A Conversation with Gary Mehigan: From Lamb Stock to Sri Lankan Sojourn

Nov 10 2023.

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In the world of culinary virtuosos, Gary Mehigan stands out not just for his remarkable gastronomic skills but for the warm, affable nature that makes you feel like you're chatting with an old friend. My recent online video call with the renowned British-Australian Michelin Star celebrity chef and former MasterChef Australia judge was nothing short of a delightful rendezvous.

Gary, a household name as the last of the trio of judges from MasterChef Australia, has embarked on a culinary journey that has captured the hearts of food enthusiasts around the globe. In a chat that effortlessly transitioned from lamb stock, and evening dinner plans to his upcoming culinary escapade in Sri Lanka, I uncovered the fascinating layers of a chef who not only crafts delectable dishes but also shares his culinary adventures through cookbooks, podcasts and television shows.

His visit to Sri Lanka, courtesy of Cinnamon Hotels & Resorts, promises to be a gastronomic exploration like no other. From personally curated full-course dinners to a specially crafted Brunch and High Tea evening, Gary is all set to weave his culinary magic at Cinnamon Grand Colombo from November 30 to December 2, 2023. I delve into the world of Gary Mehigan, a chef whose passion for food is matched only by his approachable and friendly demeanour, making every culinary chat a delightful experience. Below are excerpts from our chat.

Q Let’s talk a little bit about the beginning. How did you get into the culinary world? Is this something you always wanted to do?
It was from a pretty young age. I think I realised that I was never going to be a guy sitting at a desk or working on something incredibly meticulous and time-consuming. My Dad was an engineer, and I think he realised pretty quickly that I was never going to be a draftsman, an engineer or an architect. And I tell him I've tapped into my grandfather. My grandfather was a chef and he was retired. He was always very engaged, always laughing, smiling, waving at people always cooking delicious food. I kind of did this big switch from wanting to be like every other little boy, you know - fireman, policeman, architect, engineer - and just went on, but this is what I wanted to do.

My granddad said, let's get you a job on the weekends and you can see how you like it. So I did a bit of front of house, waiting on the floor looking after customers in a local hotel. And then I begged to go in the kitchen because I thought they had the best job. It kind of started from there. I think once I convinced my grandfather that I had the metal to put in the hours and be dedicated, he could see that I loved what I was doing. It was an upward trajectory from there on. Well, I say upward, but it was really hard work.

Q The culinary landscape has been constantly evolving and evolving rapidly over the years. How have you managed to adapt and incorporate all of these changes in your own cooking style and culinary approach?
I think what it is is just this eternal sense of intrigue. I'm constantly fascinated and constantly researching. Travel has been part of that discovery for me. Even in my early 20s, you know, starting to hop into Europe and you go to Italy and you eat a proper buffalo mozzarella or a deliciously soft and crunchy pizza. Or the first time I went to India and had something like the Rumali Roti. This kind of flavour for somebody who grew up in the UK, somebody who trained as a French chef, just all of a sudden opened up a whole new world of wonderment to me. It doesn't matter where I go. It's more about keeping up with this global exchange of information, which since the advent of social media, has changed everything. And so the rate of change is incredible. You'll see a dish pop up in New York, and three days later, it pops up in Sydney. It’s the same with technique. So it's incredible. I suppose the short answer is that I’m always excited to discover something new.

Q Your visit to Sri Lanka is, I would say, a testament to the growing trend of culinary tourism. What in your opinion makes a destination a culinary destination? And how does Sri Lanka fit into this concept at this point?
Well, I think with Sri Lanka it’s an obvious one. It's been a difficult time for so many people. Even hospitality here in Australia has been struggling for many different reasons, and Sri Lanka has been in a very similar position, particularly with tourism. So the flood back into Sri Lanka is going to be I think, fairly rapid and obvious. And I also think Sri Lanka is a food destination along with places like Japan, Vietnam, India; they're just the cultures firmly rooted in 1000 years plus of delicious food. It's entrenched. In the UK we heralded the industrial revolution, but with that, we lost our sense of place on land and what we ate, whereas Sri Lanka never has.

