I like food fads. They can represent the peak of creativity: Chef Gary Mehigan

Best known for his 12 years as a judge on MasterChef Australia, Mehigan has a new book out. He talks to Madhusree Ghosh about pandemic food trends, favourite recipes, how authenticity can be overrated, and more.
Updated on Oct 23, 2021 01:09 PM IST
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“When you talk about food with people, it doesn’t matter whether they’re a taxi driver or a financial advisor or a miner, everybody smiles,” says Australian chef and restaurateur Gary Mehigan. Best known for his 12-year stint as a kindly judge on the popular reality cooking contest show MasterChef Australia, Mehigan’s new cookbook, his fifth, is out this week. It’s called Good Food Every Day and includes tales from his life in food, glimpses of his home kitchen in Melbourne, and recipes he’s been serving up for years. Dinners should be family time, authenticity can be overrated and food fads are often actually quite helpful, he tells Wknd. Excerpts from an interview.

Tell us something about your kitchen. What are the most extravagant and the cheapest items in your pantry right now?

I’m obsessed with cheese. I’m also a bit of a Francophile, and on a trip to France I’ll just have my nose pressed against the windows looking at cheese. There’s a good cheesemonger in my local market in Melbourne, and he helps me select. There’s a little cheese box that I have in the fridge and I get told off quite a bit because I go to that little cheese box every day. That’s my indulgence. The cheapest thing I have is a lot of dals and flours. I make a dal tadka now and then with moong or masoor daal.

What does your family think of your cooking?

In the lockdown, we were testing all the recipes for the book. We’ve all put on a bit of weight, especially testing all the dessert recipes. Everyone outside the family thinks, wow they must be really lucky to taste-test everything, but if you ask my wife Mandy and daughter Jenna, they’ll say, oh, but we’ve got to test it three or four times till he gets it right. It gets too much, especially if they’re on a diet.

How do you see the role of food, beyond sustenance and nutrition?

On a micro scale, we’ve always had a rule in our house, to sit down and have dinner together; no TV, no phones. It’s a time in the day to just talk about nothing. I think that’s almost like a linchpin, in the family. It teaches good habits, helps in digestion and develops good social skills.

On a broader scale, food is a great unifying interest. The shared table, the idea of discovering another culture through what they eat, is fascinating.

Gary Mehigan’s new book, Good Food Every Day, includes tales from his life in food, glimpses of his home kitchen in Melbourne, and recipes he’s been serving up for years.
Gary Mehigan’s new book, Good Food Every Day, includes tales from his life in food, glimpses of his home kitchen in Melbourne, and recipes he’s been serving up for years.

From traditional to experimental, where do you land on the spectrum of approaches to food?

I’m everywhere. It always upsets traditionalists when young chefs capture an element of a dish, and then take it in a different direction. But I love that. I think that sometimes “authentic” is a little overrated. I enjoy the spectrum of food from street to traditional to the dining room to the very best cuisine in the very best restaurants in the world.

To sit down and eat food that’s come from the minds of the most creative chefs on the planet is truly a privilege. At the same time, standing on the street eating chole bhature and drinking tea could also be one of the most memorable experiences that you could have.

What do you think of food fads? Do you think they too serve a purpose?

I like fads. I think they represent the best of people’s creativity. Human beings are very adaptable, so we collect and keep the good ideas, and let the bad ideas go. A lot of extreme fast food is just being crazy for no reason. Who wants to eat a huge burger or a giant pizza?

But fads generate interest in food and make people excited about something new. So there’s something positive about them.

During the lockdown, people were baking a lot. My social-media followers were asking me questions about sourdough bread, so I baked some. I also made some spicy cinnamon rolls, because people were making them and watching them made my mouth water. But like many fads, I’ve only made them once and that took care of my craving.

Do you think the pandemic has turned eating out into a luxury?

Though we now may see eating out as a luxury, I still think it’s a necessity because it connects us with our community. It gives us some common ground where we all meet and talk and watch people go by, and I missed that. That’s not going away, I think. As things ease up, I probably have 20 restaurants that I want to visit.

Do you think restaurant formats will change, post-pandemic?

For the last 100 years, the restaurant business hasn’t really changed. It’s been contained within four walls. However, chefs and restaurateurs, all through the lockdown, have thought outside of the four walls. Take, for instance, the idea of home delivery not just as takeaway but a restaurant experience at home, or a masterclass on Zoom where one cooks along.

We have a delivery service here in Melbourne called Providoor. It has 30 of the best restaurants in Melbourne on board. So you order your meal, it arrives, you scan the QR code, download the music from the restaurant. Most of the meal is prepared, some parts you can prepare a little and get the family involved. No one thought of that five years ago. So, I think this period is bending the brains and pushing the creativity. That’s needed in the hospitality industry, not only to survive but also to think forward.

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    Madhusree is a feature writer who loves Kolkata, is learning to love Mumbai. She loves to travel, write and bake

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