Former MasterChef Australia judge, Gary Mehigan has risen to culinary heights in Australia, but his first exposure to food was a humble one.
Born on Hayling Island on the south coast of England, Gary’s father was an engineer, his mother was an artist and his grandfather a chef and teacher.
Mum did most of the cooking at home.
“She’s a very good cook, she’s a very simple cook and everything was homemade. She was very anti-buying anything,” Gary says.
“I think the only thing we ever bought was from the bread man who used to come down our unsealed road on Hayling Island and sell from the van – all the little custard tarts – we used to get so excited and beg mum for a sugary jam doughnut.
“He used to have a leather satchel and a white coat, and I can still smell that van like it was yesterday.”
As a child, Gary didn’t much appreciate his mum’s cooking.
“But of course, as I got older I certainly did.”
Gary’s grandfather was a chef and Gary was always puzzled that his mum didn’t cook the same fancy food as his grandfather.
“She said it was a different era. When my grandad was working he never cooked at home. My grandmother used to cook and she was from Tyneside in the north of England and she was a very plain cook and that’s who my mum learned to cook from. So all of her recipes were very, very simple, but very delicious.”
Gary will be in Western Australia in May for food and wine festival Taste Great Southern which features around 40 food and wine events over 11 days in the far south of the state.
It will be his first visit to the Great Southern and he is looking forward to exploring the produce of the region.
Gary says the inspiration for him to become a chef came from his grandfather.
At school the plan was for him to become an engineer and while like many young boys he harboured dreams of becoming a fighter pilot, he realised that wasn’t practical.
His father suggested to Gary that he should think about his career choice because he thought he was too emotional for engineering and needed something more creative.
“He was measured, quiet and clever. He was the one who always said to me: ‘I never learned anything while I was talking’ and I’ve spent my whole life talking so I’ve not learned much,” Gary laughs.
“He said, have you ever thought about what your grandad does? I realised I used to love that. Grandad had all sorts of fruit trees in his garden and I’d help pick beans, we’d make things, and he showed me how to make bread, but I never connected it with a career. I don’t know why, maybe because Grandad thought it was a tough life and maybe I didn’t want to do it.
“He tried to put me off but once he said, ‘get a job and if you love it then we’ll talk’. I got a job in a little local hotel and I loved it, so we talked and everything fell into place.”
Gary studied to be a chef in the UK and began his career in London where two Michelin-starred restaurants made a big impact on his early career, The Connaught Hotel under Michel Bourdin where he worked for almost four years and Le Souffle at The Hyde Park Intercontinental under Peter Kromberg.
Gary says he ended up in Australia almost by chance.
“I always had this bee in my bonnet that I needed to travel and I had this idea that was either going to be Australia or Canada, or America.”
The timing worked in favour of Australia. In 1991 there was a huge surge in hospitality and all the big resorts of the time being built on the Gold Coast were calling out for chefs.
Gary was on the priority occupational list with 12 years of education, good qualifications, and a solid work background.
He applied for residency.
“Mandy and I had just got engaged and within three months jumped on a plane having never been to Australia and literally, no joke, I just felt immediately at home and excited by everything I saw.”
The couple applied for citizenship after two years which was as soon as they were allowed to.
He moved to Australia in 1991 where he worked at Burnham Beeches, Browns Restaurant and Sofitel Melbourne before opening his own restaurant, Fenix, when he was 31.
Gary opened the Maribyrnong Boathouse in 2007, in which he retained an interest until 2017.
When he joined MasterChef Gary says none of the three presenters expected it to last long, but over 11 years and 12 series, it inspired a new generation of young cooks to embrace food and cooking.
“We were lucky in a way. Our celebrity came later in life. It wasn’t something I experienced early, MasterChef started when I was aged 40 so it was a surprise and every year was a bonus.”
Gary says the recognition from MasterChef came very quickly.
“I’d done lots of little bits of television before, a couple of series of Good Chef, Bad Chef when it was first launched. I did Boys Weekend with Manu Fieldel, Miguel Maestre and Adrian Richardson and I did little bits of daytime TV but that gig on MasterChef went beyond all our expectations.
“No one knew what to expect.”
Gary asked one of the TV executives when the program had been on air for about a month and the program was getting 1.6 or 1.7 million viewers per episode if they were good numbers. The executive was ecstatic.
“By the time we got to series three, the finale was one of the biggest Australian television audiences ever. It was five million plus, so the notoriety came pretty quick.
“People started going ‘hey Gaz’ and certainly for Matt, George and me, we found it very entertaining and what we liked most of all was that seemingly our celebrity was quite transparent like we are who we are in real life and on television so Matt coined the phrase that people just treated us like the postman.
“They’d wave and call our name and we’d wave back and that was the interaction which I really loved and it’s always been the same.”
While MasterChef is behind him Gary has plenty of other projects on the go.
In Australia, he will launch a new food outlet which he expects to open at Melbourne Airport around April.
Gary says the outlet at the Qantas terminal will be a fun eclectic Asian concept about quick travel and a quick bite to eat with everything from okonomiyaki to a plate of dumplings.
He has written five cookbooks, Comfort Food, Good Food Everyday, Bringing Flavour Home, Your Place or Mine and Cook with Us.
Podcasts have also become a big thing for Gary with his Gary Mehigan Show in which he chats with people from all walks of life. Guests have included Nigella Lawson, Steve Price, Craig Reuscassel, Pia Miranda, and Maggie Beer.
He says it’s tough to pick favourites, but he has just done a couple with chef Karen Martini who is an icon of modern Melbourne dining and Phillipa Sibley who is celebrated for her desserts and pastries.
Gary has also signed up for another series of Mega Festivals with National Geographic India which will take him to India seven more times this year covering some big festivals including Holi, Diwali and Dussehra.
“For me, this is living the dream. I always said to earn a living from travel and eating, just ticks the box.”
For Taste Great Southern Gary will be cooking at Catch of the South at the Albany Boatshed on May 12, at the Albany Farmers Market on May 13 and at Garrisons on May 14.
To find out more go to www.wineandfood.com.au/taste-great-southern/events/