MasterChef Australia's Gary Mehigan lifts the lid on the show's secrets
British born chef Gary Mehigan has been an integral part of MasterChef Australia from the very beginning.
Now 49, the owner of Melbourne restaurant The Boathouse is one of the show's three-pronged judging panel that also includes fellow restaurateur George Calombaris and food writer Matt Preston.
How do you get yourself geared up for a new season of the show?
You mean like training for the Olympics? You know what's funny? George keeps us on track all of the year, to be honest. He lost about 20 kilos two or three years ago. He's become very annoying. He goes, "Gaz, don't eat it". My answer is always, "why? why not?".
We do have to be careful, especially at the beginning of the series when we've got lots and lots of dishes to taste and, to be honest, if it's delicious, I can't help myself. I always go back for a second spoonful. You always see my spoon even if the dish has moved onto George and Matt, coming in for more. And that's when George goes, "Gaz! Stop".
So the fact that we don't see that on screen – is that part of the show's careful editing process?
I think the pleasure of the show now is that careful editing is not something we're worried about.
We've realised that the genre that we sit in is purely about food and the growth of the contestants. You know the standard line that "oh, you're in reality, you pick the characters" and we go "no,no,no, we pick the food and then we kind of peel back the layers of the onion to find what the contestant is all about". You will notice that even in this series, there are people on there that really kind of squirm in front of the cameras. It's an uncomfortable and unnatural thing for them to do.
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But have you found that you've started to get people who are adept at "playing the game", rather than just talented cooks?
Nah, the better cook you are, the further you will go in the competition. We've seen it all. You can have any strategy in your head, but if you don't learn everytime you cook, you're not going to last. It's as simple as that.
There are some obvious things though. Once you work out what Gary, George and Matt like to eat – you cook that. If you've got the opportunity to do a dessert challenge and you don't do chocolate then you're crazy, you're playing with a bad deck of cards. Also, we've found that once contestants learn to share information and ideas freely with each other, that's when they really grow.
Have you found that you're constantly learning off them as well?
Absolutely and I do ask them for recipes as well – I've got no shame. Sometimes I'll give them a mystery box with an ingredient I might not ordinarily use and because they are in a little creative bubble they'll come up with some great ideas. Then I'll ring my chefs and go, "Hey, why don't you combine these two flavours because they work really well", or, "I tasted this crunchy element – can you pop it on the barramundi dish". I'll credit the contestants or tell them I've slapped it on the menu. It really breaks down the barriers between us and them and the contestants seem to enjoy that and open up to use more.
Even so, when the contestants are in the middle of a challenge, how do you decide whether you need to put an arm around their shoulder, offer advice, or leave them alone?
We're always there. Whether the camera is pointing at us or not. People often ask us, "do you know what dishes taste like before you do the judging"? Yeah, absolutely. The questions we ask during a challenge are always geared towards the contestants. "James, that's a lot of vinegar you've put in there. What do you think George?" And George will lift his eyebrows and we'll walk off. And what we're actually saying is, "My God, that's a lot of vinegar".
We've got a pretty good idea of what's going on. We're there to mentor them, support them . They get a lot of hours of our time on and off camera. And really that's our interest, that's what we enjoy – we love teaching people. Love seeing them grow. From the start of the competition to the end, that transformation, jumping into professional world – Courtney Ralston, Po, Julie Goodwin – It's kind of a pleasure now looking back saying people like Julie Goodwin, Courtney Roulston and Po are now our colleagues in the industry, not just contestants and people we taught. But it's a rite of passage too,- a quarter of a million bucks is a nice little leg up, but they've got to work hard for it.
Why do you think MasterChef Australia has been such a success?
Probably a number of things. The idea of people changing their lives from accountants to cooks – it sounds kind of kitsch and yet people want to know what these contestants are doing well after they finish the series. It's a big buy in. Our Facebook page also gets a massive number of hits all the time, people are engaging with it throughout the year.
I think it's also about the chemistry between the judges and the fact that it's good family viewing. I love when people come up to me and say "I love your show, it's got my seven-year-old into cooking" or "it's the thing that brings us all together".
Now we're sort of held to a certain standard and we've become like an old pair jeans that people love to wear. Why are people still interested after eight years? Why not? We love people discovering their voice and becoming a pop star so why not something even more relatable, like food? It's the one thing that genuinely unites us regardless of who we are and where we are from and that's a beautiful thing.
Can you give some advice then to the makers of MasterChef New Zealand, because they can't seem to make it stick?
I don't mind that at all. They have the same problem in India. I remember meeting the judges on Indian Masterchef and they said "we hate you guys, everyone is always comparing us to the three of you". We're the Top Gear of the cooking world – what can I tell you?
So which of the former Top Gear presenters does that make you then?
Probably James May. I'm the grumpy old man, I reckon. Actually, that could be Matt Preston, let's not pin that one me.
MasterChef Australia begins on TV One on Wednesday at 7.30pm.