Gary Mehigan | Profile Magazine
You know him as one third of the judging panel of MasterChef Australia, but what you may not know is Gary Mehigan really wanted to be an engineer, he’s a bit of a spice freak and his favourite ingredient is chicken.
“Last night we cooked rolled chicken thighs with pesto because we’ve got loads of basil in the garden and tied them up and roasted them, chucked them in the oven and boiled some freekeh, roasted sweet potatoes and onions, some fetta, some fresh herbs and we sat down and ate it – nothing extraordinary, just healthy and home cooked.”
Gary Mehigan is one of Australia’s most reputable and celebrated chefs, known for his specialty dish braised beef cheek with red onion marmalade and horseradish mash, but when he’s at home with wife Mandy and 15-year-old daughter Jenna, they cook and dine like the rest of us.
“I think it drives my wife insane sometimes, I really insist on sitting down and having dinner together, whether it’s a roast dinner with all the trimmings in the winter or a roast chicken with a grainy salad and roasted vegetables in the summer, that’s what we do.”
As a foodie tragic, chatting to Gary about what he cooks for dinner is like entering the holy grail, catching a glimpse of what life is like away from the MasterChef set.
So as we drift into talking about our mutual love of chicken – “chicken is a meal for all seasons, in every culture, chicken universally is something that pretty much everyone loves, where you can’t say that about things like beef or lamb or pork … I love roast chicken, I love grilled chicken, I love chicken curry, it’s a meal for all seasons,” it’s almost impossible to believe Gary didn’t always want to be a chef.
“I wanted to be an engineer like my dad or an architect, all the things little boys want to do,” he says.
But Gary’s grandfather was a chef, and unbeknownst to him, watching him in the kitchen for all those years, a desire to follow in his footsteps was simmering away.
“I was about 14 years old when the penny dropped and I love what he does – he can make bread and he can chop an onion and make something delicious and it really captured my interest,” he says.
So Gary got a job in a little hotel, where he’d work on weekends and learnt from the resident chef.
“That’s where it started and he really fostered that interest and made it really clear from early on that it was going to be a tough career and lots of hard work,” he says.
“I just pushed through and I’ve always loved what I do, people ask me what else I would do and I say, nothing, I love this.”
Gary went on to train in London at The Connaught Hotel and Le Souffle at The InterContinental, under two of London’s luminaries of the time, Michel Bourdan and Peter Kromberg.
So upon moving to Melbourne in 1991, Gary was intrigued by the melting pot of cultures and the intricate flavours at his fingertips.
“I’d come out of London, it was a very strict style of food, they used to call it Franglaise which is French influence; very technique driven, very process driven,” he says.
“I still love that food, still cook that food, but when I came here, the multiculturalism was more on display.
“Going to Victoria Street and eating Vietnamese coleslaw spring rolls and eating coriander and Vietnamese mint and pork skin, all these things I’d never eaten before, there's a whole new level of flavour and it got me into, rather than just that French-English style, into Lebanese and Thai and Vietnamese.”
Gary went on to head some of Melbourne’s most prominent kitchens, before opening his own restaurant Fenix in 2000 and the Maribyrnong Boathouse in 2005. He then saw the value in his brand and appeared on a string of television shows including Good Chef, Bad Chef; Boy’s Weekend; and Good Morning Australia.
But the catalyst was a call to audition for MasterChef Australia – where he was reunited with two mates George Calombaris and Matt Preston.
The trio is now in the midst of the eighth season of the powerhouse cooking show which has this year seen favourites Marco Pierre White and Heston Blumenthal return, as well as Nigella Lawson for a stellar week of cooking.
I have to ask – what are they like?
“They fit in so well when they come in, they’re like a member of the MasterChef family and that’s not always the case, sometimes you’ll have a guest on and you’ll go, ooh they were kind of prickly or interesting and difficult, or didn’t get what they were here for. Whereas these guys give it 100 per cent, it’s all about the contestants, they love it,” he says.
“Nigella particularly, I wondered what she was going to be like, I’d met her briefly in season two or three for a day, but we hardly spoke and I wondered if she was going to be aloof or distant, or busy, but she wasn’t, she was engaged, she was wonderful every day. And we were all laughing and chatting within an hour.”
Oh to be part of that conversation!
Originally published in Profile Magazine