Buried within an excited throng, we stand armed with a list of questions and a plastic bag full of cook-books we just purchased and which we know we’re going to cherish forever — among them, Comfort Food recipes from Gary Mehigan, a book on cooking techniques of the duo and our personal favourite, Georgie Porgie, intended “for kids aged 8 to 80”. Chefs George Calombaris and Gary Mehigan haven’t signed them yet, but they will, right after they pick a winner from the cook-off, a contest arranged by Godrej’s Nature’s Basket, which allows three lucky Masterchef-fans to demonstrate their skills before these culinary gods. Judging by the broad smiles, the contestants couldn’t care less who wins — they get to meet George and Gary, that’s reward enough!
Though they waltzed in casually, plainly unaware of what lay in store, one look at the workstations set up before them and the chefs snapped into Masterchef mode, almost instantly. Quizzing the contestants while they interspersed suggestions like, “The bottom-line is that the dish must be yummy,” with trademark wit and humour, not to mention trivia about their Mumbai experience like, “We love Jalebis,” and “We’ve only been here for a day... can’t remember the names of all the dishes we’ve tasted...but we love dosa and paneer,” the two seemed right at home on the supermarket's makeshift Masterchef set. When one contestant revealed that she was an aspiring fashion designer, Gary couldn’t resist — “Should we tell her about Matt…?” he beamed. “About his boxer-shorts? No!” George half-blushed, decided to tell the crowd about co-host and food critic Matt Preston’s cravat collection, instead. “He has hundreds of them,” he laughed, “Each one has a name, and they’re all ladies’ names.”
The session of the boys’ club now in full swing, Gary talked about enjoying Malpua and invited fans to post recipes for the dish on Twitter even as he told contestant number 3, Romi, that they had sampled the dish she was preparing — Jhal Muri. “We had this last night,” chirped Gary, “I liked it; it was zesty.” The Bengali dish impressed again, because this (which the clever blogger served with a glass of sweet lassi) was the winning dish.
Excerpts from our ten-minuter:
Is this second-nature now — judging dishes and offering suggestions on how to improve them? So, do friends hesitate to invite you over for dinner?
GEORGE: No! We’re simple eaters, really. I have expectations from certain things, but if my best friend’s wife burns the lamb, that’s fine, I wouldn’t mind that. But when I eat at a five-star restaurant, then I do expect the food to be of that calibre.
GARY: In Australia, it’s really a different culture. I feel there’s nothing worse than having people in the kitchen when you go over — you want them to be with you. We’d actually stand around and toss meats on
Here, many people are pure vegetarians. They won’t eat egg, fish or chicken and then, there are communities that won’t consume onion or garlic. If those were the terms of a pressure test for you right now, with everything in this store, what would you prepare?
GARY: (Looking around at what’s on the shelves): I’m looking at the pulses right away. In Australia, our dishes centre on produce and recipes are a reflection of pure ingredients, but here, based on what we tasted at Soam, last night — dishes tend to be more complex.
GEORGE: I like the eggplants I spotted outside. I’d prepare those with maybe some Miso on top. I’d maybe even use some of that paneer (crushes some pretend paneer between his fingers).
GARY: Australians are big fans of texture, so with the sweet, sour and hot, we enjoy a little crunchy — like the puffed rice in Romi’s recipe.
The kids in Junior Masterchef Australia were so incredibly talented. Is that typical? Does everyone start cooking real early in Australia? When did you start cooking?
GARY: Five thousand kids applied for that show, so the contestants we picked were little stars already. They had grown up engulfed in that culture of food and fresh ingredients. But no, I don’t think all the kids in Australia cook like that. And when did I start cooking? (Pauses to collect his thoughts)... well, in my family, food was always made at home. I didn’t grow up eating fast food. My mum made everything at home — stews, pies and toffees...everything. My friends would eat fast food and I wasn’t thrilled that I had to eat stew with carrots in it. I didn’t think I’d be cooking eventually... I wanted to be a fighter pilot or fire fighter, or something like that. But my grandfather was a chef and he would show me how to cook. Then, when I was 15, I started working at this hotel and I thought the chef there was very clever. (Looks at George and smiles) Now, in hindsight, I don’t think he was really clever at all.
GEORGE: My grandmother taught me how to appreciate food. She developed that love I have to feed someone with open arms and generosity. I didn’t cook as a child. I always wanted to be a chef though, that, or a footballer.
What has your culinary experience here been so far?
GEORGE: What I like is that you appreciate mutton here. In Australia, mutton is deemed a bad meat. We should be celebrating it, but we don’t. Our lamb is very different, very tender. The food culture has changed there over the last 20 years, just as it is changing here, now.
GARY: There was this explosion of ethnic cuisine; there has been a big change. Twenty years ago, you couldn’t even get sashimi in Australia, or fennel, for that matter.
GEORGE: When my grandmother migrated from Greece to Melbourne in the ’70s, they actually took her mortar and pestle away; they thought those were weapons! That’s how much things have changed.
But what sort of Indian food have you enjoyed?
GARY: Well, I love curries; I especially love South Indian food, with curry leaves and coconut. I love tamarind as well. I even enjoy Rogan Josh in Australia at Kumar Mahadevan’s restaurants, Abhi’s and Aki’s.
GEORGE (Nods his approval): Excellent food.
George, you’ve visited Delhi in the past — what did you think of it?
GEORGE: It was a minute experience. I just had dinner and walked through the spice market. It’s a colourful country. Australia, on the other hand, is a young country — a cat could drive there, the roads are that clear.
GARY: George, do you know what I’m going to do? I’m going to get a moped. (George shakes his head — not the best idea). (Then, turning to us) It’s the gap between those who have and those who don’t — that’s very stark for us.
What would you say is most exciting about Mumbai? Would you want to explore this country?
GARY: What’s most exciting is this whirlwind — the diversity. And, I love that people are still obsessed with food here.
GEORGE: I’d love to bring my son to India. He’s growing up in this country where everything’s perfect. It’ll be good for him to see this.
GARY: I’d like to visit South India