How Gary Mehigan cooked up a colourful career
MasterChef judge Gary Mehigan on cooking, traffic congestion and raising kids.
I wanted to be everything but a chef – it wasn’t on my radar initially. At school, my friends and I talked about being architects, firemen, policemen and lawyers. Mum’s dad was a chef in London and he was this warm, energetic person who cooked beautiful stuff and when I became interested in the profession, he did everything in his power to put me off.
At 15 I got myself a part-time job at a little hotel on Hayling Island where I was born, off England’s south coast. I loved being part of that community and the head chef was king and drove a fancy sports car. After finishing school, I enrolled at college to learn how to become a chef and three years later I went to London.
The transition from college to work was brutal. It was a hectic, authoritarian, hierarchical organisation deep in the dungeons of the Connaught Hotel which was built in the late 1800s. But, for the first time, I saw black truffles, brown crabs, pheasant, partridge and celeriac.
Excitement and fear of failure drove me. I worked 14 hours a day and did 10 days on and four days off. I’d sleep for two of those four days. At the Connaught, you had to earn the right to be shown a recipe and then everyone in the kitchen in authority tasted it. Everything had to be perfect.
I came to Australia in 1991, just to travel. Initially my wife, Mandy, and I thought of Canada, but it wasn’t on the culinary radar and I’d worked with Australians who said I had to go to Melbourne. And I fell in love with the city by the second day. I love the laneways, bars and restaurants and the food hubs like Footscray, Richmond, and Sydney Road with its Greek, Lebanese, Indian, Sri Lankan and Tibetan cuisine.
But I don’t love the traffic. A big challenge for Melbourne is coping with the city’s growth. I hope we don’t change the beauty of our tree-lined streets and parks. I don’t love Docklands with its big open spaces that are harsh in winter and summer. And what will the apartment developments look like in 20 or 30 years? Have the city planners got it right?
I love motorbikes. As a poor chef it was the way to get around town. In six years in London I came off my bike about five times but they were low speed with minimal injuries. I have three bikes now and sometimes I commute on the bike to try and beat the traffic. I go to the racetrack and Phillip Island and do track days and race, but I’ve always been a very, very careful rider.
MasterChef has been an incredible experience. I think partly why it works is because George, Matt and I are the biggest food nerds on the planet. When we got to season six George said, “I think this is going to keep going for a while”. Last year the three of us went on a boys’ tour to celebrate 10 years. We were still talking to each other at the end of it.
When someone comes up and says, “I’ve been watching you on MasterChef since I was a kid”, that’s pretty special. That’s when you realise the impact the show has had. The series began at a time when good food became important in Australia. People understood that to cook is to care and that it’s important to care about the ingredients you use and what you put in your body to nurture yourself and the people around you.
When you’re a restaurateur and chef, it’s hard to look outside. So I’m loving this stage of life because now I’m involved in books, radio, cooking demos, hosting events and I’ve got a podcast, A Plate to Call Home, where I have in-depth conversations with people who love what I love. Taking Nigella into a studio and having a chat about foody stuff and her story was the ultimate gig.
I started boxing four years ago. I walked into a North Melbourne boxing gym and said, “can you teach a chubby middle-aged man how to box?’’. I’d let myself go and thought I should do something about it. I hope small improvements will keep me healthy.
Mandy and I met through a good friend when we were 18. Our daughter, Jenna, is in Year 12 so it’s all about supporting her this year. She’s very centred and responsible and I’m very proud of her. I don’t care whether she’s a doctor, lawyer or tree surgeon but I want her to find whatever makes her happy.
MasterChef airs on Channel Ten. A Plate to Call Home podcasts are free and available through the Apple Store and PodcastOne.