Gary Mehigan, English-Australian chef and restaurateur
Growing up in England, Gary Mehigan wanted to be an architect or an engineer. Those were the “manly” professions back then, and since his father was an engineer too, it swung his career choice conclusively. When he was 14, Mehigan dismantled his bike to clean it, but just couldn’t put it back together. It didn’t help that his father had a laugh over his assembling skills, so he threw the bike and topped it with a tantrum. “My father realised I didn’t have the patience to be an engineer. He took me aside and asked, ‘Are you sure you want to be an engineer? Have you considered that you actually love what your granddad does, and you could do that?’”
Mehigan’s maternal grandfather was a chef, and his escape from the “plain vanilla food” that his mother would make. “Granddad once made a cabbage dish that my sister and I lapped up, so he told my mother that the kids love cabbage. But when my mother made it, it was the most disgusting plate of cabbage ever,” he recalls over a cup of masala tea at Goma, the Asian restaurant at Radisson Goregaon in Mumbai. “Later, mum told us that when she was growing up, her father would be at work, so she never learnt to cook from him.”
Culinary proficiency might have skipped a generation in the Mehigan family, but when it made a comeback, it had a generous sprinkling of stardust. Mehigan, 56, is a household name not only in his adopted country, Australia, but also in India, via the cooking reality show Masterchef Australia that he hosted for 11 seasons along with George Calombaris and Matt Preston. “I believe there are reruns even now because people say I look a bit older, and I have to tell them that that was me from years ago. I quit the show in 2019,” he guffaws.
But Mehigan isn’t just a celebrated anchor. Having trained as a chef in Michelin-starred restaurants The Connaught and Le Souffle in London, he moved to Melbourne in 1991, where he opened his first restaurant Fenix in 2000 and The Boathouse in 2007. He’s moved on from both, and post-Masterchef has spent quite a bit of his time in India, filming for TV shows. His latest for the National Geographic, Mega Festivals, will premiere on August 22.
In Mumbai to host a masterclass for Conosh, a community of food lovers, Mehigan sat down for a chat with Forbes India
. Edited excerpts: Q. Welcome back to India. What are you up to these days?
My association with Conosh brings me back to India quite often. That started in the middle of the pandemic, when we did a number of online classes. I had no idea what it really was till somebody told me that thousands of people were watching me live, making sourdough in my living room and kitchen. I was like, what? That’s how my association started, and I've gone back and forth about seven or eight times since September. Our first live events were in Bengaluru, Delhi and Mumbai, and then we went to Chandigarh and Hyderabad. So, yes, we're spreading ourselves around a bit.
What I love about Conosh is it’s a network of home cooks and home bakers, so it’s a bit like Masterchef. We’ve got fabulous stuff coming up, where we are taking Manish Mehrotra [of Indian Accent] to Melbourne for a pop-up. We don't have anything like him in Melbourne or even Australia, and he will help cement the idea of the changing face of Indian cuisine.
Also read: I feel overwhelmed with television or public speaking. Books help me express myself: Vikas KhannaQ. You've criss-crossed India, from Ladakh to Kerala, Nagaland to Mumbai, and everything in between. What have been some of your most abiding memories of the country?
Many, many. For example, sitting down and eating Onam sadya at the Thrikkakara temple in Kochi, where 30,000 to 40,000 people have been served meals over two days. Cooking a little bit in their kitchens with their chef, big cauldrons of payasam and coconut chutneys, and that rice with that beautiful crimson tip. As part of the filming, you want a bit of action, so you start getting involved and all of a sudden you realise the deep devotion and commitment of the people—as a tourist, you just touch the surface, working on it takes you to a deeper level.
Once, sitting on one side of me was a wealthy family, and I asked them why they came? And they said to give back and donate. On the other side was a young man, who had come because he was on his own since he’s moved down here. He said this connected him to the community. It made me realise these festivals foster throughout the year a wonderful sense of belonging and mutual understanding of what it means to be Indian or part of a community.
What I remember most from the same festival was that I was standing on the banks to watch the Nehru boat race, having pushed my way, very politely, through sweaty bodies and what have you. And then people just came and stood next to me, in what was my personal space, which isn’t normal in Australia. And before long they had their arms around me, and were cheering with me. And it felt, wow, this is indeed the best of humanity. Then, when I went back to Australia, I felt strangely distanced from everyone.
