Gary Mehigan, the host of MasterChef Australia, recently conducted a Master Class at the Grand Hyatt hotel in Mumbai to promote Tourism Victoria. During the demonstration, the celebrity chef and restaurateur spoke about his decision to move to Melbourne from his hometown London in 1991, his most memorable meals, the food diversity in his home-state Victoria and how Australia could do with some inventive Indian restaurants. We got a chance to ask him some questions and bring back a recipe from his book, Comfort Food. Edited excerpts:

When did you get interested in cooking and what’s your earliest memory in the kitchen?

My grandfather was a chef, so I think it was in the back of my mind for some time. I thought about engineering, as my father was an engineer and teacher, but I had fallen in love with food, so it was just a fleeting thought. One of my earliest memories in the kitchen is stealing the couverture chocolate from the pantry that my grandfather kept.

Tell us about your first big break.

When I started my apprenticeship, I knew this (cooking) would be a part of my life, for the rest of life. My first big break would have to be working under Michel Bourdan at The Connaught Hotel (London). Another defining point in my career was when I moved on to Le Soufflé at the Intercontinental Hotel (London) and worked under Peter Kromberg. It taught me hard work, integrity and most of all, respect for ingredients.

What made you make the big move from London to Melbourne in 1991?

My wife and I decided to work overseas, so we turned up at the New Zealand consulate and there was no one there. A sign on the door said it wasn’t open, so we headed for Australia House. Chefs were on the list of skills they were offering working visas for, so we quickly got married, arrived in Melbourne where I worked at the beautiful Burnham Beeches Country House and the rest as they say, is history.

I went from working long hours in busy London, where the weather was cold and grey, to working in the beautiful Dandenong Ranges, with an amazing array of produce and the Aussie relaxed attitude. I loved the lifestyle, attitude and the opportunities.

‘MasterChef Australia’ takes you on whirlwind tours across the globe. Tell us about some of your most memorable meals.

Sitting in the middle of the Italian Tuscan countryside with my family, eating a meal we had cooked ourselves from produce we had bought from the local markets. Lunch at The Fat Duck (West Berkshire, UK) with Matt (Preston) and George (Calombaris), it was 4 hours of foodie heaven. Mugaritz in San Sebastian, Spain, with my wife after getting lost for an hour and a half but when we got there it was worth it.

What are some of your favourite restaurants back home in Australia?

George has just opened Gazi, it embarrasses his Greek heritage in a fun way and I love the souvlakis. Eating a Vietnamese pho soup down on Victoria Street, Richmond and date night with my wife at The Smith in Prahran, where chef Michael Lambie continues to re-invent himself.

You should spread the word that we could do with some nice Indian restaurants because the ones we have in Australia now serve the old and out-dated typical, heavy north Indian cuisine. I’ve tried some south Indian dishes and I feel like that kind of food can do really well in Australia. I recently ate at a restaurant that plated pani puris delicately and I know that even though that’s food you eat on the streets every day, it’s very new and different for us.

How has ‘MasterChef Australia’ changed your life and career?

Family life has been hard at times with the schedule and we chose to move to Sydney for series two to four, and so that was a big change for my wife and daughter. Then just as they had fallen in love with Sydney, we moved back to Melbourne. But Melbourne is in our blood, we love the life we have there. For work, it has meant less time in the kitchen but some amazing opportunities to write books, travel, work with other great chefs like Heston (Blumenthal), Jamie (Oliver), René Redzepi.

What prompted you to sell your first restaurant, Fenix, earlier this year and what are you up to now?

Fenix was a big part of my life for 15 years, but when we had the opportunity to sell, it was a positive thing as I was ready for new challenges. It was hard, but exciting, and I am very proud of what we achieved. I still have the Boathouse on the river in Maribyrnong in Melbourne’s West, which is simpler food. And just recently I launched Big Kitchen Events (a catering service) with my friend and old sous chef, Brett May. The response has been exciting, and I am looking forward to taking the business to another level. I am also finishing my fourth book, about to film a TV pilot which I hope one of your networks will buy, and working as an ambassador for Citibank Australia, Brita Water, Ariston appliances and MasterFoods Herbs & Spices.

Salmon Rillettes with Little Toasts (from Gary Mehigan’s Comfort Food)

Ingredients

1 sourdough baguette, thinly sliced on the diagonal

80g unsalted butter, melted

200g salmon fillet, skin removed, pin-boned and cut into 5mm cubes

100g smoked salmon, cut into 5mm cubes

80g crème fraîche or sour cream

½ shallot, finely diced

2 tbsp chives, finely chopped

Finely grated zest and juice of ½ lemon

Freshly ground white pepper

Method

Pre-heat a fan-forced oven to 180 degrees Celsius. Brush the bread lightly with melted butter, then bake on a baking tray for 8 minutes or until golden brown and crisp and set aside. Mix the salmon, shallot, lemon zest, lemon juice and a pinch of freshly ground white pepper. Leave aside for 5 minutes and then mix in the smoked salmon, crème fraîche or sour cream and chives. Place a tablespoon of the salmon mixture on each of the little toasts and serve with Champagne.

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