When MasterChef Australia invaded Pretoria

By Tony Jackman 20 September 2019

In Pretoria last weekend, MasterChef Australia's outgoing judges Gary Mehigan, far left, George Calombaris and Matt Preston. Photo: Craig Owen

The second annual Appetite Fest at Pretoria’s Time Square hotel and entertainment complex played host to the three outgoing judges of MasterChef Australia last weekend. Matt Preston gets to grips with Klippies & Coke, George Calombaris gets all huggy, and Gary Mehigan spills on What Really Went Down when the guys quit the show.

For a deconstructed townie from the Eastern Cape Midlands, this is a lot of bling. You’re contemplating how much life has changed when, into your reverie, steps a young man called Promise. You’ve been at Time Square, in Menlyn, Pretoria, for some hours already and have just encountered a bar called The Globe. It’s an arresting sight.

You glide sideways into the Globe, wondering what Oom Paul would have made of this, and hoping the young man in the pristine suit won’t recognise you as the plaasjapie you feel like right now, and kick you out. But all he gives you is a cheery, “Good evening, sir”.

The Globe Bar at Time Square, Pretoria. Photo: Tony Jackman

Seem to have got away with it then. Your eye for bling draws you to a display of glinting bottles, aglow with the butterscotch hues of aged brandy. The legend scrawled on the labels seems to have been written in molten gold smelt by hand from Kruger Rands. Remy Martin Louis Tres. Wonder if I can afford a tot, just a little one, you wonder. Having read your mind, Promise (it says on his lapel badge) is, magically, right at your elbow, as if cast there by a Hogwarts wand. They teach quantum leaping and mind-reading at hotel school nowadays.

This looks expensive,” you say, deciding to let your mind run wild, reaching out for an outlandish sum. “These must be, like, a grand a tot hey?”

Your grin swiftly disappears.

Oh no, sir… three thousand one hundred, sir.”

Three grand for that bottle?” and you push your eyes back in from their stalks.

Erm, no, sir. A tot.”

Oh come on.

R3,100 a tot, sir.”


The bottle, says Promise, would set my Karoo wallet back R75,000. (My bank manager’s still laughing.) The elixir within each of those bottles has aged for 100 years.

Remy Martin Louis Tres display at the Globe Bar at Time Square, Pretoria. Photo: Tony Jackman

You’re opening a century’s worth of distillation, sir. Each of these bottles is owned by somebody who has paid for the bottle, and they can come in here whenever they like and ask us to pour it for them.”

Are any of them in here now?” you ask, reckoning you could pally up to them and maybe they’d offer you a drink and you’d say, “Ja, that one over there looks nice. The one in the glass cabinet.”

But you’d have to scarper before it was your turn to buy a round. They might not be the Klippies and Coke type.

Your protestations that you can get a Klippies and Coke at the Zonked Zebra in Cradock for less than forty bucks invites a flicker of a smile. Promise has been trained to be respectful, even of townies from the Eastern Cape Midlands.

This weekend, MasterChef Australia has decamped to Pretoria. Only minutes after arriving you’d bumped into Stellenbosch restaurateur Bertus Basson (and got to watch him make melkkos), who’d introduced you to Ben Ungermann, near-winner of the previous season. Over the next two days you’d be treated to masterclasses with Matt Preston, Gary Mehigan and George Calombaris, and attend demos with Shannon Bennett and Sashi Cheliah, the most recent overall winner and the only contestant ever to have won two immunity pins. You’d have dinner at Forti with Bertus and his family, hosted by Fortunato Mazzone, whom you’d never met before, being more of a Capey type. And have solo meals at J’Something (the other judge of My Kitchen Rules alongside David Higgs) and Guy Fieri’s, about which not much more later.

Throughout, no matter how exciting it gets – and it does – you have moments when you just want to be back under your Karoo sun, in your back yard with the braai fire and a whiskey. The level of brio, of unbridled life, is so intense that for two of your three nights there it’s hard to sleep, your mind is tumbling so.

You throw yourself in.

