Five Minutes with MasterChef Australia’s Gary Mehigan

MasterChef Australia is in its third week of the season. We’ve said goodbye to Boys Versus Girls and hello to Kids Week. We recently had a great chat with host and judge Gary Mehigan about the new season, the challenges of filling a lunch box and talking kids into liking vegies, and the tricks he’s tried to convince his own daughter, 12-year-old Jenna, that sweet potatoes really aren’t that bad.  

Gary Mehigan TNQ: How are you enjoying the new season of MasterChef so far?

It feels good. A lot of people ask us, do we still enjoy it? And the answer is yes. I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t enjoy it, and still feeling as passionate and interested in it as always. The three of us are very lucky, because we’re the ultimate foodies – there’s no denying that we like our food. We get to meet all of our peers and colleagues, go to interesting places and stay on top of what’s on trend. It’s a really lovely experience, not only for the contestants but for us, too. My dad was a teacher, and every year he’d get a new bunch of students – and on MasterChef we do the same. I feel like a bit of a teacher these days. We get a new bunch of kids, regardless of whether they’re 20 or 55, and off we go again. It’s lovely. And we sort of recalibrate, from the highs of the season before where we’ve dealt with the top two and they were cooking amazing food, having learnt so much through their journey, and now we return to the beginning again. We’ve gone from being a little stressed, because it’s the fifth year and there’s a lot of pressure, but I’ve I watched it and laughed, and there have been bits where the little hairs on the back of my neck stood on end, or I had a little tear, and I thought, it’s good! It seems much looser; there’s this lovely natural commentary from the contestants, and they’re capturing that and putting it in so I’m really pleased.

Q: This week is Kids’ Week, with the lunch box challenge already down and the canteen challenge to come tonight. What can we expect?

The main difference with the show this year is we’re having theme weeks, so we kicked off with Boys Versus Girls for the first two weeks, then we jump into Kids Week, or Italy Week, or Middle Eastern Week, or Fast Food Week. And it’s a nice way of getting the contestants and the viewers locked into a theme and exploring it. The Kids Week canteen challenge is fabulous. We went to Essendon Grammar and cooked for – it was supposed to be 400 kids, but it felt like 800! And we had Shannon Bennett and Curtis Stone leading the two teams – they are ex-students of the school and we included their ex-home economics teacher, and it was fascinating! Great school, great kids, and the contestants cooked some great food.

Q: Sunday night’s lunch box challenge definitely stumped a couple of the contestants. What do you think makes a good school lunch?

I reckon the lunch box has to be the hardest thing. I’m a chef and my daughter is 12, and making her lunch box is a nightmare. We all know of kids who eat everything – everyone has a friend with a child who eats everything, and you can put little batons of capsicum and carrot in their lunch box and they’re going to demolish it. But my daughter is completely different, so I don’t know what the answers are, but I did learn a couple of things from the challenges. Rishi for example, made lollipops with liver, and the kids judging it loved it and I thought, Wow! That’s the thing – kids love lollipops, and you can make those lollipops out of anything, they can be sweet or savoury. It was a little lesson in how to take something that kids find yuck, and turn it into something they find yum. And I think a lot of it is visual, which is really interesting. What do I do? I try to put lots of little things in the lunch box so Jenna can pick and choose. And she has some odd tastes: she loves olives, she loves salty things like salami, and dips like hummus. So I’ll put bread in there, and some prosciutto, and some olives and a dip. I add fruit, and some cheese. Then I try to vary those components, to try and keep it interesting. But she’s also very fussy, so when I offer to make little spring rolls or quiches or tarts, she says, No, I don’t like it because I don’t want to eat cold pastry – which is a pain!

Q: The second challenge on Sunday night was making Brussels sprouts taste great. Any tips on selling vegies to kids?

If you have a fussy kid, sometimes you just need to disguise things. I use a Microplane, so instead of chopping carrots or onions, I Microplane them and they cook into whatever I’m making. So if you’re doing spaghetti bolognese or meatballs or a stew, grate all the vegetables, including the onions (because for some reason, children can find the smallest bit of onion or leek and accuse you of spoiling the whole dinner) and they can’t find them. It’s almost like a puree. And when my daughter was growing up, I used a lot of purees. I found that I could puree cauliflower and put it in banana bread, or puree carrot and it use it to replace the egg when making meatballs. It was a great way of getting her to eat vegetables and she’d have no idea. But I’ve never forced the point. I’ve found that as she’s gotten older, from being a little toddler when she would happily eat smashed pumpkin, then going through a phase where she hated it, and now at 12 she’s starting to be a little bit more experimental. We went out for dinner last night, and we were gobsmacked because she ate crispy, fried brains!

Q: What do you think of adapting family meals to suit fussy eaters?  

We have rule in our house: you don’t have to eat it, but you have to try it. I figure at some point when Jenna revisits a food, she might like it. I’ve been cooking with sweet potato, baking them whole in the skin in the oven for about 45 minutes to an hour, and busting them open and filling them with ricotta or goat’s cheese, or nuts and raisins, or grating some manchego [hard sheep’s milk cheese] over the top – and now she likes sweet potato, out of the blue.  I think it’s always worth revisiting a flavour, and doing it a different way.

Q: What three words best describe your family kitchen?

It’s the hub of the house, it’s where we always spend our time. It’s an emotive place for me, it’s the warmest place of the house.  And it’s the creative part of the house.

Q: What three words best describe the MasterChef kitchen?

It’s a place of learning, intensity, emotion, laughter and tears. It’s a place of challenge, and it engenders a little fear and apprehension in people – it has history. I’m sure, in some ways, it affects the contestants knowing that this was the place where Adriano Zumbo unveiled the V8 Vanilla Cake – so if they ever see him walk in, they know something is about to happen. It’s a food bubble, and a place of shared knowledge; when people ask me about the contestants’ experience, I say it’s shared because they learn as much from each other as they learn from us.