Matt Preston | Profile Magazine
Matt Preston is the internationally-acclaimed writer and critic with an immeasurable knowledge of food and finely-tuned palate, who has gone on to become a popular MasterChef Australia judge and best-selling cookbook author. And how can we forget about his flamboyant fashion – forever bringing a little theatre to the meal.
“Isn’t it lovely, you come home, your wife has baked banana bread, she’s making stock, it’s like an advert for Little House on the Prairie,” Matt Preston enthuses as he walks through the front door of his Melbourne home.
Fresh from photo shoots and filming for MasterChef, Matt loosens his navy and white polka dot cravat and sheds his ivory single-breasted blazer, as he continues chatting about his profound love of cooking and food.
“I just like eating, always have, ever since I was a greedy kid,” Matt shares in his signature velvety drawl.
“I’ve always enjoyed and liked food, I had two grandmothers, one was a really bad cook, one was a really good cook.
“I realised while doing my cookbooks, that bizarrely the grandmother who was the bad cook has probably got more recipes in the book, than the grandmother who was the good cook, because it isn't necessarily about the quality of the food, it’s the stories and emotion that goes with it, that’s very powerful.”
Matt’s introduction to hospitality was as a tea boy, working in Joseph Lyons tea rooms, which had become famous in the United Kingdom, as patrons would come from all over just for a cup of tea and a scone.
“They were a major tea importer and I got to be the tea boy delivering to all of the offices,” says Matt.
“I learnt two things there – I was the first tea boy in history, for Joe Lyons, to put coffee on the tea trolley which caused a certain amount of furore. People love you for some very simple things, I just gave them coffee when all they had was tea.
“The other thing I learnt was, always pick the trolley with the wobbly wheel, you want the wobbly wheel because it makes the cups and spoons rattle, people hear you coming.
“I had long talks with Heston Blumenthal, who’s done lots of research about anticipation and how anticipation makes things taste better, and the rattling of the tea trolley is the thing I’m sure made people appreciate the tea more, because they got excited about the prospect of tea and biscuits coming through the large open plan office – that ‘rattle-clatter-rattle-clatter’ … it’s adding a bit of theatre to a cup of tea.”
Matt went on to work as a gardener, which he says was “as close as I got to TV” in his earlier years as he dug ditches next to the BBC building, also spending a bit of time painting and decorating. But it was when he landed a job at magazine City Limits, that he inched closer to his calling – journalism.
“I started selling ads and then for a while I was given my own column, which I wrote every week,” he shares. “I ended up running their marketing and doing a lot of live events.”
Matt was responsible for organising and running high profile events including Nirvana's first show in the UK, Nina Simone’s comeback show, opening the first non-Japanese karaoke club in the UK and booking comedy gigs with Robbie Coltrane and Lenny Henry.
Matt says standing side of stage and watching these personalities work their magic was inspirational, and if there’s one thing he learnt and now applies to his own celebrity self, it’s don’t be a “dickhead”.
“The celebrity world divides very neatly into dickheads and non-dickheads, you want to remind yourself the whole time to be on the non-dickhead side,” Matt says quite candidly. “That’s the great joy in having Gary and George, because we all remind ourselves if we say anything that’s a bit dickheady, the other two will pull us up.”
While Matt works alongside the two esteemed chefs – Gary Mehigan and George Calombaris, he strongly maintains he’s not “part of the food industry,” he’s first and foremost a journalist.
“I’m a writer and what I do is write for readers, I cover restaurants and review restaurants and write about food trends, but at the end of the day my focus is like any writer, like you, it’s about the people who are reading what I’m writing,” he says.
“That’s something you have to always recalibrate. I found when I started writing recipes for the Courier Mail and the Telegraph, with my first recipes I was trying to show off and show that I knew my stuff, but I realised that was irrelevant.”
The recipes you now see Matt demonstrating on MasterChef Master Classes are a reflection of that, as are his trilogy of cookbooks.
