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Gary Mehigan on Season 8

Judge Gary Mehigan talks season 8, special guest chefs and MasterChef myths in this exclusive chat.

What about MasterChef means most to you: the food or the human element?

All of the above! One without the other is meaningless to me. The thrill of the journey for me is food, but it’s the development and journey of the person regardless of what they are, what their character is, whether they find it difficult to be on camera or they’re at ease and they’re going to be a star; it’s the combination of the two that makes the show special.

This is your eighth season working with Matt and George; do you find yourselves learning from each other as you go?

Yeah, that’s one of the pleasures. We’re often asked if we enjoy going to work and I say absolutely. We’re surrounded by people, not just the inner circle of us three, but also the outer circle of contestants and crew that just creates a food bubble. And when you’re surrounded by people who love the same things you do, it’s a very unique space. We are the ultimate food nerds! We talk about food all the time; in between shoots we’re talking about which restaurant we ate at, who’s doing what, a picture we saw on Instagram.

What was the biggest food trend from the last year and what will impact MasterChef in 2016?

One of the biggest things that’s happened is we’re all enjoying fast food that’s ‘not’. Something that used to be fast food, like burgers, souvlaki, and tacos, is now delicious because it’s handmade and homemade and ethically sourced. Australia has enjoyed a resurgence in that kind of food; food driven by concept that’s delicious and not unhealthy. In terms of MasterChef we’re more driven by world trends. We think about how food is presented and the plate it’s sitting on, how it’s cooked, the elements on the plate, and particular products like a crumb or a puree. It’s lovely to see contestants push themselves to create dishes that you can see in any great restaurant. But that’s different to how I eat out on a Tuesday night, let’s be honest.

What can we expect from Nigella’s appearance this season?

She was an absolute pleasure to have on set. George, Matt and I can be a difficult triangle to pry into, but she fit right into the MasterChef family in a matter of minutes. She’s relaxed and very generous with her time. She’s a true star. She gave her time, advice and generosity to the contestants. When you get a superstar like that walk into the kitchen, it lights the room up. The contestants were thrilled. And if that doesn’t make a difference to your cooking, if it doesn’t boost your creativity and inspiration, then I don’t know what would!

What was it like seeing the Hidden Heston concept come alive this season? 

I’ve loved the Offsite Challenges this year. We’ve created something really unique and the Hidden Heston pop-ups were unique in themselves. Giving our audience and fans an opportunity to a part of that experience is really special and underpins what MasterChef is really about. It’s unique.

What are some of the biggest MasterChef myths that need debunking? 

The question we get asked most is whether the food is cold by the time we taste it. Often it is not piping hot, but what viewers don’t realise it that George, Matt and I are watching the contestants cook and we’re tasting a lot of their cooking at every stage. But we’re often surprised by how a dish has come together when it’s eaten in its entirety, which can also throw all of your previous assumptions out the window.

What sets MasterChef apart from other reality cooking shows? 

I think what people recognise in MasterChef is that it’s all about food. It’s the most ‘unreality’ reality television show because it just doesn’t fit that mould. We don’t cast our contestants, we cast our food. That’s the secret. It’s about food first and then the personality that you discover along the way rather than the other way around which is the way most television works. People hold MasterChef up to a certain standard and we work very hard to make sure we deliver.

Is there a particular challenge that epitomises what it’s like to be in the MasterChef Kitchen? 

There are two things that epitomise the MasterChef kitchen. One is something that is random with no recipe: the Mystery Box. It’s the ultimate challenge for a cook. It’s what pushes our contestants more than anything else; it’s the one thing that underpins their performance for the rest of that week. It tells us judges exactly how they’re doing at every stage of the competition, how they’re thinking about food, what techniques they’re using, how they’re growing.

Secondly, I think every dish that we set for the Pressure Test normally seems insurmountable. Often even three-quarters of the way through the challenge, it may even seem like it still can’t be done. But there’s something about the pressure coupled with the contestants’ desire to win that gets them over the line. Sometimes it’s enough to save them and sometimes it’s not. The Mystery Box and Pressure Test are two challenges every week that I think sum up the whole experience, and I bet if we ask the contestants what was the most stressful, they’d pick one of the two.

Other than skill in the kitchen, what qualities do you need to be a success on MasterChef? 

I think you need firm level of resilience in the face of criticism. You really are baring yourself, body and soul, in front of us judges. It’s really hard to put everything into something then put yourself in front of someone to critique it. It’s an emotional rollercoaster but that resilience is absolutely imperative. I think at the end of it, from the Top 10 onwards, you’ve got a group of people who are all able to take it on the chin and drive through. I think that sets them up brilliantly for life after the competition in a way that no other training, college or university can.

In Far Flung, you travelled across Asia and tasted their cultures. Are there any cuisines that a lot of people don’t know about but should? 

To be honest I think in every cuisine there’s a lot that we don’t know about but we should. I think most of our experiences with Lebanese or Thai food for example, we eat a very narrow band of what’s popular in restaurants or recipe books. The beauty of travelling is that you always discover something that you never knew. I’m learning something new every day I travel; it amplifies my learning. Then I come home to Australia and I go to a Vietnamese restaurant and ask “why haven’t you got this?” or “where’s that ingredient?” We have Vietnamese restaurants here that serve a really narrow band of options. It’s pretty much all the same, whereas if we go to Vietnam they’re eating all sorts of things that we’ve never seen or even tasted in Australia. And that’s the beauty of travelling.

Is there a food that you hated as a kid, but gradually come to love? 

There were lots of them! The obvious thing would be seafood. I just really didn’t like fish because it had bones in it, or oysters; who would even think to eat something that horrible? Such strange textures; if it was denser or a bit jelly-like, or smelt a bit fishy then I just didn’t like it. Now I absolutely love seafood. I love cooking it, I love eating it. When I was really little I didn’t like poached eggs without the yolk; I couldn’t eat the white on its own because it had a strange slippery texture. I hated carrots, sprouts and broccoli. Some veggies like cabbage I can blame on my mum because she’d always boil them, which is the worst thing you can do. Now I eat everything and I enjoy pretty much everything.