From Bengaluru’s weather to Kerala’s beef fry — all essentials under the sun with the OG Masterchefs of Australia

Former judges of Masterchef Australia, Gary Mehigan and Matt Preston are in India for a ticketed curated seven-course pop-up dinner and masterclass.

ByRama Ramanan | Fathima Ashraf

Published Nov 27, 2023 | 8:00 AM Updated Nov 27, 2023 | 4:58 PM

Gary Mehigan, Matt Preston & George Calombaris (Supplied)

If virtuosity, laughter and zest for life are a few good things that money can’t buy, then Gary Mehigan, Matt Preston and George Calombaris form the tripod on which these life essentials rest.

For the last eight days, food connoisseurs in New Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru have been mapping a visible high-voltage excitement, thanks to this trio’s bolting presence for a specially curated pop-up dinner.

On an overcast Friday afternoon, Mehigan and Preston sit down for coffee and a freewheeling conversation with South First at the business centre of Taj MG Road, Bengaluru to discuss their pop-up, love for India, comfort food, and food writing.

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A collaborative effort

“How’s it going?”

“It’s going really well. We have fed over 900 people already; 400 people per city. We have dinner tomorrow and a masterclass after that. It’s been such a warm welcome. We are getting a chance to be back in India. It’s been a lovely reintroduction,” says Mehigan, former judge of MasterChef Australia, author and restaurateur.

 

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The multi-hyphenate trio are currently in India for a collaborative project with Bengaluru-based food platform Conosh. The series entails ticketed seven-course pop-up dinners and masterclasses in New Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru over eight days. Currently in their last leg in Bengaluru, Calombaris, however, had to return to Australia for personal reasons.

While Bengaluru will miss having the original trio, Preston and Mehigan, however, are enthusiastic to ensure Calombaris’ absence doesn’t douse the excitement.

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Coming back to India

Dressed in a white kurta shirt, Mehigan’s leisurely demeanour hints at his comfort with interviews by Indian journalists.

“I think you have seen more of India and Indian culture and food than most Indians have,” we joke.

Not feeling constrained to admit this reality, Mehigan agrees.

Outside of India, everybody sees India as one, he says, adding that his Australian friends too routinely ask him about India’s charm.

 

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It’s the diversity, for Mehigan. “What we have in Australia is a fairly narrow band of Indian food. We get great dosa, we get great North Indian cuisine. But if I showed thukpa to them (local Australians), they wouldn’t know” he shares.

Circling back to the question, he says, “It’s not just the outside perception. It’s also the perception within India. A lot of Indians don’t know how diverse their cuisines are.”

Preston, wearing a navy blue shirt with the brand Conosh imprinted on it, teamed with a white and blue cravat, reveals he first visited India in 2005. Bengaluru was part of his itinerary back then. “I have some friends here and there’s a sense of joy when you travel to a new city. There is such a dramatic difference in language, food, attitude, and climate etc. I love how green it is here,” he shares.

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Bengaluru days

“But India’s hot,” we tell them.

Laughing in unison, Preston and Mehigan exchange weather notes with us, detailing their struggle with dry heat in their homeland. “The heat is fine in India. The humidity is what we struggle with,” they admit.

“We love Bengaluru because it’s got the most consistent climate. Even when it’s sweaty in Mumbai and Delhi, the weather here is pretty nice,” they say, probably resonating with the sentiment of Bengalureans.

We are curious to know what they ate for lunch.

 

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Preston instantly pulls out his phone, opens his Instagram story and shows us a picture of velvety soft idlis and Guntur chicken. Dinner will be at Bengaluru’s blue-eyed chef Manu Chandra’s Lupa on MG Road, they reveal. There’s also Rameshwaram Cafe on their must-visit during their weekend in the Silicon Valley of India.

“Please do check out The Filter Coffee, too,” we tell them.

Mehigan appears to be still thinking about our earlier question.

“I was in Kerala last year for two weeks. We went to Munnar, Thekkady, and Kumarakom, where we tried all these wonderful dishes. When I talk to other Indian friends in Delhi and Mumbai, they have no idea what I’m talking about. You don’t know what your indigenous cuisines are,” he points out.

We can’t deny it.

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North versus South flavours

In a diverse land like India which houses a multiverse of regional cuisines, reconciling with the local palate and flavours can be a complicated task.

 

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The north of India relies heavily on strong and pungent blends of flavours. South India, on the other hand, is known to encourage food that evokes the senses in a cleaner vein.

We are, of course, happy to hear their preference.

“The flavours of South India are very attractive to an Australian palate. They are fresh, clean, and have a lot of aromatic spices. The food here has simple spicing that’s easily identifiable. But, some are not. For instance, beef fry in Kerala is really hard-spiced. I think it’s the freshness and use of aromatics that makes the difference. Also, the variations of using rice — everything from puttu and idiyappam to appam, dosa and idli is fascinating,” Mehigan elaborates.

