May 22, 2024

Adventure Awaits Journeyers

Discovering the World Anew

From kitchens to travel destinations: Chef Gary Mehigan shares his culinary adventures – Lifestyle News

3 min read

As I took my seat at the elegantly set table, the anticipation of dining with renowned Australian chef and restaurateur, Gary Mehigan, filled the air. The ambiance was cozy yet refined, with soft lighting casting a warm glow over the room. As Gary joined me, his friendly demeanor instantly put me at ease, setting the stage for an evening filled with culinary delights and insightful conversation. With each course that arrived, Gary shared stories of his culinary journey, from humble beginnings to international acclaim. It was clear that his passion for food and commitment to excellence were at the heart of everything he did. As the evening unfolded, I found myself captivated by Gary’s anecdotes and inspired by his innovative approach to cooking. This dinner with Gary Mehigan was not just a meal—it was a truly unforgettable experience that left me with a newfound appreciation for the art of gastronomy. Excerpts from the interview:

What inspired you to become a chef, and how did you get started in the culinary industry?

My grandfather actually was a chef. He had retired by the time I was 14 or 15 years old, and he had a lovely garden. He used to cook for us, and it seemed like a natural progression for me. I was looking for something in which I could be creative, didn’t have a short fuse or a short temper, and didn’t get frustrated with things. It seemed like the perfect opportunity for a part-time job in a local motel, and I just fell in love with it.

Tell us something about your collaboration with The Ardmore. What made you say yes to the association. What makes The Ardmore a perfect match for Indian cuisine?

There are a couple of things actually. Whisky is very popular in India, in fact, probably more popular than wine. So we’ve noticed previously, even though we might do full wine pairings, people still enjoy their whisky. The Ardmore Legacy is a wonderful Highland whisky, and it’s more smoky compared to other whiskies and certainly pairs really well with Indian cuisine. It has a slight peatiness, slight smokiness, some toffee, citrus and orange characteristics that work really well with some big flavors.

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So, putting the menu together with neat pours of The Ardmore for the first two courses, then a herbaceous cocktail for the next two, worked brilliantly well. The rise in popularity of cocktails makes that an easy choice because you’re infusing lots of foodie flavors. It could be aromatics or syrups of fruits with cocktails that give it a different dimension and allow you to match it perfectly well. I’ve had a long association with Conosh, experts in the field of putting on special events as well as an online food educational platform and food delivery platform. So, The Ardmore approached Conosh, and they approached me, and it was a big thumbs up.

Can you share a memorable moment or experience from your culinary journey that has had a significant impact on your career?

A memorable moment that has significantly impacted my career? That’s a tough one, as there have been quite a few pivotal moments. For instance, deciding to move to London after completing my three-year diploma in college was a major turning point. Another standout moment was when my first chef, Michelle, bought the Michelin-starred Avocado Hotel. Working there really set the standard for me, showing me the way to cook at the highest level alongside like-minded individuals. Spending four years under Michelle’s guidance was incredibly formative, shaping my career and honing my skills. Looking back, that period was truly influential in forging my ideas and approach to cooking.

What are the key principles or values that guide your approach to cooking and running a kitchen?

So many! It’s been over 35 years now in my career as a chef, restaurateur, and an expert in my field. But you know, passion, it’s number one. The passion of the people you work with is really important. They have to be passionate about what they do, focused, and love the day-to-day, regardless of how mundane the tasks may seem at times. They have to constantly strive to be better. So, I kind of demand that from the people around me. It can be from the simplest thing like keeping their station tidy, the kitchen and every element spotlessly clean. It’s about the little things, like popping the detail under the apron strings rather than over your shoulder, having a cloth to wipe down with, and putting knives next to your board every time you use it. It’s almost like watching a sous chef who trains for 10 years—the deliberate plan and every part of cooking is exactly the same. The more inconsistencies you eliminate when you prepare something, the better the result. Following the same process and recipe, repeating movements over and over again, it just guarantees consistency and a great result.

How do you plan to incorporate Indian flavors and ingredients into your cooking during your visit?

