They’re the Masterchef Musketeers, wielding spatulas instead of swords, and parrying with contestants in lieu of opponents. SIMON PLANT meets the three judges on the eve of the hit show’s ninth season in the kitchen
Gary Mehigan, George Calombaris and Matt Preston talk Masterchef.
ALL for one? No. It had to be one for all. Or not at all. That was the only way Masterchef Australia judges Gary Mehigan, George Calombaris and Matt Preston were going to buckle their swash and assume the guise of The Three Musketeers for delicious. on Sunday.
“If something ain’t right for the three of us, it ain’t going to happen,” Calombaris says.
Fortunately, on the eve of their ninth season, TV’S much-loved trio liked the idea of channelling Alexandre Dumas’ famous French swordsmen – especially as it involved donning period costumes and swapping sabres for utensils.
“Gary, we decided, was Athos, the father figure of the three,” Preston says.
George? “Oh, he’s Aramis, the Musketeer who couldn’t decide between being a womaniser and a priest. I’m Porthos, of course – a dandy fond of fashionable clothes.”
What about D’artagnan? Preston adjusts the cutlery he’s brandishing and says: “D’artagnan is every contestant we meet, all the brave, young, clever men and women who come to town seeking their fortune in a television kitchen.”
The whole Masterchef Australia journey, starting in 2009, has been one of thrusting and parrying. It has been a nailbiting parade of pressure tests, team challenges, mystery boxes and spin-offs.
Season five, where viewers left in droves, is still a bandaged wound. And recent revelations that Calombaris’ business empire (Made Establishment) underpaid staff by $2.6 million is casting a cloud over the latest season.
But through all the ups and downs, the men passing judgment on our best home cooks have remained friends.
Mehigan, wielding a whisk, says, “After a break, we always look forward to coming back on set and catching up. It’s a lovely, supportive situation where you know the other guy has your back.’’
Preston, 53, likens their relationship to “three sides of a triangle. We’re quite strong because of that,’’ he says. “No one can creep up on us.’’
That’s not to say this Musketeer mateship was established from day one. Calombaris, clomping in with a cheese grater, says, “If you’d told me nine years ago that the three of us could work well together on TV, I’d have gone, ‘What?’”
Calombaris, 38, knew Mehigan, 50, through restaurant kitchens but Preston … well, he was a food critic, wasn’t he?
Mehigan says he thought at the time, “Matt’s not one of us. I wonder what kind of feedback he’s going to give?” But he soon changed his mind. “It didn’t take long for us to realise we looked at food in a very similar way.
“It’s quite strange when we do disagree, like Matt turning up his nose at mousse. To him, it’s too cheffy, too refined. But George and I love mousse because it’s a classic.”
Calombaris nods. “We’re three very different characters but when you put us together, it sort of makes sense.”
Today, as they suit up for their rousing shoot in a Melbourne studio, it’s just coffee and sandwiches but when Masterchef Australia goes offshore, the feasting gets serious. Preston, a living encyclopaedia of wining and dining, leads the charge, crafting culinary itineraries for his mates.
“We talk obsessively about food,” Mehigan says. “So when we’re travelling together, you can’t curb our enthusiasm.
“If filming wraps at 9pm, straight away the conversation is, ‘Where can we eat at 9.30pm?’”
The answer is not always five-star. In the US last year, the Masterchef judges had a memorable night in a Los Angeles car park, chowing down on tacos. “It was an eating frenzy,” Calombaris recalls. “Everything tastes a little better because you’re so committed to the food.”
This forensic approach goes to the very core of Masterchef. Ultimately, the show is not about personalities but what contestants deliver on a plate.
“It’s our job to make their journey a smooth one, to improve their skills and set them off down the road,” says Preston. Indeed, former contestants such as Adam Liaw, Julie Goodwin, Hayden Quinn, Marion Grasby and Andy Allen have gone on to forge successful careers.
Mehigan, who’s been cooking since he was 16, relishes the mentor role. “When contestants come back with something completely unexpected, better than any idea you had, I love that,” he says.
Season five, which focused more on personalities than cooking in an attempt to compete with rival shows, prompted an audience backlash and some soul-searching among its leads.
“Yes, we’ve all had the ‘Do we go on?’ conversation,” Preston says. But after season six, when Masterchef was set back on course, the judges convened over pizza and agreed they were having fun again. As Preston says, “Our enjoyment all hangs on the quality of the cooks. So when the food on the show is really good, we’re really happy.”
Will they know when their time is up? “We’ve kind of agreed that if we were going to go, we’d all go,” Mehigan says.
Preston prefers not to think about the end. Fencing around the question, he says: “When the public stop enjoying it, I suppose we’ll stop too. Until then, it’s all about making the most of now.”
Onward! Masterchef Australia
SWASHBUCKLING CHEFS Masterchef judges Gary Mehigan, Matt Preston and George Calombaris.