COVER STORY

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

Sunday Herald Sun - Stellar - - Contents - Re­sumes on Net­work Ten to­mor­row night.

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.

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