“It’s not about showing off, it should never be about you, it should always be about the people that are going to make the recipe and the people they’re feeding, that’s the relationship that matters rather than anything else,” he says.
“I got home the other day and my daughter said, ‘I’d like some fresh baked bread please’. I had to go into the kitchen and try and find a way of making some, which is a great challenge for me, it was a MasterChef moment.
“I used my flatbread recipe and put it in a muffin tin and made these little scones and it worked really well and that’s something you'll see on Master Class, it starts with a nine-year-old’s invention test.”
Matt is a husband to Emma, a father to 14-year-old Jonathan, 11-year-old William and nine-year-old Sadie, and a mad soccer fan. He is also an award-winning food critic, writing for the most highly regarded newspapers and magazines in the country, namely the Epicure in The Age and Delicious magazine. Matt has been writing for the latter for 12 years, which he describes as “a beautiful joy”.
“I love it, food writing, it’s my dream job … even after seven years on TV, it’s my happy place, I spent three days last week researching the history of the brownie for a column,” he says.
“Food is not only delicious and tasty, it’s also fascinating in terms of its social implications and how it resonates with people for more than nutritional reasons, it’s more than an equation and dinner, it’s way more than that.”
And it was that innate passion for food in all forms, which lead him to be offered a job as one of the judges of MasterChef – that story alone is almost hard to swallow.
“I was in Paris doing a story with my wife, we were having an amazing meal in Paris, I was eating Pierre Hermé macarons (he’s the guy who inspired Adriano Zumbo) and I was watching soccer on the telly.
“I went, ‘I don’t know about this TV life, I kind of quite like where I am at the moment’.”
He obviously took the job, in large part because Gary and George had already signed up.
“We all thought it would last three months and here we are seven years and 500 episodes later, making a food show which we love more now, because we appreciate the privilege to do it,” he says.
“The food these contestants put up has been brilliant and watching them grow and develop and helping them with that and then watching what they do when they leave the show is amazing, it’s incredibly satisfying.”
Matt, George and Gary have known each other outside of the show for many years. In fact Matt has reviewed a bunch of their restaurants – with a mixed verdict.
“I reviewed (Gary’s restaurant) Fenix a couple of times and I reviewed George’s Reserve, all along the way I’ve done all their restaurants,” he says.
“I criticised Gary’s Boathouse when he opened that, in that wonderful way journalists have the luck of having the wobbly table or the drafty table, I got the wobbly table and that’s been a joke ever since.
“Boathouse is near where we shoot in Flemington and so when we go to the Boathouse Gary goes, ‘Let me check the table!’”
Given Matt’s exposure to the best in Australian and international cuisine, I wondered whether his job had ruined him when it came to eating ordinary home-cooked food at home.
“No, anything but. I was asked (recently), my favourite places in Melbourne and I said, ‘probably my house at the moment,’ I love it,” he says with fond affirmation.
“Since I’ve been writing a lot more recipes and cooking a lot more at home, it’s made me enjoy home cooking more and how can you beat an icy cold bowl of cornflakes and freezing milk or a really, really, really good boiled egg that’s perfectly set.
“The only difference now is rather than salt and pepper I might put some dukkah on there or do something like that, but at the end of the day it’s still about the egg and the salt.
“You’re just as likely to find me chowing down on a really good burger, in fact you’re more likely to find me biting on a burger than something super fancy.”
Matt’s not one to snub doing the dishes either – wearing cravat and all.
“I get home about 7.30-8pm, walk in, take the jacket off and do the washing up because that’s what needs to be done and my wife cooks for the kids,” he says.
“On the weekend I’ll cook or even better, we’ll get them to cook. My daughter made me my first cup of coffee the other day, it was really, really good, way better than I could have done!”
As we wrap up our interview, Matt prepares to bunker down and read the first draft of his fourth and final (“for a while”) cookbook. While he remains tight lipped on the type of recipes we’ll find inside, one thing I can guarantee, he won’t mince his words.