A Masterclass with Matt Preston

Matt Preston’s Coke & Klippies Chocolate Torte. Photo: Tony Jackman

It’s 2pm on Saturday, and here’s Matt Preston in his masterclass. He’s brandishing a packet of Ghost Pops. Opening and munching. Have we noticed, he asks, that Ghost Pops have become “more tomatoey” lately. Matt has always been the down-home cook of the trio. He’s a food writer, and still regards that as his mainstay; has been with the same magazine forever. He’s making his Ghost Pops Fried Chicken, having decided long ago (I recall him making it on the show once) to try to replicate the flavour of the snack in a chicken dish.

You end up with a plate of homemade chicken nuggets in front of you, and a little bowl of the actual snack, to compare. His marinade looks like a tandoori mix and includes onion powder, garlic powder and Marmite (back home it’d be Vegemite), with a mix of flour, cornflour and Panko crumbs for crunch. He dunks chicken tidbits in the marinade, then in the crumbs, and deep-fries them. “In Aus,” he says, “you can buy a bag of ‘crispies’, the crunchy bits left over.” Like pork scratchings in the UK. They taste surprisingly good, and the flavour is indeed a neat match for the real Ghost Pops deal.

Ghost Pops Fried Chicken: Photo: Tony Jackman

He banters about the Rugby World Cup and confesses, “I am, like every other Australian, a Springboks supporter” (when his own team isn’t playing). “You understand all that stops in seven days time….”

There follows a Matt Preston top tip:

M0st of the heat (in a chilli) is in the veins, not the pips (as most of us think), so scrape out the veins.”

There’s a fair dinkum potjie on stage, which turns out to be for his next dish.

At home it’d be a kangaroo potjie, but here I’m using springbok.”

His seriously delicious potjie is topped with plums that have been steeped in orange juice and castor sugar, and – what else – the ubiquitous MasterChef Australia “crumb”. Seems every dish in Australia has to have a crumb if it’s to pass muster. He makes pap in a way you might want to emulate. He uses three times the normal quantity of cooking liquid, and finishes it with the squeezed-out flesh of roasted garlic.

Matt’s springbok potjie, with garlicky pap, finished with a typically Australian ‘crumb’. Photo: Tony Jackman

We should,” he observes, “be klapping some Klippies, getting some Coke, and warming our hands around the fire.”

(Earlier he’d asked, seriously, “Do you guys eat your pap in a cone?” And then the dawning that someone has been pulling his leg.)

But it’s Matt’s dessert that makes you sit up and realise that he is a far better cook than the first course might have suggested. It’s a simply wondrous chocolate torte that he’s made up on the fly since arriving. He’s flavoured it with Klippies and Coke, and makes a butterscotch of butter, cream and brown sugar in equal quantities. We’re presented with beautifully plated slices of the torte with caramel, a Coke syrup glaze, crème fraiche ice cream, and a golden crumb enhanced with gold leaf. Gold Star for Matt.

A Masterclass with Gary Mehigan

Gary Mehigan’s pork curry, with a mantou bun. Photo: Tony Jackman

It’s 6pm on Saturday and, with Gary, the chat is as good as the food. He has always been the classicist of the three, with his French training and early experience at the super-posh Connaught in London’s Mayfair. There were “50 blokes and one woman in the kitchen”, he says of those more patriarchal times. “Kitchens around the world have changed enormously.”

He chats with us first, as comfortable as if he were in his own sitting room at home chatting over an aperitif. For his recent Masters of Taste show at one point he cooked with Jains in India. “I cooked for 24 enlightened gurus.” Jains won’t so much as rip whole plants out of the ground, so no carrots or turnips for them. And they won’t eat broccoli or cauliflower because there are little spaces inside them where small creatures might lurk. No easy ask to cook for a diet that strict, he observes, yet the food they made was “incredible”.

Then, Mehigan tells the story of what really went down mid-year when news broke that the three were leaving the show.

