Up close with George and Gary
by Priya Bala | Editor, PoshVine.com
It was, without doubt, the equivalent of shaking Sachin Tendulkar’s hand for the food show addict. I’ve done my share of interviewing film stars and celebrity chefs, but the prospect of lunch with MasterChef Australia judges George Calombaris and Gary Mehigan was exciting in a way that meeting Antonio Carluccio or Kollywood superstar Vikram hasn’t been. Blame it on the power of today’s television. Or, perhaps it’s just the way these guys are on TV: warm, involved, passionate about food, straightforward, energetic, witty and real.
They came across as all that up close, too. How lucky was I to be invited by Abhijit and Shruti Saha to meet theMasterChef Australia judges over lunch for a small group at Caperberry on Saturday! George and Gary had already toured Bombay and Delhi as part of Oz Fest, the biggest ever Australian cultural festival to be held in India, and were visibly tired when they walked in. Jetlag and back-to-back public appearances can do that. That didn’t, however, stop them from diving right into the lunch table conversation with all the energy we see them display on the show.
Told that we wished Matt Preston had come along too, George said, ‘Yeah, he’s a Bollywood star isn’t he?” Did they anticipate the adulation they’ve encountered everywhere they’ve been in India? No, they said, modestly, but we know better. The success of MasterChef Australia is a phenomenon in recent TV history and George said it was because the show “ticked all the right boxes”.
I said to Gary that in India, people who’ve never even seen a cut of pork belly or beef Wellington, leave alone tasting the stuff, were entranced by the show. “Oh, it’s the same in Australia,” he said. “In many homes, it’s still meat-and-potatoes every day. And they sit up and are amazed at the produce and the cuisines they see on MasterChef.” And we thought they were all dining on egg yolk ravioli and baby beets!
In Bombay and Delhi, George and Gary had, perhaps, what was their first taste of real Indian food. George said he loved the samosas in Old Delhi and the kheer served warm. “I ate the samosa and I thought, it’s nothing like what I’ve been eating back in Australia.” Gary agreed that despite the profusion of Indian restaurants in Australian cities, they still remain curry houses, serving the popular – and cliched—version of Indian food. “We’ll need innovators who can come in and take Indian food to the next level,” Gary said. On the show, they’ve tasted good Indian food from Kumar and Dalvinder. At this point in the conversation, Gary’s trademark humour kicked in and he recalled the time they’d asked Kumar, who’s Sri Lankan, what his signature style was, and he said, `French’!
While Gary enjoyed a jackfruit biryani he tasted in Delhi, George was impressed by the jelebi. “One always takes away inspirations from travelling,” George said. “And for me, possibly, the jelebi tops the list. Not in its exact form, but the fermentation, the form, the texture… I might do something with those things.” He does love to play with the classics, as was evident with the deconstructed Greek salad he set as a challenge, including a black olive sponge, spherifications, mousse and foam. “When all the ingredients are in season and at their peak, I do serve a traditional Greek salad in my restaurants,” said George, who insists he’s a chef first and always. “But I also like to take things and play around with them, exercise my creativity.”
Gary is in love with what little South Indian fare he’s tasted and is determined to know more. “I love the coconut-flavoured curries, the turmeric, the spices,” he said. The fact that spicy food makes George’s head sweat is a joke amongst them.
There’s an unmistakable camaraderie between the two who’ve been associates for many years and have also authored two books together. So how did they, along with Matt Preston, get chosen to be judges for MasterChef season 1, of which they made such a great success? “Our looks, can’t you tell?” George said, without a moment’s hesitation.
Whatever the selection criteria, there’s no denying that their engagement with the MasterChef contestants and how they handle those who shine and those who falter is one of the keys to the success of the show. “We do a lot of coaching and mentoring,” Gary said, “ and not just in cooking skills.” He mentioned season 4 participant Mindy who got stuck in a groove and was coming up with what she thought were the acceptable responses. “I had to pull her aside and tell her to let her real personality emerge and it worked,” he explained.
And then he let us in on an inside detail. “Of course, when someone is eliminated, we always say, `We’re so sorry to see you go, blahblahblah’. With most contestants the regret is genuine. But, occasionally, behind the scenes there’s a little pump of the fist and a `Yay, he/she’s gone!’ There are those odd ones, who don’t fit in, who are constantly complaining. We’re glad to see them go.”
I was not in the least glad to see Gary and George go. Oftentimes, the writer finds the lustre of screen idols and distant stars diminish up close. Not so, with these two rock stars from Down Under, I assure you.