“India embraced me like a food god,” he says with a broad smile, as we meet at Goma, at Radisson Mumbai, Goregaon. “I am very grateful for all the love that I receive in the country, wherever I go.”
Chef Gary Mehigan shot for season one of Masterchef Australia in 2009 and although he has moved on post season 11 of the popular food show – that has been running like a culinary anthem through India for years now – his association with the show is a badge of honour for him.
Having trained as a chef in Michelin-starred restaurants The Connaught and Le Souffle in London, Gary shifted in 1991 to Melbourne where he set up his first restaurant – the resoundingly successful Fenix in 2000. Followed The Boathouse in 2007. Cut to 2023. He is busier than the proverbial bee, shooting for TV shows, conducting a series of mega masterclasses with home chefs and aspiring foodies in multiple cities, and discovering a theatre of flavors in curious gourmet gospels across the melee of spices, street foods and superb menus that compose Indian culinary tales. Mega Festivals, his latest outing on the telly, for National Geographic India, airs on August 22.
Excerpts from a conversation:
What brought about your decision to move on and beyond Masterchef Australia post Season 11?
I promised my family I would continue, only if I loved doing it. See, I still love the idea of an honest home cook. The first season was memorable as it had genuine mums and dads who wanted to change careers, and had the hidden ingenuity to be able to do so. By the time we eased into season 11, things became far too professional for my liking, honestly. I was bored reading the endless pages mapping the recipe for the grand finale dessert. It became just too technical and arduous.
You wanted to be an engineer like your dad once. What was the turning point?
I remember dismantling my bike as a 14-year-old and then trying to put it together unsuccessfully. My father laughed and explained to me that perhaps I was not cut out to follow this profession, as I also fell short of patience. Looking back, sure. Working on a project for 3 to 4 months, as opposed to preparing a dish that meets with an instant applause from over 500 people in a restaurant – there is no better high. When I started out to become a chef – like my grandfather – it wasn’t considered a “manly” profession, as my friends were busy becoming bankers, pilots and architects. Thank God for the contemporary booming food scenario.
Something intriguing you have tasted recently in India?
From a garnish to a dish to a meal. Fermented mustard leaves. Ingenious! The buff preparation at The Bombay Canteen by Chef Shahzad Hussain was superlative. The masala chai with peppercorn, cardamom, and ginger at Goma, at Radisson Mumbai. The experience of sitting down and eating Onam sadya on the banana leaf at Thrikkakara temple in Kochi, where over 50,000 devotees were served meals in a couple of days.
As a chef, what personifies India for you?
The Raj Kachori I had in Jaipur. With its sizzling crispness, the tartish tamarind, the spicy belly, the cool curd…it is a delicious revelation, just like India.
Your love for all that is Indian is the mark of an Indophile…
Absolutely! I hope Prime Minister Narendra Modi confers an honorary citizenship to me. I love India.
What do you count as your biggest blessing?
The fact that I have been able to grow successfully, from being a chef to a restaurateur. Then successfully transitioned to television, and now travelling and chronicling my food journeys, and teaching young minds and home chefs new skills and techniques in the kitchen. It has been an incredibly rewarding journey so far.
A home chef competition brewing up has me sojourning 20 cities across India. The grand finale will be held in Mumbai, judged by me, and former Masterchef judges, friends and peers – George Calombaris, and Matt Preston. It promises to be a reunion of sorts.
A compulsive, non conformist wordsmith. A sybaritic connoisseur of all 'tis epicurean. An insatiable sybarite. An incurable book-chomper. For me, there is nothing more powerful than the excitement of shaping the written word. I simply live to write.