Gary Mehigan on why he quit MasterChef Australia and his love for Indian food

As Chef Gary Mehigan launches his new book, we talk about his love for Indian food and how our garam masala, turmeric and cumin have found a permanent space in his kitchen cabinet
Gary Mehigan
Gary Mehigan

Melbourne-based chef Gary Mehigan, popularly known for his 12-year-long stint as a judge on MasterChef Australia, is not new to Indian cuisine. He knows where to get the best kathi roll, pav bhaji, mutton nihari, and laal maas; understands the difference between Hyderabad’s popular kachchi and pakki biryani; and is well-versed with preparing Kerala’s famous fish moilee. Although he visited India for the first time in 2012, he has visited the country so many times since then that Indian spices have found a permanent space in his kitchen cabinet back at home. As Gary launches his book Good Food Every Day, which is a collection of his go-to recipes, we catch up with the chef and look at India and Australia from his flavour-tinted lens, understand how he navigates through a new city, why he quit MasterChef Australia, his podcast and the restaurants he can’t wait to go back to once the pandemic gets over. Excerpts:

Q. What brought you to India for the first time? How was your first experience?
It was work actually. I was approached by Tourism Australia for Australia Fest where George Calombaris and I cooked for a number of events and it was a kind of baptism of fire. I think that was 2012. Before that, I had travelled fairly extensively through South-East Asia, to places like Japan, Thailand and Vietnam but I had never been to India, so it was beguiling, to be honest. Since then, I have travelled around 14 times and I have been to cities like Chennai, Kolkata, Bengaluru, Mumbai, Jodhpur, Jaipur, Hyderabad, among others.

Q. Besides food, what drew you to India?
We have a wonderful sense of humour. Our sense of humour is really similar. We are self-deprecating. We are not afraid to take the Mickey out of each other or ourselves. I think that was the first thing that drew me culturally towards India. I found India and its people very familiar even though it wasn’t.


<em>Gary Mehigan digging into chole bhature on the streets of Delhi</em>
Gary Mehigan digging into chole bhature on the streets of Delhi

Q. Since you have travelled fairly well, which city or state do you think wins the race when it comes to food and why?
You’re putting me on the spot! (laughs). Before I came to India, I had this idea that the cuisine operated in a fairly narrow band of dishes but of course, it is just not true. It’s thousands of years’ worth of incredible cuisine(s), movement of people, and an incredible past — this kind of cultural richness and diversity is the thing that strikes me. So, wherever I go, I feel that difference. For example, Kolkata and Hyderabad are two completely different cities, offering two completely different cuisines, and have a completely different look and feel. I think in every capital that I have visited so far and even regional towns; there is something unique and interesting and something to learn... When I filmed Masters of Taste, about two and a half years ago in India, I was lucky enough to experience 12 cuisines and regions, so we got a little taste of Kashmiri or Andhra or Jain cuisine amongst others. It really gave me a kind of insight into the understanding of people’s cuisines.

Q. Did you also get a chance to try our street food? Take us through the dishes that stood out for you. 
When I first hit Mumbai, I tried the street food — pav bhaji, pani puri and vada pav. I also went to Soam (a Gujarati restaurant in Chowpatty) and tried rabri, jalebi and malpoi. It was my first kind of taste of India, along with the butter chicken, dal makhani and some of the familiar stuff. Travelling to Hyderabad and having their biryani and seeing how it is cooked and understanding the difference between kachchi and pakki biryani, and trying Andhra biryani, which was more stir-fried with the rice underneath and everything thrown on top of it, it stood out for me. Going to Chennai and eating delicious fish curries, or visiting Calcutta and having bhapa Ilish for the first time — that kind of strong mustard-based green chilli sauce was delicious and so was even their kathi roll. Laal maas is my favourite. Eating the mutton nihari at Karim’s in Old Delhi and just sipping the meat stew, which had been sitting there for 24 hours, as I recall, and served with bread, was delicious. Is that enough? (laughs)

