For the longest time, I used to think that the land of ‘Oz’ in Wizard of Oz was actually Australia! Granted, it’s a bit far along the way to actually land on the head of a storm from Kansas, but if lions, scarecrows and tin-men can sing and dance, then why can’t Dorothy land in Australia, house, dog and all? That Australia is often endearingly shortened to ‘Aus’ or ‘Oz’ further confused the matter for me. And then a few days ago, when MasterChef judge and Chef extraordinaire Gary Mehigan walked us through the lanes and by-lanes of Melbourne through his vivid description of a city he fondly describes as home, the nostalgia in his voice and the little hint of moisture in his eyes got me thinking of something connecting to that old classic again… “There’s no place like home!”
Most of us gathered at Grand Hyatt’s Celini were all too familiar with Gary – after all, we follow his every move and mannerism, hang on every word he says, and even try and guess what he (and the other judges) will have to say for a particular dish prepared by a harried contestant on the ongoing MasterChef Australia series. But even then, nothing can prepare you for the charm, the mischievous smile and the sharp wit of Chef Gary Mehigan live before you, the centre of unblinking eyes in the exclusive Media Masterclass. In Mumbai on a short trip this time, he is Tourism Victoria’s (fittingly!) blue-eyed boy, here to woo the restless, world-travelling Indian with the fascinating sights, sounds and aromas of Australia, and all that it has to offer… literally, on a plate!
Watching him go about preparing Salmon Rilettes on Toast as a starter, throwing in little cooking tips and chef tricks, while chatting about the MasterChef show, about co-host George Calombaris and his love for his mum’s Greek food, and Matt Preston and his love for colourful cravats, about contestants past and present, and even letting us in on some behind-the-scene secrets, was nothing short of an immensely entertaining theatre. I don’t think ANY of the adoring, largely-female group of media persons attending the Masterclass actually learnt how to make the delicious stuff he was demonstrating!
But as he deftly put together a fresh-as-dew entrée of Asparagus with Goat’s Curd and Green Olive Tapenade and then plated it up with characteristic flair, the ‘warm-weather salad’, as he calls it, created a nice, fuzzy warmth in the room!
Soon, too soon, the demo session was over… But wait! There was more to come! After a short breather, Gary was back in the room, which was now filled with a gathering of about 150 people seated around cosy tables, eagerly waiting to dig into an elaborate 4-course lunch, specially designed by the chef himself. On the menu was a selection of petite Canapés and Croquettes, the Asparagus entrée he had earlier demonstrated, and a main of Roast Chicken with Boudain Blanc, or, a vegetarian Spiced Couscous Cannelloni with Zucchini Flowers. All this paired with crisp Yering wines from the famous Yarra Valley of Victoria. Gary flitted tirelessly from table to table, asking how the guests liked the food, answering questions that ranged from the tongue-in-cheek ‘Who’s your favourite contestant?’ to the inane ‘Why does a fish have to be gutted?’, laughing, joking, and always obliging with a pose for a pic and a scrawl for an autograph. The grand lunch was cruising along nicely. Present amongst the happy diners was the Australian Tourism Minister, Louise Asher, Tourism Victoria Regional Manager Celia Ho, Tourism Victoria Representive in India, Huzan Fraser Motivala, and a few dear friends like the lovely couple Aditya Hitkari and Divya Palat, ace fashion photographer Atul Kasbekar, Radio personalities Erica, Malishka, and Kirthi and several other food aficionados. At my table, the celebrated Chef Alessandro of Celini, the wine enabler for the afternoon, Jackie Matai of Aspri Wines, good friend and fellow writer Antoine Lewis and the dynamic Vijayan Gangadharan, Director F & B, were having our own little party, with conversation flowing as readily as the wine. And then to spice things up a bit, Chef Gary took to the podium, this time to demonstrate a stunning dessert of Warm Tuscan Chocolate Cake, finishing off by gently placing a perfectly quenelled scoop of Milk Chocolate Mousse and Olive Oil Icecream by its side!
For a moment, I drifted away to an evening many years ago on the Southbank of the Yarra River in Melbourne, my first ever plate of Fresh Oysters gleaming wickedly in front of me, the cheerfulness of fellow diners echoing easily around me, the river lapping quietly alongside, the velvety night lighting up with the sudden erupting fireballs that burst forth from the tall pillars of the grand Crown Casino.
Yes, Melbourne, world’s most livable city, grows on you like no other place does, and then stays with you for the rest of your life, wherever you go. It’s little wonder then that Chef Gary Mehigan carries Melbourne in his heart and brings the serene beauty, the adventurous spirit, the exciting flavors and the beautiful tapestry of art and culture of this city onto his plate of delicious and fresh food, exquisitely presented with a crispy, crackling, crunch that’s so wickedly him!!