MasterChef Australia judges, Gary Mehigan and George Calombaris, are in town as part of the ongoing Oz Fest. The popular show, which is telecast in over 30 countries, has made them perhaps more loved in India than the judges of our own version of the show. That was evident in the reception they got everywhere they went. We caught up with the two at a south Mumbai supermarket.
If you spent an afternoon with George Calombaris and Gary Mehigan in Mumbai, you wouldn't doubt that their popularity can rival that of Bollywood stars. From critiquing jalebis and Chicken Cordon Bleu (sporting tikas, garlands and broad smiles) made by culinary students early in the day, to regaling the audience at a cooking contest later, the duo ensured there wasn't a single dull moment at either events.
We caught up with them at Nature's Basket, where they judged a five-minute cook-off and signed copies of their books.
It's your first time in Mumbai. What have you been eating?
Gary: (Brings out list) We ate some lovely dosas and malpuas at Soam, Chowpatty. We've also been told to visit The Table, Trishna and Bade Miya. I love Indian food. There's so much complexity from the spices, grains, lentils and beans. I'm going home with at least 10 dishes in my head that I want to try.
How well do you cook Indian food?
George: I'm terrible at it!
Gary: My repertoire isn't huge, but I can make a good rogan josh. I love all sorts of rotis and parathas.
Gary: I did one on the show, where I made an Australian-style south Indian curry with tamarind, coconut, curry leaves and spices. But I made it very light. I used onions, some beautiful fish and made some flatbread.
George: This is where I'd struggle. I think I'd make a jalebi.
How can India and Australia help each other in the culinary space?
Gary: Indian cuisine is really untapped in Australia. We don't have a huge number of Indian restaurants. The ones we do have tend to be north Indian. There's not a great representation of the diversity. There's a huge opportunity for good Indian chefs to come over and open restaurants.As to what we Australians can do, I think there's an idea in India of what international food is and it's wrong.
Why do you think MasterChef Australia is so popular?
Gary: The timing. It went on air during a financial crisis when people weren't feeling very secure at work. When you go home and switch on your TV, the last thing you want to hear is someone being told their food is rubbish. People liked us because we were supportive and willing to mentor them.I made the mistake of being rude a couple of times, but when someone has spent an hour or two cooking their best for you, saying it's rubbish is the worst thing you can do.
So if I don't like the dish, what I say is, "Look, I think it's too sweet, but I love this and this is what I would do with it." That's constructive criticism. One negative and then, two or three positives.
What can we expect in the next season of Masterchef Australia?
George: We move to Melbourne this time, after filming the previous seasons in Sydney.
Gary: We don't know what country we'll be taking the contestants to, but we'd love it to be India.
Has the quality of contestants coming on the show every season improved?
George: Of course. Every year, these guys have got another year of watching the show and learning from the successes and mistakes of contestants. That means we raise our bar in terms of expectations too.
Gary: In the first season, we had to show them how to chop vegetables. Their knife skills were non-existent. Now, it's more about how to create the dish and think about texture and flavour.
Can you think of one contestant who's come on the show and learned everything they know?
Gary: Andy, who won Season 4. We didn't think he was going to last very long. But he survived because he learned something every day. And because he's a trained
electrician, I think he has a very methodical way of thinking. That's what saw him win.
Are you in touch with contestants from previous seasons?
George: Absolutely. I was in Dubai recently, doing a dinner with my team, and Julia (Season 4) flew in and worked with us for a week. Kylie is working at an amazing patisserie in Melbourne (with Darren Purchese). I walked in through the back door the other day, and there she was, covered in flour, tired, yet smiling.
Some tips for amateur cooks.
George: Taste. As a young cook, you need to taste every single thing.
Gary: Shop differently. If you buy different things every week, then you cook that much more differently every week. Try a new recipe once in a while. Pick up a cookbook, open a random page and cook it. Most importantly, stay true to yourself.