Passion for fashion
If you’ve ever wondered who wears the pants in this television trio – regular viewers of MasterChef will notice Matt’s loud and lairy pants have already made quite an appearance this season, and the best is only yet to come.
“My new pants have their own publicist, they’re becoming bigger than the cravats,” Matt says in jest. “Cravats are about to give up the publicist, the pants are taking over, it’s ridiculous, it’s not about me, it’s about the pants and I love it.”
Since Matt first appeared on our screens donning a ketchup and mustard-coloured cravat, the fashion accessory took on a persona of its own and it didn’t take long for the moniker ‘Matt the Cravat’ to catch on.
When asked about the silky scarves, Matt admits he has far too many to count, likely around 400, and that’s culling around 50 every year to donate to charity.
But cravats are so 2014 – 2015 is the year of the pants!
“I’ve been wanting to wear these specific pants for a while – the crazy pink tartan ones from episode two that looked uncommonly like pyjama pants, there’s some more stuff in the trouser territory that I’m very excited about,” Matt gushes.
“I never wanted every Australian man to wear a cravat, but I love the idea that hopefully now Australian men are more confident about wearing a pair of red pants or they rejoice in their comedy Hawaiian shirts, they want to wear red socks, it’s good.
“For too long society was very prescript about what men wore, it was always a pale blue shirt and a blue suit or a grey suit and I’ve been lucky enough to come along at a time when Australian men wanted to experiment.
“When I started wearing pink on the show I got terrible comments written about me, but what’s the difference between a pink shirt and a blue shirt? It’s great, the boundaries have come down.”
Matt’s jackets are also tailored with internal pockets – as was revealed earlier this MasterChef season when he plucked his own spoon from the inside of his jacket.
“All my jackets are designed with a couple of small internal pockets, one which is small enough to put a microphone pack and the other which is two slots for forks and spoons,” he says.
“You never know when you want a taste and I’ve normally got a fork or a spoon in there, but you can’t plan those moments when there isn’t enough cutlery.
“I once went out with a girl whose father was very particular about his tea bag … he had a little silver-like card holder with two tea bags in, so wherever he went he could always have the tea he wanted.”
What is your signature dish?
Pizza! For me it’s all about the dough, I make a ripping dough and then I’ll cut up a whole range of stuff and I’ll let whoever’s there make their own because I think that sense of ownership is really important. In terms of the pizza I'll make myself, I’m a big fan of really good balls of bocconcini, a nice white mozzarella that goes stringy and doesn’t set hard and some fresh tomato and basil, I think that’s delicious because the hero’s the dough, which is what it’s about, it should be puffy and crispy on the base. But there’s another pizza which if it’s a Monday pizza night and you’ve had roast the day before, roast pumpkin chopped up with a bit of chilli and a bit of feta is absolutely delicious. But not too much on the topping, you want to be able to hold the pizza and it shouldn't go flat with all the toppings falling off onto the table.
What is your favourite food?
I do love Japanese and I do love Italian and they’re at different end of the spectrum, one’s all protein in terms of the yakitori skewers and sliced raw fish and the other one is more carb driven, but I think there’s great joy to be had in every restaurant and cafe, you’ve just got to know where to look and what to look for.
I’m a bit in love with vegetables at the moment, that’s my favourite territory, using meat or cheese as a seasoning for those vegetables and lots of spices. I think balancing big flavours is a real pleasure when it comes to eating and it can be very expensive to eat if you want to eat big chunks of meat and there are other ways of doing it, that lamb leg that becomes the souvlaki the next day.
Is there anything you don’t like to eat?
I do have one rule and I don’t like to eat anything that smells of poo or wee. I know the high end foodies love that sausage made with the end of the pig’s intestine or the stinky kidney or in Florence anything called lampredotto which is the last bit of stomach of the cow, and you pick it up and it smells of bum. I love the skill of the chefs in turning something that would normally get thrown away, into something edible, that’s great but I’d rather have a delicious carrot that’s been slow roasted.
Originally published in Profile Magazine