I don’t do it deliberately. I actually enjoy using local ingredients and ingredients that I discover along the way. So on my last visit I used Kalari cheese from Jammu and I used a multi floral, wild bee honey from Mumbai in dishes along with fresh passion fruit juice. So I tend to do that and use the season’s best. So for example, Alphonso mangoes are just coming into season so they’re on the dessert menu at the dinner with The Ardmore paired with coconut ice cream or white chocolate mousse. We are using purslane on our lamb dish and we’ve got some spicy flavors too, and some local black fermented garlic on that very same dish so I wouldn’t kid you when I say that I come here and want to use Indian flavors on dishes that really aren’t. I’m classically French trained and I love Italian flavors, Spanish flavors, and obviously when I’m cooking at home, I love Indian dishes but I wouldn’t try to feed Indian audiences Indian flavors and try and show off. 

Are there any particular regional cuisines or dishes you’re eager to explore while in India?

This will be my 12th visit in about 14 months, and I’ve traveled extensively throughout India. I’ve been exploring the country since 2013, but particularly in the last 18 months, filming “India’s Mega Festival” with National Geographic. I’ve developed a strong association with Conosh, conducting online masterclasses and traveling to various cities. I’d definitely like to visit and try food in places like the Himalayas, Leh, Nagaland, Tamil Nadu, and Chennai. Last year, I spent a month in Kochi, Kerala, exploring the hills and towns like Munnar, Thekkady, Kumarakom, and Alleppey. I’ve also been back and forth between Delhi, Hyderabad, and Mumbai, which has become a vibrant hub for food, with many exciting young chefs, restaurants, bars, and cafes opening up.

Recently, I visited Punjab and Dawa, where I discovered a restaurant just two hours outside of Chandigarh, nestled in the Himalayas, offering a cutting-edge take on regional indigenous cuisine. I’ve covered a lot of ground, but there’s still so much more to see and explore in India.

How do you think Indian cuisine has influenced global culinary trends, and vice versa?

Well, I think we know that it’s a tough one to wrap up. It’s like saying European cuisine because it doesn’t make any sense. So we really have to start talking about regionality, which we are. Lots of top chefs, commentators, food journalists, and traditionalist historians are talking about the diversity of Indian cuisine because, let’s be honest, if you’re in Leh eating Thukpa and Momos or down in Kerala eating Idli, Appam, or Meen Moilee, there’s not a lot in common. There are different languages, different religions. It’s poles apart! So I think what the world is starting to understand and embrace is the regionality. They are seeing lots of different techniques, not just butter chicken and common street food that we see all the time on Instagram like Pani Puri and Pav Bhaji.

But we’re saying beyond that, we’re looking at indigenous ingredients and things like the Kashmiri Morels or the importance of different millets, you know, things like Sorghum, Hilmar, foxtail millet that are made into many different dishes. So this is starting to move. It’s an era of very quick information transfer. People can look at Instagram and find a million different things very quickly and people are fascinated by it. So I think India’s influence or field of influence over the next few years is going to steadily increase and I’m really pleased to see it because I’m still discovering myself so there is a lot for for the world’s culinary experts to discover and play with and create with, including lots of really great young creators here.

Are there any specific collaborations or projects you’re looking forward to exploring while in India?

I’m hosting dinners in collaboration with Conosh and The Ardmore Legacy. It’s quite exciting! Plans are already in place to return in August and possibly two more times later in the year. Plans tend to unfold as the year progresses, but we’re exploring a variety of opportunities. These include bar and food pop-ups, curating food festivals and experiences, and bringing in chefs from Australia and other parts of the world. We’re also focusing on Indian IPs and chefs, giving them the chance to collaborate in locations like Hanoi, Sydney, and South Africa. There’s a lot happening, and it’s all very exciting!

As a judge on various cooking shows, what do you believe are the most important qualities that make a successful chef?

I was a judge on only one cooking show, which was MasterChef. However, soon to be released is India’s Ultimate Home Chef, which was filmed here last year. We scoured the country in 20 different cities for the best home cooks. It’s very different from MasterChef because here we traveled to the cities, including far-flung ones, looking for the very best home cooks. We’re not talking fancy, crazy dishes. We’re talking about things that people are familiar with, dishes that people love to cook for their families and friends. It’s going to be interesting.

What advice would you give to aspiring chefs who are just starting their careers in the culinary world?

When I’m looking for a chef, whether they’re an amateur cook, a seasoned professional, or for the title of India’s Ultimate Home Chef, or if I were hiring for a restaurant, there are certain key qualities I look for. First and foremost, there must be an all-encompassing passion for their craft. There’s got to be a little sparkle in their eyes when they talk about food and they’ve got to think about food most of the time. Also, judging their commitment is crucial. If they’ve said it’s something they really want to do, then they need to have this kind of steely commitment to get really good at what they do. These are the main things I look for in people—a natural affinity with others, passion for what they do, a vision for where they want to go. These are just the first building blocks we build upon.

