MasterChef Australia judges - Gary Mehigan (left), George Calombaris (centre) and Matt Preston (right)
Image: Mexy Xavier
We’re waiting for the trio to finish up another meeting when they erupt in cheers, indulging in some good-natured ribbing over Australia’s cricket World Cup victory over India. Even off camera, you can tell that like the cast of Friends, Masterchef Australia’s star judges—Matt Preston, George Calombaris and Gary Mehigan—really are friends.
They don’t let go of a chance to poke fun at each other, to praise each other and tell anecdotes peppered with stories of each other’s families. After 11 seasons, however, the judges exited Masterchef Australia together in 2019, and the past four years have been eventful for them in different ways.
While Matt Preston has been working on a memoir, and has starred on reality food and dance shows and on radio— “talking about something other than food for the first time in years”, Gary Mehigan has written a book and also been in India a fair bit, working on a travel-based food show with the National Geographic, centered on the festivals of India. George Calombaris has had a tough few years, having lost his restaurant business in the aftermath of Covid-19. He faced some criticism for not paying his staff through the crisis, but has cleared his dues and gathered some important perspective.
“It was probably the best gift Covid gave me, because it made me bunked down with my family and made me really, really allow myself to purge all that anger and frustration that I had,” he tells Forbes India. “And then suddenly, I came out of that dark place into a bit of light, and went, hey, you know what, this could be a really exciting time for me if I embrace this new opportunity.”
The three chefs were in India recently for a partnership with food experience platform Conosh, through which they hosted sit-down dinners and masterclasses across Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru. Edited excerpts from an interview:
Q. Back when you started with Masterchef, reality TV was dominated by the aggressive judge (Simon Cowell, Gordon Ramsay) trope. Masterchef Australia came in with warm lighting and warmer judges. There was little focus on inter-personal strife or on sob stories, and the spotlight remained on the food. Was that a risk? Gary Mehigan: You know, it was perfect timing in Australia. It was a difficult time. The world had just come out of the global financial crisis. People weren’t feeling confident then, and this was real, authentic, made people feel good. You’re sitting in front of us now—it’s who we are, on and off camera.
Matt Preston: We don’t talk strategy. When we sat down, we spoke about judges we respected, and it was Randy [Newman] from American Idol, or Marcia Hines from the British version. They were all supportive and warm, and we all come from a place where, if someone cooks for us, we say ‘thank you’. We’re really glad you fed us, and that’s the attitude we took into the first tasting. We’re lucky that the production team saw something different here. We ended up giving a contestant a hug in our second tasting, because we were genuinely happy with the dish, and the editors saw that as life-affirming and ran that as the first edition.
I remember when there was a dish with stuffed calamari, and the chef had forgotten to remove the olive pit. We were going to do a big reveal, and there was a whole build up to it. I remember the production team came down and said, ‘Wow, that was 45 minutes of edge-of-your-seat television, about an olive pit’. That’s when we realised that the food is the hero of the show, that that’s where the drama would come from.
The show was predicted to be a disaster. It had three fat, ugly judges [laughs], it was only about cooking, and the contestants weren’t there for ‘va va voom’ effect—they were ordinary people you might know from school. It came after Big Brother, which was a massive success—it should have been a failure by all practical counts. Strangely, all those negatives are what made it real and authentic. Also read: Animal rights advocate Pamela Anderson will now host a plant-based cooking show
Q. Why do you think the show was so popular in India—even more so than the homegrown franchise? Gary Mehigan: When it came out in India, I remember being asked, ‘Is Australia really like that? Is it that diverse, and do people talk to each other like that?’
There is an uncomfortable reality to a country like India, that’s got a 5,000-year-old history and a very complex, multi-religious set up, with a complicated history and caste system. There seemed to be a sort of relief in the way we treated our contestants. People said, “You’re so respectful of them” – nobody was putting them down, nobody was shouting at anybody. And that was really us. It’s an extension of how George and I treat our employees at our restaurants, and from Matt just being a good human being.
We don’t want to be horrible when someone puts so much of their effort into making something and giving it to you with such high expectations.
Matt Preston: It was also always about the food, never about the person, and George would be the master of turning the question around and asking the contestant, ‘How do you feel about the dish?’. And they would always be the tougher judge. They’d know what went wrong, and would honestly tell us, and then George would say, maybe next time you try that, and it will be better the next time they cook it, and we’d celebrate that.
George Calombaris: We had the beautiful [Italian chef] Antonio Carluccio on the show and struck a great friendship. We got to travel on a boat with him from Amsterdam to Budapest, which was so much fun. I got yelled at for trying to deglaze a risotto with wine [laughs].
But he said to us these very poignant words: You guys have a responsibility to make sure you do things right, because everyone’s watching. We took that seriously. Masterchef opened so many doors for us, we were with everyone from Prince Charles to the Dalai Lama. Moments that make you go, wow, we did that, we were a cog in that wheel. It was a great team, doing great things.
Q. The industry really suffered during Covid. It also operates on wafer-thin margins. What’s the secret to building a sustainable restaurant business? George Calombaris: Being back after being on the bench for a couple of years for me—it’s difficult. There’s no room for error. You’ve got to build great culture. Listen to your customer and have constant conversations with your suppliers. You’ve got to buy right, be creative, shine above the rest. There’s so many places that you’ve got to look at. But at the end of the day, what’s important, just like Masterchef, is to be authentic.