Interviews: Five of the World's Best Chefs / by Tara Kaushal

December 2013: What and where do the experts eat? Five of the world’s best chefs—“we're absolute food fanatics”—reveal their favourite restaurants and food experiences, and what they love about Indian food.

September in Mumbai is a muggy, mundane month. The monsoon has just ended, and the festive season is just about starting to simmer. So when Harper’s Bazaar called to ask whether I’d like to meet not one, not two, but several of the world’s top chefs, it seemed like just the spice my month needed.

This month, Gary Mehigan from MasterChef Australia was in town promoting Melbourne, the sunny city he chose over gloomy London. Sydney’s Mark Best, London’s Alyn Williams, Buckinghamshire’s Laurie Gear and the Isle of Skye’s Marcello Tully were among those participating in the Creative Services Support Group’s CSSG 2013 Summit—Food & Art Edition. Chefs Gear and Tully were also here to launch Taste, a curated cookbook in collaboration with five other Michelin-starred and celebrity chefs from around the world.

Gary Mehigan, MasterChef Australia

Five minutes into a conversation with chef Gary Mehigan, I feel I’ve met him before. It’s no wonder: on MasterChef Australia, one of the world’s most watched cooking shows, the loved trio of hosts-judges was told, early on, to just be themselves. “George (Calombaris) and I had worked together for a long time; we’d known Matt (Preston) as a food critic for 10 years, his kids went to the same crèche as my daughter. The conversations we have, the way we interact with contestants, it’s all natural.”

Gary was born on Hayling Island on the South Coast of England, to an engineer father and artist mother. Food was always an important part of family life, and his mother cooked everything from scratch, not pandering at all to the boy’s hankerings for popular pre-packaged food. “I want to rekindle an interest in cooking at home, cooking for family, for love, for health,” he says about his cooking evangelism.

It was his grandfather, a chef and teacher, who helped him embark on his journey with food. Having trained in world-class restaurants, including The Connaught and Le Souffle in London in his early years, Gary and his wife Mandy moved to Melbourne in 1991. “It’s not so much the cold but the darkness of London that got to me. I’d be in the kitchen all day, and would barely see sunlight for nine months of the year.” On vacation, sitting in Fitzroy Gardens on a crystal-clear, cloud-free Melbourne day, Gary and Mandy decided that the city was it!

Since, he’s opened two restaurants, award-winning Fenix in 2000 and The Maribyrnong Boathouse in 2007; written several best-selling cookbooks including Gary Mehigan’s Comfort Food and Your Place or Mine with George Calombaris; and progressed in this television career from doing “the odd appearance spots on daytime TV to the first series of Ready Steady Cook, then Good Chef Bad Chef, which all culminated in Boy’s Weekend. And that got me into MasterChef.”

As a discerning foodie, I ask Gary to list his favourite restaurants and foods. “There are quite a few places in the world where you can spend a lot of money on eating exceptionally well,” he says dreamily, listing The Fat Duck in the UK, French Laundry and Shake Shack, NYC, in the USA, Mugaritz in Spain, Le Chateaubriand in Paris, and Antica Corte Pallavicina in Italy as his favourites. “The food served at the Corte, a 700-year-old farmhouse, is all made from the produce of the farm. They serve this divine pork cured for over three years under the house. It’s quite an experience.”

Gary says he loves “the coconut base, curry leaves and light flavour” of South Indian food. “You mean Kerala cuisine,” I suggest. “Yes, I love appams, and recently drove 40 kilometres to get myself an appam pan from an Indian shop.” I tell him that my mother is a Melbourne-based Keralite. “Maybe she’ll make appams for me?” he asks hopefully, making me laugh. He also loves gulab jamuns, which he equates to donuts: “Not the fried donuts you get everywhere, but good ones. I’ll make them for you sometime."

Mark Best, Marque, Sydney

For a much-awarded chef, Mark Best started his career as an electrician in the gold mines in Western Australia and didn’t move in to hospitality until he was 25. “If you’d ever been down a gold mine in Western Australia, you’d know you don’t need any incentive to get out of there,” he laughs. Like many people, Mark had a pipe dream of running a café. His concerned flatmate, a chef of a well-known bistro in Sydney, told him he was a “complete idiot”, getting in to an extremely difficult industry without knowing much about it. She made him work in the kitchen for a day.

And there, on that day, Mark had his first culinary epiphany. “It was like being stuck by lightening,” he says. “I thought: ‘My god, this is it!’ This was what I wanted to do!” Thus commenced his apprenticeship at the Macleay Street Bistro, Potts Point, in 1990. Five years later, he opened his own restaurant, Peninsula Bistro, Balmain, with his wife Valerie Best, which soon became popular and drew rave critical acclaim.  

Through travel, Mark had fallen in love with France and regional French food very early on. In 1998, to further his study of French cuisine, he worked at Alain Passard’s three Michelin Star L'Arpège in Paris and Raymond Blanc’s Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons in Oxfordshire, UK. He returned to start Marque in Surry Hills in 1999.

“I’ve come to realise that Australia is a Western nation, but it’s geographically part of Asia. I don’t like the term ‘fusion’, but embrace the influences of the multicultural population.” Lots of travel through Asia opened his eyes to the local street food and the cooking styles of the region, and informed the food at Marque. From Chinese cuisine, he learnt explore texture. “Many things in Chinese cuisine don’t have much of a flavour, but an interesting texture, like shark fin which is gelatinous.” But it’s important to be subtle about your influences and “careful that your menu doesn’t read like a map of where you’ve just been.”

