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The return of the OG MasterChef trio

Former MasterChef Australia judges George Calombaris, Gary Mehigan, and Matt Preston spill the masala chai on all things delicious in India

(From left) Gary Mehigan, George Calombaris and Matt Preston.
(From left) Gary Mehigan, George Calombaris and Matt Preston.

It might be less than 24 hours since the Australian cricket team all but shattered a billion or so Indian dreams under our very noses with their six-wicket victory against the men in blue at the World Cup finals in Ahmedabad. But a sense of gloating is the last thing that I pick up from the three gentlemen from Australia seated in front of me on Monday. Noisily sipping, I may as well add, their masala chai just the way it should be.

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But then how could they gloat? For each, they say, is a die-hard lover of all things India. More so, in the realm of food. The raison d’etre that keeps bringing them back here.

For George Calombaris, Matt Preston and Gary Mehigan, India is much more than just the country with the largest viewership of MasterChef Australia. Yes, the same reality TV cookery show phenomenon that made the three former judges of the show household names here in India for a whopping 11 seasons. It also made them multi-hyphenates since then. While Calombaris and Mehigan moved on from being more than just chefs and judges with their TV shows and books, Preston effortlessly segued from his culinary critic and journalist roles to being an author and now food curator.

No big surprise then that the trio of friends are now collaborators on a project in association with Bengaluru-based food platform Conosh. One that was first birthed as a series of online masterclasses with a worldwide viewership during the lockdown. And one that sees them curate a series of ticketed seven course pop-up dinners and masterclasses in New Delhi (since over), Mumbai and Bengaluru over the course of eight days.

“There is not an iota of doubt that India is the most sophisticated food wonderland I’ve ever seen. Not just with what you guys have as your plethora of regional fare that is so diverse, but also to accept and savour international cuisines wholeheartedly,” says Mehigan. “We couldn’t have chosen a more appropriate place to begin, what I hope, will be a series of such pop-ups and masterclasses around the world.”

With dishes like Olive Oil Poached Tuna and Lemon Ricotta Raviolo, the menu, the trio tells me has been deliberately kept less Indian in flavours and presentation. But one that features dishes—some conceptualised individually and some as a collective—made using as much local produce as possible. “We really didn’t want to be kitsch or just have ‘Indian touches’ to the menu for the sake of it. What we dropped in, however, was some really great indigenous ingredients and products like a passion fruit wild honey from an apiary called Forest Garden Microfarms India, kalari cheese from Jammu (that goes into Calombaris’ Fried Cheese Saganaki) and a range of millets like the foxtail, jowar and bajra varieties to celebrate 2023 as the India-fronted International Year of Millets,” says Mehigan who is the self-admitted bigger Indophile of the three. What with him having visited India almost a dozen times this year alone.

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“Given Gary’s prowess with Indian food and culture, Matt and I were more than happy to let him steer the menu discussions that had been going on for almost six months till now,” admits Calombaris who might come across as reserved, even a tad recalcitrant, thus preferring to take the back seat at times. “But that’s not to say we’re not aware of certain cultural and religious dos and don’ts in India. Sensitivity and creativity were not mutually exclusive terms for us as we planned the menu. We’re not about to put a beef tartare on it for example. In fact, the tuna dish with tzatziki that we had was earlier meant to be raw, but we quickly nixed that idea.”

Calling the pop-up menu a happy confluence of food cultures, Preston—who’s clearly tripping over his favourite Indian ingredient of green cardamom in the chai—says that there was no way native Australian ingredients would not feature in some way of form. “For my Arabian Gulf Prawns dish, I’ve used the native Australian finger limes that add a certain zesty appeal. The perfect foil to the meatiness of the fat barbecued prawns” says Preston who jokes about how his suggested name for his carrot-fronted dish was quickly vetoed by the other two. “I wanted to call it ‘Seven Cs’. Given that it had carrots, curds, coriander and cumin and a few more ingredients whose names begin with the letter ‘c’.”

The aforementioned cultural sensitivity aspect is one overarching leitmotif I quickly notice that keeps popping up throughout the conversation. It even has a trickle down effect on the masterclasses that they’ve planned a day after the pop-up dinners. “Yes, it is an entirely eggless dessert masterclass with my Baklava Ice Cream Sandwich and Gary’s Australian Lamingtons that are to be taught,” says Calombaris. But it’s not just about keeping things eggless to cater to local tastes that tops this trip’s agenda for the trio. “We did realise that Indians prefer a punch of flavour and their food to be well seasoned,” says Mehigan. “This is why even though the dishes we’re serving aren’t Indian, we’ve brought in things like nutty sesame for texture, a sweet and sour Italian agrodolce sauce on the raviolo and a sauce made with the spicy Yemeni zhoug paste on the lamb dish.”

Just as I wrap up my interview with the trio, a dear friend who is a die-hard MasterChef Australia fan pings me with what she calls “a very important non-food question” she wants me to ask Preston on her behalf. “Where do you get your famous hot pink trousers from?” I reluctantly regurgitate the question that’s beaming on my phone screen. “Oh! Those I get tailored with fabric sourced from the furnishing section at IKEA,” says a nonchalant Preston amidst guffaws from his ever-amused friends turned collaborators.

Pop-up dinners:
Wednesday, 22 November, 7:30 pm at Taj Santacruz, Mumbai; Saturday, 25 November, 7:30 pm at Taj MG Road, Bengaluru

Thursday, 23 November, 10:30 am (4-hour masterclass) at Taj Santacruz, Mumbai; Sunday, 26th November, 10 am at Taj MG Road, Bengaluru

Raul Dias is a Mumbai-based food and travel writer.

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