Chefs warm to new crop
Matt Preston, George Calombaris and Gary Mehigan. Picture: Supplied

After five seasons of fronting Ten's trailblazing cooking show MasterChef Australia, Gary Mehigan needs little in the way of an introduction.

Alongside co-hosts, judges and close friends - larger-than-life food critic Matt Preston and bouncy culinary comrade George Calombaris - the charismatic British-born chef and restaurateur is firmly entrenched as a household name in his adopted country.

Moreover, he has helped the collective palate of everyday Australians come of age and cultivated a burgeoning food culture.

As MasterChef Australia prepares to go to air for a sixth year tonight, Mehigan, who moved to Melbourne in 1991, recalls his early days at the stoves in London and the rise of the world's original "celebrity chef", the wild-haired Marco Pierre White.

Following his stint on last year's spin-off MasterChef: The Professionals, White, the godfather of modern cookery, will feature in the latest series, which also sees Kylie Kwong step in as guest mentor and WA's Greenhouse young gun Matt Stone return among a host of other culinary luminaries.

"Marco turned the business of being a chef into something that everybody understood," the charming Mehigan tells me down the line.

"He was the youngest-ever winner in the UK of two Michelin stars, won his third Michelin star at 40 and retired with a fortune that I could never imagine having.

"When I became a chef, I remember all my friends asking 'What do you do?' Then when Marco came up on screen, everybody went 'Ah, that's what you do'.

"I think they just thought I worked in a fish-and-chip shop or something (laughs), when in fact I worked in a Michelin two-star restaurant. None of my friends knew what a truffle or eclair or an anglaise was at that time but I guarantee they know what it is now."

Indeed. As do millions of Australians.

While it took a tumble in the ratings last year, the power and influence of MasterChef Australia since the heady days of its 2009 debut season are undeniable. It has been broadcast in about 30 countries and enticed global food royalty Jamie Oliver, Heston Blumenthal, Rick Stein, David Chang and Nigella Lawson to make guest appearances.

That many of the Australian hospitality industry's leading chefs were initially sceptical of the show, only to embrace it soon after, is a fact not lost on Mehigan, and served to validate his decision to come onboard in the first place.

"A lot of the industry was critical about what amateur chefs could really bring to the business, if anything, and they've been utterly converted," he proudly declares.

"It's the drive, passion and interest that makes the difference in this (hospitality) business. They sound like cliches but in reality, when you're trying to find good staff - people who care, are engaged, love what they do - that's the challenge in business and that translates brilliantly to customers.

"Also, much of hospitality was very different in the past. We no longer see people in tails and dicky-bows serving on tablecloths and swooping in on customers; it's now very casual and quite an intimate relationship with your server in your local cafe or restaurant.

"Certainly, what amateurs do is strengthen that connection."

Naturally, it fills Mehigan with pride to see such a big proportion of MasterChef alumni find their foodie niche post-show.

"There are now 70-plus in the hospitality or food business," he says.

"And that's what's nice about our industry; there are lots of little arenas they can show off in.

"The business has changed so much over the last 10 years or so. it's very dynamic now."

And he is pleased to reveal an unprecedented number of WA hopefuls are vying for culinary glory this year (the cash component of $250,000 makes it the biggest prize in MasterChef Australia history).

"Something is going on over there in WA - food's happening," Mehigan enthuses.

As for that seemingly inescapable speculation of intense rivalry with Seven's runaway success story My Kitchen Rules, Mehigan, who says he is keen to sign on for a seventh season of MasterChef if the show is renewed, convincingly puts the matter to rest.

"It's funny, the My Kitchen Rules thing. George has obviously just gone into business with Manu (Feildel) here in Melbourne with Le Grand Cirque. With Pete (Evans) and Manu - we see each other as chefs because we've known each other for years and sometimes I think the press get the wrong end of that," he offers.

"But I think what's lovely is that (the shows) put food on television in whatever guise it is . . . and they've brought it home to a broad audience that would otherwise not be engaged with food. And for me as a restaurateur and chef, that's a great thing."

The West Australian

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