And then there is celebrating Holi in Brijbhoomi—which goes on for 40 days. You can ask a tourist what they feel about it, and they’ll tell you crazy and colourful; for me, it’s about devotion, community and the sense of belonging. There was a young guy who was working on the crew. He told me he was based in Mumbai for many years, then moved back to Mathura in the lockdown and never went back. He said, moving back, he realised he was missing the sense of belonging, and what his devotion counted for. These are the kind of experiences I take away. Q. So you’ve moved out of a restaurant kitchen…
To a world kitchen, or an Indian kitchen rather. People ask me what's the obsession with India? When I first came here, in 2011 probably, on behalf of the Australian high commission, to now, the perception of India has changed from being kind of being in awe of the colourful chaos, as they used to call it, to having a deeper understanding of the complexity of a country that’s bound together through one moment in history in 1947. Regardless of where you go, and regardless of the kind of politics that is going on. You can be in Nagaland, where they are fiercely Naga, but they still feel fiercely Indian. How does that work? I find it fascinating. Q. All these corners of India that you speak of also contribute to the diversity of Indian cuisine, beyond the homogenous concept of butter chicken that represents Indian food elsewhere. How do you think such hyperlocal cuisines can be showcased to the world?
Look at what social media has done to your industry and ours. It's enabled a transfer of information that no one could have imagined even five years ago. It's instantaneous. People talk about predicting trends, and I tell them pick up your phones and have a look—you can see sitting here what Noma in Copenhagen had served for dinner last night.
I was with the nomadic tribe of the Changpas on the Changthang plateau (in Ladakh) a week ago. And, you know, the first thing they do is check their phone. People have an insatiable appetite for something different, so if they discover something like the thukpa, a traditional soup with noodles that leans into Asia than the south of India, they are naturally interested. Q. In this age of social media, how has the role of a chef in a restaurant changed? Do you think social media is consuming the art of cooking?
Look, I've got a young daughter, and I'd like her to go out more than spend time on the phone. But you know what? I’m not being consumed by looking at countless things that don't matter. I make a conscious effort to read more and when I’m researching, even for my own dishes, I look at my library that may have 800 books, but I don't even know where to start. So I pick up my phone as it’s easier to find a recipe on my phone. And I can find any recipe that I want. It's a real transition. Also read: Massimo Bottura: Chef with a cause Q. But do you think the focus on social media can trigger a glut for likes, and the restaurant industry can get obsessed by that?
As a restaurant, you have to do everything in your power to stick your head above everybody else. It's an extremely competitive business, it’s ruthless. But in it there’s the nuts and bolts of what you do, which is cooking. And I think social media has improved the hospitality business by raising customer expectations.
Once upon a time, if you went to a college in India, you’d hear students talking about international cuisine. We talk about Indians getting upset about clubbing Indian cuisine in a homogenous lump, well, Indians were doing the same with foreign cuisines. What is an international menu really? Is it north Italian, Sicilian, Sardininan, Tuscan? But now this is disappearing because people are burrowing into stuff. Look at what happened during the lockdown. People were burrowing into sourdough, into babka, into panettone. I think it's fabulous.
When I started training, I had to rely on my hard work and my chefs imparting a recipe, and I had to earn the right to that recipe. Some old chefs still think that it’s good, I don’t. I think sharing of information is good.
I love social media. I can pick up my phone and I can see what the top 50 restaurants in the world are serving on their menus. Before the lockdown, I went to Central in Lima, selected the top restaurant in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants this year. It was the most sensational meal I've ever had in my life. With social media, I can be anywhere in the world and see what Central is serving on the menu. And it's up for critique, so social media keeps you on your toes. This is a fascinating period of transfer of information and ideas. Q. Traditional vs modern cuisine: Which side of the divide do you stand on? Can modern cuisine sometimes get too modern?
I don't believe it. I know a lot of chefs that don’t want anything to change. For example, a few years ago I cooked with Rocky Mohan and he's a fierce traditionalist. And I tell him it’s okay Rocky, those recipes will always be there. They're the building blocks of your cuisine. What I love is that chefs, particularly young ones, presenting ingredients and recipes in a different way, or with a slightly different perspective, yet ending up with the same flavours. Such approaches refresh interest in the cuisine.
And don't forget those recipes that you call traditional were new and creative once upon a time, even if it was 200 or 300 years ago. So, if someone tells me you can't change something in a hurry, I go, well, where did it come from? Who brought it here? Look at biryani. It’s not like it goes back 200,000 years. Take butter chicken. It's a relatively recent invention, but some people fiercely feel that it can’t be changed. Come on, it hasn't been around that long.
I think the real threat, if we're being honest, is what’s underneath that—what foodies call provenance, sustainability, diversity. I feel we’re just losing it. Where recipes do change is where, maybe, a particular dish was made with a particular variety of rice that is now no longer grown. That’s a loss. Why doesn't my apple pie taste the same as the one when I was younger? Probably because those apples now are one of the many varieties that are sold globally rather than being something that was unique to your village or your area. There's a whole lot of diversity issues underpinning supply, that as consumers we're forced to use.