The master and his chefs
Chef Gary Mehigan on the complexity of Indian food and his new food show
I have always had this romantic idea that I am going to come home and my wife and I will cook together, and have a glass of wine, but that never happens, says Gary Mehigan, the English-Australian chef who is best known for being one of the three judges on MasterChef Australia.“She has a glass of wine and I end up cooking." Mehigan was in India last month to launch his new show, his first Indian production, Masters Of Taste With Gary Mehigan, on Fox Life.
In the show, Mehigan meets some of the country’s top chefs in Mumbai and New Delhi to explore their recipes, styles and techniques. “This was probably the first time when I dug my fingers in, properly understanding a technique, an ingredient or a cuisine," he says. For example, for episode 4 (which will be aired on 19 March), Mehigan met Zorawar Kalra at Farzi Café in Delhi and tasted his Dal Chawal Arancini. He also cooked orders at the restaurant.
India is in the middle of a food revolution, he says, and it is interesting to see what young chefs are doing as they try to find a balance between heirloom recipes and techniques, the influence of global food trends, and customers with an evolved palate who are not afraid of experimenting.
Every time Mehigan returns from India, he takes home some recipes. “When I first came here years ago and had dosa, I got hooked. Now I have my own take on dosa at home," he says. During his last visit in November, Mehigan discovered ponkh (green jowar) and hara chana (green chickpeas) for the first time. Mehigan loves the complexity and subtlety of flavours of Indian food, its regional variations, and the use of spices.
Working on the show has also helped him understand the importance of spices in Indian food. “When you read about the medicinal uses of spices and herbs, you realize there was a time when physicians and cooks used to work hand in hand. It makes me feel like I don’t know anything."
Mehigan describes his cooking style as eclectic. “Once upon a time, I was a specialist in French cuisine, now I am good at lots of other things and I enjoy that," he says. “Being able to make a delicious appam or a Vietnamese coleslaw...I am very comfortable in that space." He loves street food. “There is real skill and technique there. And a chance to meet people who are cooking the same dish 100 times a day in the same place over generations. It rivals some of the best experiences in the most expensive restaurants," he says.
Mehigan was born on England’s south coast. And his first memory of good food is of his grandfather’s cooking. “My father probably took a cheese sandwich to work every day. But my grandfather was the complete opposite: fun-loving, cooking up things. He would get me to taste things like fine chocolate," Mehigan recalls. Watching him was something Mehigan really enjoyed, and that set him on the path to becoming a chef. Today, he is best known for judging MasterChef Australia, alongside George Calombaris and Matt Preston. Has any of them ever thought of leaving the show? “After the fifth season," says Mehigan. “Because the joy is the pure pleasure in food. In series 5, they tried to change the format and focus on the personalities and the reality TV aspect of it rather than the food. But they realized their mistake very quickly," he recalls.
What about a MasterChef week in India? “That’s why I’m doing this show where I am showcasing Indian food," says Mehigan. “Every year I try to get MasterChef to India for the week abroad segment, and I am hoping it will happen soon."