Remember when, back in 2020, former MasterChef Australia judge Gary Mehigan took to Instagram to post a video of Biryani he made because he missed India. Now Mehigan is back in India (via Zoom, of course) for an online workshop on international desserts with an Indian cooking community, Conosh.
Long before MasterChef Australia put Gary Mehigan on the global culinary map, he was quite a successful chef sans the TV viewership. The English Australian chef and restaurateur studied to be a chef and gained the opportunity to work with two Michelin star restaurants in his early career — The Connaught Hotel under Michel Bourdan and Le Souffle at The Hyde Park Intercontinental under Peter Kromberg — in London. Later, he moved to Australia in 1991 to work with equally prominent restaurants (Burhnam Beeches, Browns Restaurant, and Sofitel Melbourne), which gave him a nudge to manoeuvre his own business. Today, after several successful TV stints and online gigs, Mehigan is ruling kitchens worldwide with palatable purées and ambrosial glaze.
We caught up with Gary Mehigan as he decided to join Conosh for an online workshop on International Desserts via Zoom. Here, we spoke with him about Indian cuisine, life on a TV show, favourite food destinations, and more!
How different has life been since MasterChef Australia?
Just so everybody knows — it was time to change, time for something different, time for something new. Life is certainly being different though 2020 was unexpected and life-changing to some degree. I am sure many people would feel the same. I’ve been writing a book that has kept me busy, getting stuck into podcasting which I love, and pitching numerous ideas to various production companies. I’ve also spent time doing some of the things that I always have seemed to have missed.
Care to share any words of wisdom from your 30 plus years of experience as a chef to those starting young?
I always say to young chefs, in particular, there has to be a certain joy in cooking for people that you relish, try not to draw a line in the sand between work and play but rather make it your life because you love it and love everything to do with food. The pleasure of learning new recipes, techniques, new cuisines keeps things fresh, and you never stop learning. It can be a hard business, but if you push on and push through the difficult times, earn your stripes and become good at what you do. Opportunities will present themselves, and you will reap what you sow. Luckily today, hospitality is a breeding ground for young entrepreneurs, and specialisation means you can take one simple idea, replicate it and duplicate it and you can be enormously successful.
What does it take to be a successful chef? Is professional training a must?
If you love food, then that’s the first and most important step. I followed a very traditional and classic path in my career; I started at the very bottom and worked my way up, but I’ve learned over the years that some of the most remarkable food comes from people that haven’t had the kind of training that I’ve had. Passion and natural curiosity are two things that will push you to perfect what you do. To become the best.
What does authenticity mean to you as a chef?
As a professional chef, authenticity could mean generosity, empathy, being meticulous, patient, and trustworthy. If you are talking about food, it should have a sense of place and meaning, maybe a story but ultimately make you happy. Respect for ingredients, techniques, recipes, provenance, and regionality are all part of this story. But rules are meant to be broken, and I see change as part of a natural evolution of our food. Even the most traditional recipes were once groundbreaking and new.
What still fascinates you about Indian cuisine?
Firstly, it’s a riot of flavour, texture, and colour that I find addictive and the mastery of spices that ultimately makes everything taste so delicious. The more I have travelled to India, the more excited I am by its regionality, the origin of flavours and dishes, and of course, its people and their stories. I have interacted with many Indian chefs and food enthusiasts through online workshops with Conosh, and I have witnessed the same passion for food and the rich culture it represents.
What is the most fun thing about being on a TV show?
It has never felt like a job and gives me an enormous amount of pleasure knowing that I can influence and teach far more people than I could ever reach using any other kind of medium. As a chef, I could have never imagined having an audience of millions of people, inspiring them to cook and eat differently, and maybe take a closer look at where their food comes from. It is a wonderful conduit for conversation, family, and community — something that unites us in an increasingly impersonal and stressful world.
What is your favourite eatery in the subcontinent?
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It’s hard to put my finger on a favourite as I love so many dishes and specialities, especially street food. Kathi Rolls, Pani Puri, Chole Bathura, Raj Kachori, or even a simple chai tea. If we’re talking restaurants, then the Bombay Canteen in Mumbai has always been a favourite even though Thomas Zacharias has moved on; I am still following his career closely. He is an advocate for regional Indian cuisine, which I love. Indian Accent is another favourite. Chef Manish Mehrotra is a brilliant chef who has been consistently voted as one of India’s best for a good reason. He has a light, ingenious touch when it comes to traditional recipes.
Besides India, which other destinations beckon you, food–wise?
To be honest, anywhere in Southeast Asia tickles my taste buds. I am a big fan of Thai and Vietnamese food for the sweet, sour, salty and hot flavours, and of course, the texture and crunch. The use of fresh, aromatic and vibrant ingredients makes it light and healthy, too.
What is your favourite dessert?
Anything with caramel and chocolate! I love traditional desserts such as Tart Tatin, Crème Brulee or a Caramel Tart. Modern, more savoury desserts with soft creamy textures and crunch are delicious, too. Like the Mille-feuille of Caramelized White Chocolate, Mango & Coconut I will be teaching this Sunday with Conosh. Summers are in full swing in India, and you can never really go wrong with a fresh Mango and Coconut dessert.
How has the pandemic affected your life, both as a person and as a chef, if at all?
Lockdown felt particularly hard in Melbourne, the government was quick to react. We did the right thing, of course, closing our borders, taking precautions seriously, which means now life has returned to normal, and we feel very lucky. I found the curfew and restricted travel particularly hard and very isolating. However, after a few weeks, I began to slow down and notice the little things in life. I enjoyed long walks with the family and our dogs, gardening, reading, baking, and taking time to stay in touch with friends via phone or Zoom. Many of these things have become part of the ‘new order’ in my life, along with being less materialistic and constantly needing to be busy, all of which has made me much happier. And I have enjoyed staying connected with my fans in India through virtual events. This is my second workshop with Conosh.
What’s the next big thing?
I hate to say it, but I’ve enjoyed slowing down far more than I expected. I’m looking forward to my book coming out later this year, the podcast, and my coffee brand. We have a few pitches in the works for food television of various kinds, but it’s far too early to talk about it yet. TV is a fickle beast, but I am sure we will be returning to your screens in one form or another soon. Currently, I keep in touch with my audience through social media and online workshops that make the culinary world a dynamic and ever-evolving place.
Know more about his workshop here.
All images: Courtesy Gary Mehigan Instagram/Getty