of us remember very clearly, because we’d known each other for a long time, I said when we go in and do this audition, when you talk, I’ll shut up, and when I talk, you shut up, and we did that and it must have captivated their interest. Rather than trying to tell everybody what we thought, the first thing that came out of our mouths was, ‘George what do you recon?’
We don’t really judge any differently now, we give each other space and we ask each other’s opinions and you explore that through a bit of conversation.
We like each other ridiculously, we all get on together, we’ve known each other for years, Matt, George and I, and we share the same interest in food and every year we joke about the fact it’s time to give it a rest and one of us should spit the dummy and storm off, but we don’t, we end up going out to lunch together or having a family get together, we consider ourselves very lucky.
What is your most memorable moment on the show?
Wow, that’s a tough one. The most memorable moment was when Julie won series one because it was new, none of us, including Julie, Poh and all of the contestants had seen anything like it or experienced anything like it, and nor had the viewing public. It was emotional and we love Julie and Poh and Justine, I think because it was the first series, we all shared this amazing birth of a phenomenon that became MasterChef.
I remember the executive producer telling me you might find this next bit a bit emotional, we’re going to bring her family out, and I’m a tough chef and as soon as they brought the families out I just burst into tears, I was a blubbering idiot, I was the first man to cry on TV in front of 3.5 million people. It was very emotional. The buy-in is complete, we invest a huge amount of our time into the contestants and we want them to do well, we stay in touch with them when they leave.
The guest lineup this season is incredible, including Marco Pierre White, Nigella Lawson and Heston Blumenthal each spending a week on the show. What’s it like having these people on the show?
They fit in so well when they come in, they’re like a member of the MasterChef family and that’s not always the case, sometimes you’ll have a guest on and you’ll go, ooh they were kind of prickly or interesting and difficult, or didn’t get what they were here for. Whereas these guys give it 100 per cent, it’s all about the contestants, they love it.
Nigella particularly, I wondered what she was going to be like, I’d met her briefly in season two or three for a day, but we hardly spoke and I wondered if she was going to be aloof or distant, or busy, but she wasn’t, she was engaged, she was wonderful every day. And we were all laughing and chatting within an hour.
Do you have any culinary idols?
Yeah lots of them, and they can be young or old. We had a young guy called Victor Liong who runs a restaurant here called Lee Ho Fook. He came on to do a challenge and I thought he was insanely good. I’ve been to the restaurant now and I love it, and I’m inspired by it because he’s in his 20s and thinking about food in a completely different way to how I think about it and what I’m comfortable cooking. I’m constantly inspired by anybody who comes up with a different way of presenting something, a new flavour, a new texture, or an old dish just put together in an unexpected way, there’s a bit of me that goes, dammit why didn’t I think of that, but there’s a bit of me that just wants to eat it and go yum that was delicious.
And the contestants do that sometimes too and when they do it I have a massive smile on my face because I just go wow, that’s why I love food and I don’t have to be the centre of it. I look at George who was my apprentice many years ago who is now one of the top four restaurateurs in the country, putting out the most incredible food. I’m pleased to be part of it, part of the same circles.
What is the best cooking advice you’ve ever received?
You’ve got to love it. The very best chefs are the ones who love feeding people, that’s it. If you don’t love feeding people, then you’re not going to be good at what you do. You can be technically proficient, you can know every technique under the sun, you can deliver things but you can’t go (should that be have to go) that extra mile and give somebody a truly special experience.
And that can be very simple, that can be a bowl of meatballs, it could be a burger, and if the person at the other end loves it and they love feeding you, you get that in spadefuls.
If you don’t get a kick out of it, if you don’t love it, if you don’t go out on your days off and look for the latest burger – often an apprentice will say, I can’t afford it, but you can go down the road and eat a $7 pastry, that’s the key.
When I compare contestants with our industry full of young apprentices for example, the main difference is where the amateurs come from is purely from a ‘i love it’ perspective, whereas many of us in the industry do it because it’s a job, and you never want it to be a job on its own, it’s always working, always playing.
Do you still cook at home?
I’m the cook in the family, my wife dabbles but I’m the one who cooks for dinner parties and friends, family and three meals out of the seven a week if I’m at home.
Does your daughter Jenna cook?
No she’s happy that Dad cooks, why would you need to cook? She loves making pasta, tortellini for example, so that gets her interested. But if I go, ‘come on, let’s go help in the kitchen,’ that’s not her favourite thing. I’ve accepted that a long time ago. I think she used to when we were younger, only agree to help me because she thought that’s what I wanted to do. I’d go, ‘come on, let’s go make some bread’, and she’d go, ‘all right Dad’, and we’d make bread together and I’d go, ‘did you enjoy that?’ and she’d look at me and go, ‘did you enjoy that?’ She’s 15 now, so I’m not cool.
What’s a typical meal like at home?
It’s healthy and home cooked. We do have our occasional sneaky treats, talking about burgers, there’s a new place called the Tuck Shop that’s opened up about eight minutes down the road which is dangerous territory as far as I’m concerned, so we’ll have an occasional treat. But everything else is home cooked. I did a brilliant job of brainwashing her when she was a kid, she thinks all fast food is horrible, so we cook our own. If we want to make a dish that’s fast food like a burger, we cook our own burgers.
I think it drives my wife insane sometimes, I really insist on sitting down and having dinner together, whether it’s a roast dinner with all the trimmings in the winter or a roast chicken with a grainy salad and roasted vegetables in the summer, that’s what we do.
Last night we cooked rolled chicken thighs with pesto because we’ve got loads of basil in the garden and tied them up and roasted them, chucked them in the oven and boiled some freekeh, roasted sweet potatoes and onions, some fetta and some fresh herbs. Nothing extraordinary, just healthy and home cooked.
What is your favourite ingredient to work with?
I used to always say that chicken is a meal for all seasons, in every culture, chicken universally is something that pretty much everyone loves, you can’t say that about beef or lamb or pork. And it works perfectly, we love Chinese chicken in our house, which you poach, then cook the rice from the stock and make a puree from coriander and ginger and I love it like that. I love roast chicken, I love grilled chicken, I love chicken curry, it’s a meal for all seasons. All good food starts with a roast chicken.
What is your favourite meal to cook?
I think something like Chinese chicken, I cook a lot of Asian dishes at home, I travelled quite extensively through Asia so we love things like DIY rice rolls where I get everything ready – shred the lettuce, poach the chicken or the prawns or slice some tuna really finely, make a little peanut sauce, and then we all put whatever we want in the rice paper and roll it up, I eat six, they eat three.
I love making curries, love Vietnamese coleslaw which is a bit of staple in our house with crispy things and peanuts and coriander and Vietnamese mint – flavour-plus dishes are the favourite. Things like slow-cooked lamb on a Sunday, love chucking in a shoulder of lamb in the morning and eating it at night, they are the staples at our table.
I love spice, always have, so in my fridge at home I’ve got a whole shelf dedicated to chilli condiments – I’ve got sambals and gochujang, which is like Korean chilli paste and homemade sriracha, there’s a particular crunchy chilli paste or condiment called Lao Gan Ma, it is delicious and goes with everything. My daughter is slowly starting to like spicy stuff too.
Is there anything you don’t like?
Not really, I’ll taste anything, try anything once. And sometimes it’s just the texture that might turn me off, I don’t like things that are slippery and oozy unless there’s something crunchy to go with it. It’s like when people are confronted with dishes that they’ve never eaten. I travel to Laos or Vietnam and see insects and go, ‘I can’t eat them’ and you eat them and you go, ‘they’re actually quite nice’.