30 minutes with MasterChef judge Gary Mehigan

Warm, engaging, funny, cuddly, sharp, focused and knowledgeable – after a 30 minute chat in the sunshine of Bacchus’s podium level, that’s how I would describe MasterChef Australia judge Gary Mehigan.

Gary is in town for this weekend’s Regional Flavours extravaganza at South Bank.  It’s a weekend of food, wine and some song (check the River Quay stage) that has Brisbane both bursting with saliva-filled excitement and precious hope that the unseasonal rain will disappear to reveal the traditional warm sunshine and blue skies that makes Brisbane such a great winter destination.

You can catch Gary on the River Quay stage from 11.30am to 12.30pm presenting finger lickin' food - fun food you can and should eat with your hands.

So what surprises Gary about Brisbane?

We’ve become very complacent in Sydney and Melbourne, thinking we are the culinary capitals of Australia. We come to a place like Brisbane and say ‘well this feels’ very Melbourne. Every state capital has something that is captivating and half the fun for me is the discovery.  Some simple legislative changes have allowed new things like small bars, to pop up and change the nature of the city.  Brisbane food has improved no end. There’s lots of little trendy cafes at Teneriffe and New Farm

Where does Gary like to eat in Brisbane?

I ask Matt Preston, who is the food dictionary of Australia. He has a photographic memory and always has a list. The usual ones are going to pop up, plus the newbies like Stokehouse, and Aria but also Sake, Beccofino, Urbane, Ortiga and Tartufo.

Breakfast, lunch or dinner?

I’m interested in breakfast but I am habitual coffee and poached egg person. If I am bad it’s eggs benedict. If I cook eggs and bacon at home I tend to cook it on the barbecue to keep the mess and smell outside.

People in Australia are obsessed with coffee and breakfast which quite surprises visitors from overseas. My parents are English and we they come out they don’t get why we go out for breakfast.  I think it’s a great way to start the day.

Most interesting breakfast?

I like something different.  We went to this little place in Perth called West End Deli and their breakfast menu read like a lunch menu rather than a breakfast menu. They did a little pressed terrine of forest mushrooms with gorgonzola butter and there was a sugar-cured salmon with a lyonnaise potato and onion. At Top Paddock in Richmond, Melbourne, I had a dish of seared kingfish with little jalapeno and avocado salsa with black corn and a fritter or a soft shell crab slider with a dill and lime mayonnaise.

On the restaurant industry..

The restaurant industry is quite stable despite the GFC and I think that’s because Australians love their food now more than they have ever done.  They will go out, even if they spend a little less, because that’s the way we live. We eat Thai on a Monday, Lebanese on Wednesday and Indian on Friday; we are used to that diversity.

On his restaurant

What I cook at home is different from what I serve in the restaurant because I like experimenting with different things.  But I’ve learnt as a restaurateur over the years that people like to be able to categorise you - eclectic isn’t good enough anymore. Eating out choices are fairly simple. People think what would we like to eat? Steak? And then think of four great steak restaurants.

Tips for chefs opening a restaurant?

Be prepared – the same advice I give to contestants on the show.  It’s a very different industry from when I started. Cook the food that you love right now and that may change. It allows you to become very good at one thing and actually create a business out of it. Go overseas on a mission to learn how to make the best croissant and then bring it back to us. Go to the best baker and learn from them.

There’s a week with English celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal coming up on MasterChef – how was that?

It was incredible having Heston for a whole week. He was charming and helpful and even the professionals took something away from it. It’s the only MasterChef he will do because his daughter loves Australian MasterChef.

What’s happening on MasterChef this week?

We’re down to the Top 10 (Emma, Lucy, Lynton, Neha, Kelty, Rishi, Noelene, Daniel, Vern, Christina) on MasterChef Australia and with the home straight seemingly in sight, the energy is high. As the contestants meet the judges in the MasterChef kitchen they are told there is no elimination this week and there is an immunity pin up for grabs. To win, they must beat everyone else standing in the kitchen but most of all, they need consistency.  Fail at one challenge this week and they are out of the running for immunity.  Round one sees a spice grinding skills test where one contestant drops out of the running. But in true MasterChef style the judges announce a bittersweet twist that no one saw coming – by the end of the week a previously eliminated contestant will return to the competition. Each of the nine contestants left standing is then paired with a returning contestant, who will be their cooking partner for the week.  In round two each pair will cook with two Chinese ingredients. The two pairs with the least impressive dishes will be banished to the gantry - dashing their hopes for immunity and a chance to return to the competition.


Kerry Heaney