HIS OWN MASTER
Almost every waking moment in the life of MasterChef’s Gary Mehigan is related to food – even when he travels
GARY MEHIGAN, 49 CHEF, RESTAURATEUR & TV PRESENTER
After beginning his career as a chef in London, Mehigan moved to Melbourne in 1991. He worked at various restaurants, then opened his own, Fenix, in 2000, followed by The Boathouse five years later. He has been a co-judge on MasterChef Australia since it debuted in 2009. He lives in Melbourne with his wife Mandy and daughter Jenna, 15.
I grew up … on Hayling Island, off the south coast of England. It’s not very big – you can drive around it in about 15 minutes. It was a lovely place to grow up with fields and back tracks and the foreshore and the beach. My dad is an engineer and then taught engineering; my mother is a calligraphist, and has been the president of The Scribes and Illuminators Guild of England. They refuse to leave the island and some of my best friends still live there.
I thought I would be … My grandfather was a chef based in London and my dad pointed out that becoming a chef or going into hospitality might suit me. I went to college for three years doing a diploma in professional cookery, then I went to London and got myself a job at the Connaught. At the time it was one of the best hotels.
My most treasured possession is … a little collection of really old menus and cookbooks that my grandmother gave me. I keep them in the bottom drawer of my desk.
The word that best describes me is … I’d love to think of myself as being an optimist and having empathy and being happy. But at 49 I occasionally get grumpy. So one of those three and occasionally grumpy.
My favourite smell is … I love citrus, I love orange, lemon and lime zest, vanilla is mesmerising and I love hard herbs like rosemary, provincial herbs that are big and bold. On a hot day it takes you to a place like the south of France.
A book I really enjoyed recently is … My daughter is reading for school George Orwell’s Animal Farm and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. I re-read them and loved them. As a kid I read a lot of science fiction – Isaac Asimov, Philip K. Dick, Greg Bear. I loved astronomy as a teenager; I used to lie and look up at the stars. I don’t read a lot of fiction but I have a massive cookbook collection. A song that I can’t help singing along to is … as an utter dag, Katy Perry’s Hot n Cold, the theme tune of MasterChef. It should be The Cure’s Friday I’m in Love; I love that song. The question I’m most often asked is … is the food cold when you eat it on MasterChef? Quite often, but it never changes a delicious dish.
For a Sunday lunch at home, I cook … I love Vietnamese food and the family loves things like rice-paper rolls. I’m a big texture junkie, I love crunch – deep-fried shallots and garlic and crispy elements and pickly things. The kind of restaurants I like with my family are … I always go back to ones where I feel most comfortable, they don’t necessarily have the best food but were the most welcoming. I go to a little place called Thirty Eight Chairs (in South Yarra, Melbourne) and they’re charming. I love that; here, take my money and make me feel a million bucks.
I also eat out at … for professional interest in the top restaurants, sometimes with Matt (Preston) and George (Calombaris). What you enjoy is about time and place. You can eat a $1.25 taco and it can be the best thing right there and then. You can have an expensive meal when you’re not in the right mood: perfect delivery, imperfect experience. Lots of restaurants forget that the customer is number one. The question is, would you go back? It can be that everything was done beautifully but there was nothing that drew you in.
An ingredient I’m loving at the moment is … all chilli condiments, I’m a chilli freak – crunchy chilli sauce, sambal oelek, lots of different Indonesian sambals that I’ve made and stored, pickled chillies, chilli and soy, sriracha, it goes on and on. The whole top shelf in my fridge is dedicated to them and has spread to a door shelf full of chilli condiments.
I relax by … going out to eat. Everything in my life revolves around food. I go on holidays to Italy not to see the Pantheon or Colosseum but for the food. I want to go to Vietnam but I’ll go in rainy season, it doesn’t matter; street food’s the same as in the dry season.
My worst habit is … I’m habitually on time, I find, even frustrating myself. Often I find myself having to kill half an hour because I am so on time.
My greatest fear is … not living a good life; none of us wants to lie on our death bed thinking should have, could have. And heights.
What you enjoy is about time and place. You can eat a $1.25 taco and it can be the best thing right there and then
Gary Mehigan, whose dad suggested ‘becoming a chef might suit me’. Picture: David Kelly