You’re no stranger to MasterChef, having appeared in several past seasons. Can you describe how you felt about returning to the show this season?
It feels special being back on Masterchef Australia this season. I always feel welcome, like part of the family when I return. I have been lucky over the years, being involved in all but one season, so its great to be back.
What did you enjoy most about your experience this season?
I have a mentor role this year, so this is especially rewarding for me [in] trying to pass on some of my knowledge to this talented bunch of cooks. The contestants are always ready to take on board the advice given and I become emotionally invested in the group, really wanting them all to achieve their potential.
How did it compare with your first time on the show in season two, way back in 2010?
I was nervous appearing in season two but the crew on set, especially George, Gary and Matt, were very helpful and encouraging. Over the years I see many of the same faces when I return so it’s always a pleasure.
Can you note any changes in the calibre of the contestants, or any other changes?
Over the years the contestants seem to be better equipped and they have a more extensive knowledge base than contestants in previous years. If you look back at dishes being presented in the early seasons they are nothing like the dishes being presented these days, therefore the standard just seems to get better and better every year.
Your incredible dessert, Passion Flower (pictured below), featured on the show in season seven in 2015. It’s visually spectacular; how important do you think aesthetics are in this field?
As a pastry chef, aesthetics are incredibly important. When you step into my Sweet Studio it’s a sensory overload, with a sweet soundtrack, beautiful baking smells and, most importantly, the visual appeal of the cakes, products, open kitchen and edible artworks. I treat all of my cakes and desserts like little works of art and my customers love the variety, colour, and contrast in flavour.
You host an out-of-this-world Team Challenge where the contestants have to construct an edible glasshouse. What was it like mentoring the contestants through this immense challenge?
Wow! It certainly was a huge challenge, both in terms of scale and also in the time involved. Not only did the contestants have a large volume of food to make and install, [but] they also had to cope with being on their feet all day for the entire length of the challenge. Some of the guys were not used to standing up for so long and were struggling, so my mentoring became a mix of inspiration and motivation. Overall it was a fantastic experience for me.
How (or when) did you know that your future was in food and cooking?
Like many of the contestants I have always loved preparing food and it started early with me helping mum around the kitchen. I decided to pursue [food] as a career at the age of 20 after working a few unsatisfying and uninspiring jobs. Once I started I was addicted to the buzz and madness of the kitchen and have not looked back ever since. I feel lucky that my hobby and passion became my profession.
Who or what keeps you inspired?
Every day trying to be better and improving my own work to give my customers the best possible product is what drives me. It’s not hard to stay inspired in such an exciting and creative world.
If you were a contestant this season, what would be your signature dish and why?
Ha! That’s a good one. I’d do a trifle for dessert, something delicious that I know at least Gary and Matt would love as they will have had a few in their time! There would be fresh berries, cream, jelly, custard, and a good whack of booze.
Do you have any advice for our contestants or any aspiring chefs out there?
Just start! Stop putting it off and making excuses, you just have to start and the rest will follow. Sure, it will be hard at first and there will be obstacles, but don’t put it off or you will be forever wondering 'what if?'
You’re now based in Australia, but is there a particular food that you can’t wait to eat as soon as you hop off the plane in the UK?
I have been converted to Vegemite after spending so long over here, but I look forward to Marmite toast soldiers with boiled eggs when I go back to the UK.
We know you have a bit of a sweet tooth, but do you have any savoury dishes you particularly enjoy?
I love all food and I also love to cook savoury most nights when I get home [from work]. I love Vietnamese, Chinese and Thai cuisine, as well as Middle Eastern food. I really enjoy my wife’s slow cooked lamb shoulder and I love cheese, especially on toast.
You’ve trained and worked all around the world; how do you think Australia’s pastry scene weighs in on an international scale?
I am very proud to be part of such an exciting time for Australia. The restaurants, food, wine, and the pastry scene are being recognised internationally, and rightly so as I believe anything here is on a par with the best of overseas.
Do you have any exciting new projects on the boil that you can share with us?
I am always busy with something; I am going to the US in June to launch my book, Lamingtons & Lemon Tart, over there. I am excited to be introducing the Lamington to a whole new audience.
Lamingtons & Lemon Tart was released in Australia last year. Do you have a favourite recipe from the book that everyone must attempt?
Oh, it’s too hard to choose! Maybe the Pear Tart Tatin, or the Lemon Tarts. Wait, the Chocolate Brownie is delicious... Oh, and the Salted Caramel is a must, as is the secret to my Popcorn & Honeycomb Rubble... You get the picture!
You’re about to release another book, Chefs Eat Toasties Too, in July. What’s the inspiration behind this book?
This was such a fun project! Everyone loves a good toastie - even chefs. There are over 50 examples of the sort of things I like to whip up at home. I consider myself an expert on the subject of cheese on toast having practiced most Sunday evenings my entire life, and I thought it was about time I gave away the secrets to help you ‘up’ your toasted sandwich or grill game!