I didn’t rate Nigella
George Calombaris whips up a controversial MasterChef verdict
GEORGE Calombaris has a confession to make. The renowned chef, restaurateur and MasterChef Australia judge has been guilty of dismissing Nigella Lawson.
Calombaris reckons he has been indulging in a bit of food snobbery as far as Lawson is concerned – and now he has to eat humble pie.
Lawson appeared in a single episode of Ten’s cooking show in 2011. This year the world-famous “domestic goddess” is back for a whole “Nigella Week”.
Lawson has a string of hit TV shows and best-selling cook books including Nigella Bites and Nigella Express. She has overseen lunch for the likes of Tony Blair and George Bush Sr.
But until now, that didn’t cut the mustard with Calombaris. He’s a qualified chef, Lawson a home cook, and never the twain shall meet.
“What MasterChef Australia has taught me to do is not be so narrow-minded in all my thoughts,” Calombaris says.
“Just because this person is a home cook doesn’t mean she doesn’t know anything about food. In the past I would have thought that about Nigella.
“I literally fell in love with this lady because of her humility. She doesn’t proclaim to be a chef. What she loves is great food and tasty food. I went away going, ‘Gee George, sometimes you’ve got to slap yourself’.”
Lawson spent nearly a fortnight in Australia during her recent visit for MasterChef and not only won over Calombaris but she wowed his whole family.
“We finished filming on a Thursday and on the Friday I took her to a Melbourne Victory (soccer) game,” Calombaris recalls.
“As a passing comment she said, ‘I’m looking forward to a homecooked meal’. I think I’d had a few glasses of wine and said, ‘Just come over on Sunday to our house and we’ll cook’ and she said yes.
“I didn’t think about it (any more) and then on Sunday I got a text message saying, ‘What would you like us to bring?’ and I was like, ‘Oh, s---’.
“It was fine. I cooked some food. She and Natalie, my partner, got along really well. We were standing at the bench and I was mixing
something in a bowl and Nigella said, ‘Oh that is so beautiful’.
“I asked, ‘What the salad?’ and she said, ‘No, you’re using one of my bowls’. She is just a really wonderful human being.”
This year’s MasterChef Australia is a star-studded affair. As well as Lawson, there are weeks devoted to Heston Blumenthal and Marco Pierre White.
“It makes me feel warm and fuzzy knowing that these chefs want to be part of this cooking show,” Calombaris says. “Do we see them going on other cooking shows? No.”
This is Blumenthal’s seventh appearance on MasterChef Australia. Last year Blumenthal caused a sensation when he brought The Fat Duck restaurant to Australia for six months.
About 15,000 diners experienced Blumenthal’s 16-course multisensory menu.
“The guy is a freak when it comes to this idea called food,” Calombaris says. “What he knows I’ll never know. He is the one that is pushing the envelope and taking us to other places.
“On the flip side, I’ve seen him sitting at my house eating a schnitzel and covering it with mayonnaise and barbecue sauce.”
White is another long-time member of the MasterChef Australia family. He even hosted his own spinoff, MasterChef Professionals.
The 54-year-old’s White Heat cook book influenced a generation of chefs. White trained Gordon Ramsay, Curtis Stone and Shannon Bennett.
“He is the guy I idolised when I started cooking 20 years ago
and nothing’s changed,” Calombaris says.
“He is one of the only chefs that will ring me once a fortnight to ask how I am and how the family is.
“He has a Godfather-like presence. He makes the contestants lift. He even makes us (Calombaris and fellow judges Matt Preston and Gary Mehigan) lift.”
The icing on the cake this year is the return of Mary, Calombaris’ mother. Mary appeared on a Greek Pressure Test Challenge and came back for a moussaka master class in the 2011 season.
“My mother and I have got the most interesting relationship,” Calombaris says. “I think because we’re very similar we argue like cat and dog.
“My father, Jim, is the reasoning voice (in the middle). I love the fact that my mum is on the show again. The inspiration she gave me and the generosity she taught me for food and to serve people – you can’t learn that in school.
“The day she filmed, a lot of the contestants had tears in their eyes. I love that. If you can take anything away from (Mary) it is that emotional connection.”
MASTERCHEF AUSTRALIA SUNDAY-THURSDAY, 7.30PM , TDT