When you were a child, what was your favourite thing to eat?
I still love roast chicken. You know, I love a roast – roast beef, roast chicken, and I think that’s because it was a big thing in our family. Every Sunday we had a roast dinner and I think it is as much to do with the event – the family, the conversation, the time, the place, the ritual – as it is to do with the food itself. That’s what’s beautiful about food. And you know mum’s cooking was never perfect; sometimes we had lumpy gravy, sometimes we had smooth gravy, sometimes the chicken was overcooked or undercooked but it didn’t really matter, you know, that taste is fixed in my mind that it’s still delicious. I don’t see my mum very much because she lives in the UK but when I eat dinner or lunch, like a Sunday roast with mum and dad, it’s a beautiful thing because it’s that flavour, that memory.
Describe what you would eat if you could choose your last supper
See, that’s an impossibility. It’s an impossibility because there are so many things that I love that it would have to be a banquet of some of all the very best things I’ve eaten. It could be Black Perigord Truffles or Abrolhos Island Scallops. Or it could be lobster, it could be a brilliant beef pie. It could be a roast chicken, it could be a Vietnamese coleslaw, a Banh Mi. It could be a brilliant burger. It could be a Masala Dosa. I couldn’t pick one thing. It’s even impossible for me to say what my favourite food is because it evolves and changes all the time.
If you could only own one cookbook, which one would it be?
You know, it would more be about my favourite book. I’ve had Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons which is by a chef called Raymond Blanc in Britain. I think it was first published in 1988 but that book is as beautiful now and as current now as it was 25 years ago. Every so often I do a culinary reset and remind myself of some of the very simplest things and why they’re good. At the time he was – and still is – one of the culinary forces in the UK and at the time the food was so sophisticated and beautiful and natural and still when I look at the pictures it makes me feel the same way. I think that’s why, I mean I don’t own cookbooks for recipes, I own cookbooks for inspiration and ideas. Obviously you know, I’ve got a catalogue of recipes that I’ve collected over the years and I’ve probably got 500 or 600 cookbooks. I might pick up a cookbook like David Thompson’s Thai Food and skip through the pages for an idea and I’ll follow the recipe if it’s difficult. Most of the time I look at the cookbooks for inspiration and ideas.
What three things do you always have in your pantry?
Chilli; I’ve got a whole shelf in my fridge dedicated to chilli condiments of various kinds, so things like Chilli Caramel and Chilli Sambal, chopped chilli in oil, chilli oil, Sriracha. I’m a chilli fiend. Tomatoes; I love vine beautiful ripened tomatoes in season. Just delicious. Fresh herbs; I couldn’t live without fresh herbs. They completely change the profile or the dynamics of a dish, like fresh mint thrown over a salad, or coriander, basil, dill, tarragon, dry herbs like thyme and rosemary and sage, they’re amazing.
Your friends are coming over in 30 minutes - what do you cook for them?
Curry or BBQ. I make good curries. I’ve got a beautiful chicken curry that’s quick to make, I mean I’ve been to India four times so I have a good idea of where I’m going. So yeah, I love a quick one pot wonder. Something vibrant, colourful, bags of flavour, maybe a flat bread to go with it. Or the BBQ; I cook on my BBQ for nine months a year, I love it. It could be a butterflied leg of lamb with rosemary, garlic, maybe some Dukkah spice or something similar. Fresh salads, you know, I love complex and interesting salads, things with multiple grains like quinoa and wild rice or Israeli pearl couscous. Roasted pumpkin, fresh baby spinach leaves or fresh herbs with a creamy dressing; I love yoghurts and things like that. So yeah it would be BBQ and a crazy salad or one pot wonder of a curry and flatbread.
What food(s) can’t you live without?
Cheese. I love cheese. One of my favourite overseas holidays is France. I’m a bit of a Francophile, and I love cheese. The first thing I do when I go to France is go to a little cheese shop and go mental and just buy everything in sight. I couldn’t live without chilli obviously. I’m a big fan of Vietnamese food for example. I love that sweet, salty, spicy, crunchy kind of dynamic you get from Vietnamese sauce. I love lime, fish sauce, chili. I also love bread; crusty, wholegrain, flatbread, sourdough, Naan, Indian Dosa, and Appam, which is a kind of rice pancake. Things like that. I love that bread is a vehicle to mop stuff up with or carry another flavour. And it goes with cheese, doesn’t it!
What has been your most memorable meal?
The one I shared with the boys [fellow MasterChef Australia judges Matt Preston and George Calombaris] at Heston Blumenthal’s restaurant, Fat Duck. When we went to London with MasterChef in season two we were lucky enough to go and we sat there for five hours; we were the perfect dining partners because we were completely engrossed and obsessed with every element of that meal! I think we ate 15 or 16 little courses and every single one of them was fun, whimsical, experimental and emotional; it was just a really incredible experience and I loved it. I’ve had a number of memorable meals but I think in the MasterChef world the three of us being able to sit there together at the Fat Duck, that was the most special.
What’s your favourite comfort food?
That’s going to be roast chicken, isn’t it? I always look at chicken as being a meal for all seasons and all good food starts with roast chicken. A bit boring isn’t it, but there you go. But it can be many things; I look at it and think that roast chicken could be served with a Vietnamese coleslaw. It could be served with a summer melon salad and mint yoghurt and sprinkled with cumin or coriander. It could be just roasted and served with parsnips and shallots and be delicious. It’s kind of a meal for all seasons. And I think because that roast dinner is such an integral part of my identity that it’s still a special thing. I think it’s comforting on lots of levels, yeah. I mean, the list goes on, it could be pies, puddings, curries, one pot wonders, lamb shanks. I start thinking about Malaysian dishes like Crispy Pork cooked in caramel with coriander. They’re still equally as comfortable and as wonderful. A big bowl of soup is comfortable and wonderful, like a bowl of Vietnamese Pho is wonderful.