by Gary Mehigan
Sometimes it strikes me that my obsession with food is bordering on the unhealthy. Everything I do is centred around it: my work, obviously, but also evenings at home spent cooking for the family, watching food programs on television and tweeting and facebooking about food. Going to the growers’ market bright and early on a Saturday morning, followed by breakfast at a cafe, then same again on Sunday. Dinners out, too many coffee stops, long drives in the country that strangely enough always end with a food reward (cheese, chocolate or wine from the Yarra Valley; berries, cherries and olives from the Mornington Peninsula; or beer, bread and honey from Beechworth). I mean, who drives seven kilometres for a tub of the best, freshly churned ice cream? These are the forgotten food miles.
Holidays are worse. My first thoughts are always ‘Where haven’t I eaten?’ and ‘Where would I like to eat again?’ Whether it’s France, Spain, Thailand, Vietnam or New Zealand, the pattern is the same and, frankly, inescapable for my family. We went to Tuscany for our last holiday so I could visit the Amedei chocolate factory. I mean, you’ve seen one duomo, you’ve seen ’em all, right?
My wife, Mandy, has succumbed to the inevitable (my daughter, bless her cotton socks, doesn’t know any different). ‘Any chance we can go out for a change?’ Mandy might ask. ‘What!’ I reply. ‘We go out four or five times a week, always trying the latest thing.’ ‘No,’ she says, ‘out, but not involving food. Maybe dancing, the pictures, a walk, the ballet or a museum?’ I’m still digesting that one!
Now and then I wonder if I should be doing something else with my time, like learning to play tennis or finally nailing my conversational French instead of making do with my culinary pidgin. But, on the whole, I’ve come to accept that my obsession with food is all – encompassing, and that’s the way I like it. I’m never happier than when I’m thinking about food, talking about food, shopping for food or eating. I love the generosity of spirit that comes with being a cook: feeding people and feeding them well, often to bursting point. Years ago I very deliberately stopped trying to draw a line in the sand to distinguish between work and play, and now I live by the motto ‘Always working, always playing’. This has helped me manage my condition considerably.
Not only do I love experiencing all that a good food life has to offer, but I also relish sharing my experiences and knowledge with others. For this, my fourth cookbook, I was inspired to sit down and write a list of my favourite dishes: absolutely everything I love to eat. I thought back to the meals of my childhood as well as those from my early career as a chef in London. I thought of the food I cook for my wife and daughter at home that have become family classics. And I thought of the wealth of amazing dishes from talented cooks and chefs, both here and abroad, that I have been lucky enough to try over the years as co – host of MasterChef Australia. As the list ballooned to over 200 dishes, I had to restrain myself! After much deliberation, I whittled it down to just over 100, and here they are – my all – time favourite dishes.
This is a diverse collection. I was classically trained in French cuisine, and there is no getting away from the fact that I love French cooking – the flavours are bold, satisfying and familiar. By contrast, living in Australia we are inescapably immersed in the pleasures of food multiculturalism; we think nothing of eating Thai or Chinese on a Monday night, Malay or Vietnamese on a Tuesday, maybe Spanish or North African on a Wednesday and roast chook on a Thursday. We love fresh food, we love sweet, sour, salt and heat and, above all, crunch. How lucky we are.
Good food always starts with good shopping – it’s where the inspiration begins. We are all guilty of trudging around the supermarket and putting exactly the same things in the shopping trolley each week (you know what I mean: skinless chicken breasts, lamb chops, a block of cheddar and some tinned tuna). It’s easy, let’s face it – but it’s pretty uninspiring too. I’ve found the secret to creative cooking at home is to buy at least a few different fruits or vegetables, cuts of meat, fish, spices, pastes or vinegars, get them home and have a go at a new recipe or two each week. I also find that a trip to the local Asian grocer always turns up a few surprises; things that add instant authenticity to a dish, like thick dark soy sauce, coconut vinegar, lily buds, black beans or rice noodles. Pop them in your basket and they’ll change the dishes you put on the family table.
If you’re lucky enough to live near a growers’ market, make the most of it. The stallholders are a wonderful source of information because they live what they do, and most often they love it too! You’ll easily fall into a pattern of buying the best the season has to offer. When a particular ingredient looks fantastic, seems to be everywhere at once and is at its cheapest, buy it and eat lots of it!
I hope this book is a little window into my life of food. Have fun, and remember to bite off small chunks of recipes, give yourself time to chew and always leave room for more. In other words, never get frustrated in the kitchen, take a little time if you are tackling something out of the ordinary and enjoy the journey as much as the destination.
Cook, Eat and Live Your Life Well!