Q. Considering your obvious fondness for Indian food, what is your favourite Indian spice?
My kitchen pantry is jam-packed with spices, I’ve probably got around 30 to 40 spices but the ones at the front are typical. I love cumin, I love when you toast the seeds and they get dark and offer a certain aroma — it works so well with so many things. Green cardamom is also my absolute favourite; I put them in a lot of things. For example, if I am making fish moilee, I will smack the pods of green cardamom and grind the seeds. I will also put toasted fenugreek, some turmeric and lots of coriander. I really love coriander and fennel seeds. I also have a really beautiful garam masala mixture that a chef friend of mine gave to me. I have more but I think these top my hit list.

Q. What are some of the restaurants and chefs that you like in India?
The top 50 restaurants of the world just came out and the Indian Accent is sitting beautifully there, voted number one in India. Chef Manish Mehrotra is just an incredible chef and whenever I am in Delhi, I always go to Indian Accent. I actually miss Thomas Zacharias, who was at Bombay Canteen. For me, that kind of young chef ’s creativity and exploration of indigenous ingredients (was impressive); I have eaten some interesting dishes at Bombay Canteen like Kashmiri morels with goat’s testicles. Then there is Masque, it is an incredible restaurant and has made it to the top 50 with Prateek Sadhu at the helm. These are some of the restaurants apart from all the street food and Parsi restaurants.

Q. How do you think the pandemic has shaped the food industry? 
What is it going to look like? That’s the eternal question. Isn’t it? It has been really really hard but I think what it has done certainly for young chefs and certainly here in Australia, from what I understood through my podcast series (A Plate to Call Home), is that it has made chefs blend their collective imagination in terms of how to take the restaurant experience outside of the traditional four walls of that space — whether it is dining at home, online masterclasses or cooking along in open-air spaces. For instance, Shane Delia, a very good chef here in Melbourne, has started Providoor where he has taken 30 odd of the best restaurants in the city, and provides them delivery service so you can have a Maha or Cumulus Inc. (both dine-in restaurants) experience at home. It comes with a QR code that you can scan and play the music from the restaurant, pour yourself a glass of wine, light a candle and kind of recreate that experience at home. I don’t think anybody would have thought of that! 

But, we all want to go back and eat at restaurants. I have got a list of where I want to go as soon as things open up properly, and there are probably 20 restaurants on that list but I also want some of these experiences to continue at home.

Q. We are curious about your list. Do share with us the names of the restaurants that top the list. 
If we are talking from an international perspective, then Quay in Sydney is a must-visit. Outside of Sydney, Brae is a must-visit. When it comes to local restaurants, I would really love to go back to Pt. Leo Estate in Mornington Peninsula. Then there is Enter Via Laundry by Helly Raichura, who is a young Indian lady who was on MasterChef this season.

Q. As someone who is an avid traveller, how do you navigate through a new city/country?
As a tourist, I do a lot of research. I don’t travel for anything much other than food, to be honest. In fact, I always joke about the fact that if I go to Rome, the fact that the Colosseum is there, is great. I will go and see it towards the end of my trip but I am really there because I want to eat in a particular restaurant or I want to eat a particular food. Basically, my whole day is planned about where I want to have my breakfast, lunch and dinner. And, when I hit the ground, it might sound cliché but the local market is the place to go. I talk to locals there and try to figure out that little café that nobody knows about but has a great view, where you can sit and watch the world go by. And, once you are there, talk to people in those places, ask your server where they go for a drink at 11 pm or where do they go for a hearty breakfast or to have a good croissant or a great pav bhaji.

