The Masters of Plates
Masterchef Australia judge Gary Mehigan and The Leela Palace, Delhi’s Chef Adrian Mellor curate a menu that’s high on inspiration
THERE’S A BIT OF BOTH OF them on each plate even though they own separate courses. The little pot of carrots lying on a soil of black olives served as first course kicks up a giddy storm as it harks back to a dish (or a few) reminiscent of the show our host for the evening is synonymous with. Chef Gary Mehigan is less known as a chef, more coveted as an eight-time judge of Masterchef Australia, the show that brought flavours from around the world into our homes when it debuted in 1998. The Australian way of life, the bonhomie on the show, the bro-code perfected by the judges and the fairytale-like ending for an ordinary contestant living his food dream appealed to the Indian audience that lapped it all up and is still doing so, nine years on.
At Le Cirque at The Leela Palace, Delhi, for the chef’s table that Mehigan is hosting, the second course of watermelon and prawn is helmed by British chef Adrian Mellor, the man who runs the show here.
At first glance the two chefs seem to have nothing in common, but scratch the surface and they are essentially bound by their love of creation. As the executive chef of the restaurant, Mellor is used to putting dishes together that reflect the ethos and integrity of the hotel brand. The two stars come together to create a five-course menu that breathes fire and honey, throws colour onto texture, combines silliness with oomph and generosity with cutting-edge style. In conversation with India Today Spice, the foodies discuss their work, the world of Instafood and the art of doing good food right.
What is your earliest food memory?
Gary Mehigan My earliest food memory probably revolves around my grandfather who was a chef and a big inspiration. He used to keep chocolate in the cupboard wrapped in wax paper. There was always a massive block there and my sister and I would nibble at it and wrap it back up, complete with our teeth marks. It was only later that we realised that he put it there just for us. I remember how it tasted till date. It was a couverture and at that age I didn’t have the palate for it but I know I loved it.
Adrian Mellor I grew up in England and I remember my mum making cheese and onion pie, pea soup with lamb shank. I used to live on cheese and ketchup sandwiches at one stage as well because both my parents were working full time. Even today, I love those cheese and ketchup sandwiches.
Describe your style of cooking
GM When I was working in London I had a modern French and classic food background and with that I arrived in Australia which was deeply influenced by its immigration. There were all these new flavours popping out and I found myself picking up things like rice rolls, lily buds, mandarin that I had not ever seen or touched. I love seeing and smelling new food and asking natives how to cook with it. I am big on creating comfort food with the dial turned up so that it is sophisticated. I absolutely love big flavours and good sauces. I believe that with food the heart of it has got to have a delicious element that can carry the entire dish. A smart pop of flavour is the benchmark.
AM I believe that your style changes all the time and depends on who you are cooking for. Chefs today have to be adaptable and unless you run your own place, in a multi-cuisine environment like a hotel, you
have to be able to do anything and everything. There are demands in an organisation and by the customer as well. While I learnt classical French and then modern European in my early days I am quite versatile and don’t have any one distinct style of cooking. When in doubt I always go back to classics. I avoid stuff that I am not confident with.
What is your take on food trends? What are some of the top trends we are seeing?
GM I love food trends and I believe that what we are left with once they fall away are actually the best bits. I think you need innovators to risk everything to follow a dream and as a far as trends go, as a chef I am pleased that overtly molecular food is gone but what’s left works. If we look at current trends I think chefs today have a better understanding of local and native ingredients. In Australia we went through an uncertain period as chefs didn’t understand how to work these native ingredients but that has changed. People are also eating more veggies, so there is less of an emphasis on meat. We have been through a period of simplification of cuisine where we celebrated provenance but today chefs are wrestling back temporarily parked ideas and bringing back lots of technical and conceptual dishes. The other big trend I see is that social media feeds food interest be it Instagram or videos or sharing of recipes. I also think conceptual desserts are big.
AM All trends serve a purpose at the time. For it to become a trend it has to be popular. Nothing is overrated because I think at core of it is a good idea. People are impatient and get bored of some of these trends hence they get pushed into the overrated zone. Take molecular gastronomy. We have got so many good things out of it so one really can’t say that all of it was worthless. As far as current trends go, I think there is a move to do more vegetarian food globally as very little is available.
Does the world need Michelin stars?
GM I think we use whatever medium we have to benchmark how well we are doing, be it in the form of local food guides, Top 50, social media, food bloggers, hats or stars. In the food industry, we need an accolade that is a trusted source and the Michelin does that for Europe and America and is slowly making its way to other parts of the world as well. I think Michelin stars are important because the award is trusted worldwide.
AM I think food needs a trusted body it can keep going back to. I grew up in a Michelin era when it was very tough to get stars. It is now more spread out and lenient but nonetheless something chefs aspire to get and especially in Europe it is highly revered.
What’s better, local or imported ingredients?
AM If you want things to be made in India there has to be a level of trust about the source of your ingredients. Unfortunately given the supply chain and weather conditions, by the time produce comes in through my door, it is not always usable. We undoubtedly have to look local but I also get my share of European ingredients. We are still not fully local.
GM In Australia at least, local ingredients have been big for the last few years as provenance is key. As a result people are discovering ingredients that were off the radar for ages. Most chefs the world over are turning to local, seasonal produce as it is the easiest way to cook and makes planning menus simple.
OF GELS AND FOAMS The gimmicky molecular food has been replaced by stuff that works