I remember driving into the studio about half way through this current season and just going [exhales deeply]; you know, it’s been a long time and I just went, boom. And I spoke to the boys and they felt the same way. We did a massive food tour which was a celebration of 10 years. Everyone who would have followed us on Instagram would have seen basically that we got permission from our wives to go on a boys’ trip.

We bought cheap round-the-world tickets … in the end what we did is we spoiled ourselves, we wrote down 12 restaurants that we’d always wanted to go to and 12 restaurants we’d be unlikely to go to again … and we talked non-stop shit about food for 16 days, beginning in the car to the airport and ending in the car on the way back from the airport. And we realised we just wanted to do our own thing. So I think it was a self-fulfilling prophecy that when it came to contract renewal time, we almost made it impossible for us to end up back on MasterChef season 12.

And the relief when … I’d just been shopping with my wife and George rang me and said, uh… and I went, ‘wow, there you go’, and he said, ‘you feel okay?’ and I said ‘yeah’.” (He leaves us to fill in the blanks.)

And Matt – and this always happens to Matt – it was the night of the finale for MasterChef and he was in the car outside one of the biggest radio stations in Australia … and he was sitting next to the head of publicity and he found out on Instagram. And he turned round to the head of publicity and said, ‘did you know?’ ‘No.’ ‘Shit.’ And yeah, it was a really surreal, interesting experience, but just to let you know, I think the only thing we feel regretful about is that we didn’t have the opportunity to pass on the baton to the new judges.”

The door is not shut too tightly however.

I think we’re so emotionally connected to MasterChef that we certainly want it to go on for many years. The idea of passing the baton on to a new generation is very important for us. So, I think one day they’ll ask us back to do a masterclass.

So now you get the actual truth,” he wraps up. “Stay tuned, because we’ve got lots of irons in the fire.”

His masterclass dishes included fillet of salmon and its caviar with Mandarin gin, lemon verbena cream and crustacean oil (you roast the shells with aromatics including garlic, chilli and coriander root which you “smash up and steep in good olive oil”. And every bit as good as it sounds. Then, a pork curry which he served with mantou (Chinese steamed buns).

Gary’s top tip?

He makes a curry paste that “no creature will survive in”, which he finishes with a topping of tempered spices – “take the same spices (used for the marinade) and add to oil such as coconut oil, temper and pour over the top of the curry”.

A Masterclass with George Calombaris

George Calombaris’ way with taramasalata. Just magnificent. And note that it’s not pink. Photo: Tony Jackman

Finally, this little guy who his audience just loves. Even if his pronunciation is a fright. “Boo roo worst.” Nah mate. But good try. Anyway, moving on.

He makes us the “salad that was the most popular recipe in Australia for five years”. So successful that he boxed and branded it. He’s brought some samples with him and punctuates his show with giving them out to people who have looked after him in Pretoria, to his sous chef Simon’s mom and dad (Simon hails from Port Elizabeth), to a little boy he’d met that day. He’s tremendously kind; you can’t take that away from him.

Who’s your favourite judge,” he asks the lad, 6, who’s gone up to the stage.

Um… Gary,” the boy says, not blinking.

George makes a taramasalata (cod roe dip) like no other you’ve tasted. It’s “true umami for Greeks”, he says, and so ridiculously sublime that you’ll never touch the bought, pink variety again.

George’s top tip?

If the taramasalata is pink, it’s not genuine, mate – he says it means “they’re covering up” that it’s not real cod roe.

He makes dill oil, soaks caviar in ouzo, fiddles with micro turnips, pickles radishes, makes a butter sauce, whips up a beautiful spinach and parsley sauce, and uses, in one dish, fermented cracked wheat which “smells like hops”.

And yes, he uses his trademark tweezers when plating up, whether his grain salad, his ravioli or the garnish for his taramasalata. “This is my absolute pleasure in life, just to stand there and plate up.”

He gets everyone to stand up and hug someone for 20 seconds, “because a 20-second hug every day lowers heart disease”.

You have to like the little guy. Not to like him would be like spurning your Teddy Bear. DM


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