Q. You have led this beautiful life as a chef but what was it that attracted you to food and urged you to pursue a career in the culinary world?
Youthful optimism probably or ignorance (laughs). My grandfather was a chef but it took me a while to figure out what I want to do. Like every young boy, I wanted to be a fireman or a jet fighter pilot or an architect. My dad was an engineer so I always thought to follow in his footsteps but when I was 14, my dad told me that he doesn’t think I have the patience to be an engineer or an architect, and pointed out that I am a bit artsy and have a sort of inclination towards cooking as I loved cooking with my granddad, and asked me to have a chat with him. It was then that I realised how I always thought that granddad had a great job — he was always happy, engaged and interested whereas, dad was very clever, quiet and meticulous and that‘s not me. So my granddad kind of nurtured me a little bit and then I got a job in a local hotel, first as a waiter and then to wash pots and peel vegetables, which gave me entry into the kitchen and allowed me to see what chefs do and I realised that I love it. It was creative, there was a lot of adrenaline rush, you are making something that’s enjoyable. So then, I left for college to do a diploma in professional cookery.

Q. Chef, what connects India and Australian cuisine?
I think in terms of food, it’s very hard to compare an Indian experience with Australian but I think we both love the texture. The Australian palate is very geared towards texture especially crunchy texture and I know it sounds silly but a good percentage of the dining experience is that enjoyment of texture as well as flavour. The crunch, the gooeyness, the smoothness, the squeaky something like the crunch of fresh vegetables. I think that’s something that we share. Whereas if you go to China, for example, they like chewy and squeaky and slippery, whereas all of us are like ‘eww’. Very often we don’t like oozy things but we like crunchy with oozy. And, if it is warm, oozy crunchy and spicy — it is perfect!

Q. Gary, your name is still synonymous with MasterChef Australia. Was stepping away difficult? And how has life been after you parted ways with the show?
No, it wasn’t difficult. I think it was a shock for a lot of people because they didn’t know what was going on and we didn’t make any prior announcement. But all three of us had promised ourselves that if we didn’t relish every minute of going to work then it would be time to pass the baton on and we were very honest with the channel. I think they were quite shocked as well. But, personally, I felt that I had an incredible journey, and it’s been a blessing in my life, but it was time to do something new, and sometimes, you just need to close one door to find the other opportunity, the other door leads you somewhere — probably the path less travelled. So for many out there, it was crazy, they are still like ‘you had the best jobs ever in television and food’ and I agree and we did enjoy it for nearly twelve years but I felt if I didn’t try something else and find a new chapter in my life then it would probably be lost for me. I wouldn’t find that opportunity again. So yes, I think it was a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Q. You have a podcast A Plate To Call Home. What made you start a podcast and how are you finding it as a medium?
I love podcasting. I’ve been doing it for two years now and what’s nice about this medium is that you can explore an idea or a topic for as long as you want. It can be 30 minutes, 40 minutes an hour. We have done about 80-90 episodes so far and I’ve had some very interesting people on my podcast series, including industry professionals, foodies, TV personalities, among others. I like the medium, it’s gentle and it allows you to kind of meander through a conversation and see what happens. I talked to this beautiful young lady called Maddy who started a free-range egg business here in Australia near Mount Macedon when she was 15 or 16 years old and we just talked about eggs and business and family for an hour. For a foodie that’s fascinating but if you like aeroplanes and motorcars, it is not and that’s the whole point of podcasting. You find your thing, your tribe and that’s what you follow.

Q. Lastly, if you could invite three people to your table, dead or alive from anywhere in the world, who would they be and what would you serve them from Indian cuisine?
I will prepare some South Indian Dishes, maybe a fish moilee, definitely some idly and appams, podi, maybe mutton or some curry, some chips and bits. I will prepare about four to five dishes. When it comes to guests, I want to have a few arguments around the table. How about somebody like John F Kennedy, Barak Obama, Mikhail Gorbachev and Narendra Modi? I know I’ve named four but it would be an interesting conversation. I’d just cook and listen; you know and then maybe add a comedian like Billy Connolly, the Scottish Comedian, to bring them back into the realms of normal humanity.

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