Gary Mehigan’s global fame rests on his nine-year stint as a judge on the reality show Masterchef Australia. While the other judges, chef George Calombaris and food critic Matt Preston, are known for their eccentric personalities, Mehigan’s fans admire his calmness at the tasting table.
Mehigan’s composure was in evidence during a recent visit to Mumbai. The celebrity Australian restaurateur will get a taste of India in his new show Masters of Taste. Mehigan will travel to restaurants in Mumbai and Delhi for the show, which will be aired on Fox Life India on Mondays from February 26.
“This is the first time that I really had a chance to spend a long period of time in one place,” Mehigan said. “You get to not become a local, but you start to understand the heartbeat of a place when you do that. As you know, Indians are obsessed by food. It has been a really unique experience and Fox Life gave me a really unique proposition because no one else has done something like this before.”
Masters of Taste will include Mehigan’s encounters with some of the country’s most renowned chefs, including Kelvin Cheung, Atul Kochhar, Shantanu Mehrotra and Thomas Zacharias. “Every TV series that I have done up till now has been slightly different,” Mehigan said. “Masterchef is completely at the other end of the spectrum. It is busy, reality television and three-minute grabs. But these [Masters of Taste] are long conversations with the top chefs and the innovators in the country.”
Mehigan will also dine at various restaurants, including Khar Social and The Bombay Canteen in Mumbai, and Indian Accent in Delhi. There are significant variations in flavours between the two cities, he said. “At the moment I am much more familiar with Mumbai and I put the city along the lines of New York or London,” Mehigan said. “It is a big, bustling, colourful city. There is something quite special about Mumbai. Obviously there are regional variations. I go to Delhi and they ask me if I have eaten momos and I go, what are momos? All of a sudden the food is changing.”
Mehigan will recreate the signature dishes of some of the featured restaurants on his show. “My Indian fans on Instagram are very critical and loyal to the area that they are from,” he said. “If I ever post anything, I always get advice. Whereas I think tradition is overrated. But what I don’t want to do is take those ideas and rehash them. It has to be my idea, not necessarily Indian, but with an Indian touch or flavour.” Green peas hummus with cardamon is one of the many such dishes that Mehigan will be whipping up on the show.
Among his memorable experiences during the shoot was with chef Ranveer Brar at Mukesh Mills in Colaba in Mumbai. “We were sitting there and we forgot the camera was on and went on to chat about food,” Mehigan recalled. “It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I am sitting in this old building, opposite one of the best fish markets in India, and eating dishes that I have never eaten before. He cooked little crabs under hay, a traditional kebab on a stick with a silk thread with rumali roti and pomfret fish.”
The 51-year-old chef got his first television experience while working at Novotel hotel in Melbourne in the 1990s. Mehigan starred in a few videos to promote the hotel’s restaurants. His television credits include Boys Weekend (2004) and Far Flung with Gary Mehigan (2015).
“Food is something different than how I thought about it when I was 19, 25 or 30, but now I look at it purely from the love to eat, learn and experience,” he said. “Some chefs in the industry have grown older and have gotten grumpy. And I reckon I have gotten older and I have gotten happier. I am travelling more and eating more. I come to India and it turns the idea of what you love on its head.”
When it comes to Indian food, tradition is still king, but there is also room for experimentation, he observed. “The thing that I really took away from my trip here is that India is going through a massive transition in terms of food,” Mehigan said. “Five years ago, maybe, people were worried about losing their traditional roots and recipes. What has happened now is that chefs have travelled overseas, learnt from different people all over the world and come back to India and have realised how good the indigenous produce is. I think that is invigorating.”
Restaurants owners and chefs are not the only ones who are experiencing the shifts in taste and spending habits. “With places like Khar Social, you have got this kind of interactive experience with the cafe, with the pit downstairs with the band,” Mehigan pointed out. “And people are eating everything from Chinese bao to Seekh kebabs to dosas and curries to biriyanis. Five years ago, everybody was worried about using this Indian identity and I think what’s happening now is they are shaping a new food identity.”
Mehigan’s favourite Indian dish isn’t from Mumbai or Delhi. He is a big fan of masala dosa. “The reason I love South Indian food is because I have spent some time in Chennai,” Mehigan said. “For Australians, South Indian food is much more familiar than you can possibly imagine because I suppose Australians travel from Indonesia and Malyasia to Vietnam and Sri Lanka. There is a connection because of the rice, coconuts, lemon, lime and curry leaves. All of these are the sweet and salty flavours that you get in those cuisines in South East Indian food.”