Gary's Greek Appetite
Gary Mehigan talks about how something as humble as food can create cultural harmony, and the big one- the MasterChef 2011 finale
For someone who knows their puddings, to name bougatsa the king of desserts is more than a compliment for Greek cooking. But to say that it has to be made by the hands of a Greek mother in its traditional form is something else. Gary Mehigan is talking about his friend, long-time collaborator and partner in crime, George Calombaris' mum's recipe.
"I remember when George was first working for us, going around to his mum's house for the first time to have a snack and that snack was... well I had never seen so much food in all my life!" he tells Neos Kosmos.
It's George's twist on traditional recipes, which Gary admits to absolutely loving, that has his poor mum in a state.
"I love George's interpretations on Greek food. It makes his mum angry as she doesn't think it's right. Popping a scallop in the middle of loukoumathes; it's very clever, making a sweet dish savoury. I love the little takes on it. He gets a filo cigar and you think it will be a sweet dish but he fills it with something savoury.
"He always laughs about it but trying to take established Greeks - especially at the Hellenic Republic as it's a taverna style of dining - and tell them it's okay to be a little bit different and it's never going to be the same as your mum's, well it always drives him potty."
A reflection of the state of the Australian take on food and the way we consume it, the Australian palate has become much more adventurous. It wants to explore as much as it can of the rich tapestry of food available. And with so many people being open to travel, Australians use food to almost live vicariously and travel again through the plate. It also brings about a unique cultural understanding and awareness.
"Food helps everyone understand everybody else's background and what they stand for and what they believe in.
Food is a great common language, a great common denominator," Gary says.
"I arrived in this country 20 years ago and people weren't interested in Greek food and Lebanese food, the cultural heritage that we have here, the immigrants that have bought their food here. There was just this wavering interest - it was just Chinatown and eating Chinese food - but over the last 20 years it's gotten deeper. I love the fact that someone like George was classically trained... then at some point the light turned on and he started to embrace the food that his mum taught him how to make and where his family is from. Shane Delia has done that at Maha with Lebanese food and Luke Nguyen has does the same with Vietnamese food."
Gary, along with George and food critic Matt Preston, are the three judges on MasterChef Australia. You'd have to have been living under a rock for the past three years not to know this. When the Logie award winning show first burst onto the screens in 2009, no one could predict the amazing success that would follow. Fast forward three years, can MasterChef Australia still sustain being a substantial show?
"It can never be good as the first one, as the first one of something is always the best - your first car, your first kiss. It was something different that hit our television screens and now there is always so much pressure to do something bigger and better and this year we achieved that in terms of the Dalai Lama, the UN challenge in New York City, and you think it can't get any bigger.
And now with series four already looking for contestants, Gary says they will be sticking to the same formula.
"It has to be like a pair of old jeans that you come back to because you know that's MasterChef."
On Thursday night, the finalists for MasterChef Australia series three were decided with Alana Lowes bowing out to Kate Bracks in the Adriano Zumbo - Patissier of Pain - gingerbread house challenge leaving Kate Bracks and Michael Weldon as the finalists - two very different but very competent amateur chefs. Gary is reluctant to say which one he would back in the final.
"I honestly don't know what the result is going to be but I am more than happy for the both of them to win. I think they are two lovely people. If Kate wins she can go back to Orange and paint the town any colour she wants. She has a dream of a bed and breakfast and I would travel for that to see what she is cooking. And for Michael, he aspires to be a chef. All of the sudden he realises he loves it. And that's what makes us feel really proud. It is a competition and depending on what day they make a mistake on, like if they do it in an elimination, then that's the luck of the draw as it is a competition. Like, I thought Hayden would get through further and last year I thought Marian would get further so there is always an odd surprise."
For anyone who has followed the series, they will know about the remarkable improvement of these two amateur chefs as the show has played out week by week. Kate first appeared creating home-cooked retro coffee cakes but can now plate up like a professional. And Michael is always trying to push the envelope with his creations.
It really is hard to pick a winner on finals night but one thing is for certain, it's going to make for a Sunday show-down like no other.
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