Hospitality can be a difficult business, but it’s also very rewarding. It can take you all over the world. There are many different areas of specialization, particularly now. Young students I see coming through various pastry schools or culinary schools and management schools really have the world at their feet, along with what I call entrepreneurial opportunities that I didn’t see when I was younger and when I was training in the ’80s. Now one can specialize in chocolate macarons or in bread, and you could start with one bakery and end up with 40. So it really is a good time to be involved in the business. If you have the right drive, then you’re successful.

Can you share some insights into your favorite cooking techniques or ingredients to work with?

I love cooking with fresh ingredients. To me, that means heading to the market and selecting the finest produce of the season. As summer wraps up in Australia, those final days are brimming with beautiful tomatoes and sweet fruits like plums, apricots, and peaches. Fresh fish is another favorite. With Australia’s extensive coastline, we’re fortunate to have access to some of the world’s best seafood. I love cheese too, especially French cheese. Interestingly, India now has several exceptional cheese makers who are making a mark globally, and I love using it when I’m here. As for techniques, I enjoy a variety of approaches. I like dishes that require intricate techniques and have many elements at play. However, I also find joy in simpler tasks like baking bread. At home, I make sourdough, beer, and Appam, among other things. So there’s lots of processes, lots of things that I enjoy doing because they’re good for you, and it’s not work.

How do you balance traditional cooking methods with modern culinary trends in your dishes?

Carefully. I think traditionalists always worry that newfangled ideas, techniques, or presentations or trends can diminish lots of these traditional beautiful recipes. But don’t forget at some point, these traditional recipes were also cutting edge and new. Just because Nihari is hundreds of years old doesn’t mean that when it was first made, someone wasn’t going- what is this? So I always think that quite naturally the good things stick, good ideas stick, good techniques stick. The transfer of information, as I said earlier, is free flowing right now. So you can pick up ideas from all over the world just by looking at your phone. There’s lots of lots of information out there. So it’s about sifting through it and relying on your training and techniques that you’ve learned through hard work and applying some creativity to that and coming up with a delicious dish. If you care about what you do, you will test the dish and try the dish out on staff, friends and family. Then you’ll make tweaks to it and then put it into play.

What role do you believe restaurants play in promoting sustainability and ethical sourcing of ingredients?

They play a crucial role in sustainability, or I suppose in furthering the cause. If you look at top chefs, particularly at top restaurants, you’ll often find that they’re on the cutting edge or at the forefront of sourcing interesting ingredients. They’re asking local farmers to produce different varieties of vegetables, things that would otherwise maybe get lost, just sitting in people’s private gardens with keen gardeners at the helm, rather than bringing them to market. So, these are important, and I think now, chefs, restaurants, and social media, food-driven social media bring lots of attention to particular things. I’m an advocate for sustainability, providence, buying seasonal, buying local, and I think one of our greatest challenges is sifting through industrial, highly processed food. Sifting through all that information isn’t good for you, amidst the hype, the advertising, and the push from supermarkets.

We need to remind ourselves constantly that fresh is best, home-cooked is best, only because you know what’s in it. People are often surprised when I do a demonstration, and if I’m baking or making something sweet like a cake, they go, “Wow, that’s a lot of sugar,” or “That’s a lot of butter.” And yet, they might buy that cake in a packet and not give it another thought. So, there’s an old saying that goes, “If you cook, you care.” That tends to mean that when you need three eggs for an omelet, you’re often asking yourself, “Where did the eggs come from? Are they good? Have they been sourced from somewhere that looks after the chickens?” I am reminding people not to get caught up in the hype, not to get caught up in how easy it is to buy fast food or things in packets and packages, and really get back to basics.

What are some upcoming projects or ventures you are excited about in the culinary world?

So, I have a few exciting ventures lined up for the busy year ahead. I’ve just opened an outlet at the Qantas terminal in Melbourne. I’m also collaborating with Luxury Escapes and Matt Preston, my fellow judge from MasterChef, to curate some beautiful food tours in 4-5 different destinations, including India. We’ll be exploring the Golden Triangle in India, Sri Lanka, Japan, and Vietnam. Additionally, I have some interesting events and pop-ups lined up for this year. I’m also part of a series in Australia called Melbourne Weekender, where I present the food segment weekly. Another project is Luxury Escapes TV, a travel-based television series. I’ll also be participating in 2-3 well-known food festivals.


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