It's firmly rooted in its culture and its day-to-day life, and food is the centre of much that happens. And that makes Sri Lanka a great foodie destination like France or Italy or Vietnam. It certainly helps that you're surrounded by sea, lush green fields, and great produce. I can't wait to taste the cinnamon, to be honest. Lagoon prawns, mud crab, and you know, it's endless, right?

Q You had the opportunity to judge and host various cooking shows. What do you think sets apart an exceptional chef or maybe even a culinary creation from the rest?
It doesn't have to be a chef. I think the thing that I learned very early on in Masterchef is that Georgia and I began to think that you had to be a chef. We were really centred around the idea that because we'd spent many years perfecting our craft and trade - it was almost that old-school idea of you have to do the time if you've got to be a chef. And what we learned really quickly is that fascination and passion create something amazing. So people in the food world now - and the lockdown taught us this - they became obsessed with a singular thing.

Sometimes they might just enjoy cooking, it could be the best cheesecake or sourdough bread. People wanted to make sourdough bread and they started baking. And what we realised very quickly is if you've got that passion, and you are fascinated by something, you're probably most likely, going to be better than any chef at that thing because you love it and you make it a lot. It's a bit like the best street food a store owner might run that, you know, they'll stand for their whole life, or it could be even multigenerational. You know several generations have been running that for many years. That particular thing, no matter what it is, is going to be better than what any chef can ever cook for you, because for one thing it's singular, and it demonstrates this wonderful expertise. So that's the precursor. We would know that when we were setting a task or setting a challenge that the people who were going to do brilliantly well were the ones who clicked into a particular thing.  You know, they love making cake. They love making curries. They love French food or something specific about it.

Q You've had a long career and you would have met a lot of interesting people and food enthusiasts. Was there a very memorable experience or a story that really impacted your culinary journey in any way that really stood out for you?
Wow, that's a tough one. I remember I worked at a hotel from age 18 to 22 years. It was post-college, I did a three-year diploma and went to work. And it was the hardest thing I've ever done. I moved away from home. I moved up to London and I lived on my own. I worked long, long hours. I did everything. Then I changed jobs and I went from this kind of bastian of home cuisine to another very modern restaurant called Le Soufflé for a guy called Peter Kronberg who was the Executive Chef.  It was a completely different kitchen. It was very calm. It was very organised. Peter had his finger on the pulse of this massive hotel with 1000-seater banquets, a fine dining restaurant, sushi station. He was very progressive. I remember him taking me aside one day and saying the best advice I can give you is just to calm down and slow down.

He said, "You're young, you're fairly aggressive. You're powering through the kitchen and doing everything yourself, just take a step back. Just absorb it all, open your mind and just relax a little bit." That point in my career was just pivotal in opening my eyes.

Q Your upcoming events in Sri Lanka with Cinnamon Hotels and Resorts are highly anticipated. Can you tell us what people can expect from these events that you are curating?
I'm going to cook food that I love to cook. I think the worst thing I can possibly do is come to Sri Lanka and try and cook Lankan dishes. I'll be using lots of local ingredients, but I've put together a menu that's got everything from smoked salmon to waffles, lobster buns, and prawn toasts. I'm doing mushroom parfait, I'm using local lagoon crab in a kind of Thai-style salad. River prawns in ravioli. So there's a lot of kinds of classic European flavours with a few little touches of my kind of Southeast and South Asian kind of flavours. So it's a little bit of hot and spicy, but everything is with a different flavour. Plus, I'm gonna use some Australian lamb just to bring a little bit of home to Sri Lanka and then I'm doing a coffee flan. So I'm hopefully going to tap into lots of local ingredients, whether it's prawn, lagoon crab, the local fish, coffee, tea, you know, all these kinds of things.

pix courtesy: Cinnamon


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Rihaab Mowlana

Rihaab Mowlana is a journalist specializing in feature writing. With a commitment to authenticity and a genuine love for her craft, she brings stories to life by delving deep into captivating subjects and offering unique perspectives. Beyond journalism, Rihaab is a content creator, entrepreneur, and educator. Stay connected with Rihaab on Twitter & Instagram: @rihaabmowlana

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