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Making a case for spices

But the Indian spice has a reputation to make many a foreign brow sweat, we point out, as our cuppa arrives. Mehigan prefers that Preston respond to this question, perhaps given the former’s frequent visits and the subsequent familiarity with Indian spices.

 

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Preston’s quick to announce that his Indian condiment box is anchored in cumin seeds, green cardamom and kasuri methi. “Because it goes with everything. We use these spices and experiment; we do stupid things with them. We are not tightly bound to use them in any conventional way,” he laughs.

Aware of the increasing Indian diaspora in Melbourne, Mehigan briefs us about the presence of two popular Indian grocery stores in his city. But what’s delightful for him is having local manufacturers offering Indian produce.

“We can even buy fresh idli and dosa batter,” he says.

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Expense versus experience

Meeting the original trio for a curated pop-up and masterclass is a dream to be treasured on its own for most Indians who are MasterChef Australia devouts. But the cost was a deal-breaker for many.

“Conosh has gone above and beyond in terms of pulling this whole tour together. When you consider the logistics — six dinners and three masterclasses, bringing us three sous chefs from Australia. We have put together a squad of young chefs because when you hop from hotel to hotel, the intensity of the tour means we have to break the team in two,” details Mehigan.

Everyone arrives and prepares the first dinner. Then, half the team is sent to the next hotel to start prepping.

“It is a logistics nightmare. And that costs. The transport of equipment, transport of teams, coordination of everything that’s happening within the team. We would love to do it at a different level,” Mehigan explains.

Last year, the trio accomplished a similar event for 2,000 people, but it was cheaper, Preston discloses.

“But here the masterclasses are up close and personal. It’s more like a meet and greet. It’s an interesting challenge. If you go to the movies, the movie stars aren’t there taking pics with you. You don’t expect that connection. What we have done online in the past is much cheaper. It’s a one-off experience. People have told us that this is an utter dream. And it’s really lovely. Some people have saved up for a month to come to this, which is amazing,” he informs.

Added to that is the volume of luggage, their manager divulges. “We had to bring almost 200 kilos of books from Australia,” she adds.

This is perhaps explanatory to every epicure who felt disappointed by the pricing.

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A symphony from Australia

The menu is different for every city. The team has been fine-tuning it to make the service smoother. But did they feel marooned by any ingredient restrictions in the two cities so far? The Mumbai dinner, they say, had 60 per cent vegetarians.

“For a dinner of 150, we had to plan for 90+ vegetarians. And we had five Jains. The restrictions make the food interesting. When we don’t have as many ingredients to cook with, it forces creativity,” Preston asserts.

 

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Learning is part of the job. They are serving dishes that’ve been fine-tuned in four different ways.

“We are very conscious of not being kitsch. I’m not going to feed South Indian flavours to a South Indian audience. It would be suicidal,” laughs Mehigan.

On their part, the trio have brought Australia’s indigenous blood limes and finger limes. There’s also vegemite.

“But, we also use things we find along the way. For this pop-up, we have included passion fruit wild honey from an apiary called Forest Garden Microfarms India, kalari cheese from Jammu, and a range of millets,” Mehigan shares.

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Beyond the studio, in their home kitchen

When it’s about cooking at home, are they mind-boggled?

Mehigan enjoys eating at home. A good roast chicken is his comfort food. “We call it a dog-walking chicken. You put the chicken on the rotisserie, it gives you exactly an hour. That’s enough to walk your dog, come back, feed them and have the chicken. My daughter loves the Hong Kong version of dan dan noodles. As a family, we also love Korean barbeque chicken. Now my daughter also loves the dal tadka, dal chawal etc. I cook at home a lot,” he says detailing his kitchen duties.

For Preston, too, it’s a good roast chicken, but the one his mother used to cook. “That’s close to my heart. My boys like risotto. My wife likes to make Gary’s red wine stew. I think, for us, comfort food is anything you can hold a hot bowl of,” he shares.

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The ‘write’ and wrong of food critique

Aware of Preston’s avatar as a food critic, journalist and author, we seek advice on good food writing.

“The essence is always writing for the reader and not for the restaurant. Professionalism means you don’t make things excessively good or excessively bad. Because what you write should be what you experienced. It has to be entertaining, and it has to make an effort to draw comparisons with other places and experiences. When you are reviewing a place, you are telling people where to spend their money,” says the wise one.

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The one where food meets fiction

Having grown up on a staple of Enid Blyton’s enticing food descriptions of picnic lunches and midnight feasts, we can’t deny the ability of fiction to cheer us up in the most surprising ways.

We had to ask: which fictional character would you cook for?

Visibly stumped by this unexpected question, the duo engage in banter and some memory marathon before revealing that Preston would love to cook for Garfield and Homer Simpson. Mehigan says he would don the chef’s hat for Desperate Dan, Winnie the Pooh and Astro Boy.

And just like that our 30 minutes with the duo, who had the reins of primetime TV across many an Indian family firmly in their hands, reached a crescendo.

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