A food experience that’s clearly important to Mark—he mentions it twice—is eating stir fried chilli potatoes just under the Great Wall in China. L'Arpège and the famous bistros of Paris are his absolute favourite places to eat, as is Narisawa in Tokyo.

For someone so influenced by Asia, it is no surprise that Mark loves the diversity of Indian cuisine—“like the language, the filling of a samosa can change every ten kilometres. It looks the same, but it changes”—though this is his first time in the country. His introduction to Indian cooking was when he was still an electrician, through a cookbook by actor-food-writer Madhur Jaffrey, and his favourite Indian food is something simple, something he’s eaten for a long time: masala dosa. “I love that food is so deeply engrained in the Indian people and culture.”

“At Marque, I’ll use Indian spices like cumin, coriander and turmeric to season.” On his whirlwind trip, Mark looks forward to spending time in local markets, looking at spices, and seeing how and in what combinations the locals use them. “But people say you can spend 300 lifetimes exploring India, and I’ve got 10 days!” he says as he hurries off.

Alyn Williams, Alyn Williams at The Westbury, London

A Michelin Star chef, Alyn Williams admits he wasn’t a child prodigy, but developed a palate and appreciation of food early through his father, who was—and still is—a very good cook. “Dad used to grow his own vegetables in the garden of our home in London, and would cook for passion and pleasure on Sundays.” He could still eat his father’s minestrone every day… “It’s delicious, it reminds me of him, reminds me of my mother who died 14 years ago. Food in our house was all about family. It was all about sitting around the table and eating and talking and enjoying each other’s company.”

Alyn learnt his craft at a wide variety of establishments, both in the UK (Les Alouettes in Surrey, and Le Champignon Sauvage in Cheltenham), and in Colorado and California in the USA. In 1998, he joined Teatro in London as sous chef, working alongside head chef Stuart Gillies and consultant Gordon Ramsay. He then moved to Ramsay’s Pétrus for just over two years. After working with celebrity chef Marcus Wareing for more than eight years, he is now chef/patron of Alyn Williams at The Westbury.

“I was classically trained and use a French lineage, though it’s hard to categorise absolutely what a cuisine is anymore,” he opines. “Your horizons have broadened. The ingredients you use are different. At one time, you used to buy off-the-shelf products from generic markets. Now, my vegetables come from organic farms in the South of England; meat from three different farmers around the UK; shellfish from divers off the coast of Scotland. It’s a different world, led by quality ingredients, abundant knowledge and creativity.”

Alyn also points out how much eating out has evolved in London. “It used to be that when food was expensive, it was often quite good. But if it wasn’t very expensive, you were almost sure it was going to be quite poor. Whereas these days, you can eat very well at all levels—from pub food or snack-bar food all the way through to fine dining three Michelin Star restaurants.” He counts Medlar, Kitchen Table and his own restaurant as having fine food in London, and at the top, he mentions gourmets like Alain Ducasse.

When the Williams family travels, it’s not in a culinary way, but Alyn has a hundred restaurants on his wish list including L'Arpège in Paris, French Laundry in the USA, Quay in Australia, and the food of Brazilian chef Alex Atala. 

He calls his visit to India 25 years ago, when he was 21, “life changing”. Though his father had a mortar-pestle and would grind spices, and Alyn had tried Indian food—stuffed paratha, uttapam, samosa—courtesy the Indian and Pakistani population where he lived in London, he admits having a “plain palate” when he arrived. In six months, he had eaten “spice beyond (his) wildest dreams.” Since, he has eaten Indian food every week—his favourites include something called chicken Madras (that he’s convinced doesn’t exist in India) and prawn vindaloo (that he first tried in Goa). “I’m not a very good Indian cook,” he says. “But I really love the food!”

Laurie Gear, The Artichoke, Buckinghamshire

Awarded the Michelin Rising Star prize, chef Laurie Gear is largely self-taught. With a baker father and school cook mother, he has always found a feeling of comfort in the “noisy, hot, dirty, smelly” environment of a kitchen.

Laurie started by washing dishes at the local hotel at 14 in the coastal town of Lyme Regis in Dorset. “I come from a very humble background where the concept of pocket money didn’t exist. So if you wanted anything—a skateboard or BMX—you had to earn it.”

He recalls going to a wealthier friend’s house for dinner, back in the '70s when he was 12 or 13. “They had a glass coffee table, and I was thinking: ‘My gosh, that’s posh!’” Then his friend’s mum brought out a bowl of spaghetti bolognese. “I didn’t know how to eat it at first!” he laughs. “Scared the hell out of me, the wriggly worms.”

“It got me thinking, got me excited. I’d never tasted a bay leaf before, though they grew wild where I lived. It sounds simple now, but canned tomato puree had been used. Parmesan was grated on—I thought you only had cheese on toast!”

At the hotel, he was inspired by the way the chef picked the salad leaves; he’d see fresh fish coming into the kitchen to be stuffed and made into something beautiful. After a two-year course at Weymouth College, he apprenticed at Combe House, Gittisham. In an all-girls kitchen, singled out for his background and accent, a “terrified” Laurie immersed himself in the disciple of the kitchen. He analyses group dynamics: “Once you can run with the wolves, they will accept you.”

Though his early grounding has been in the classics, Laurie is mindful of the pros and cons of never having had a mentor. “Being tainted by others’ styles has never been a fear. My mistakes were made trying to learn on the job.” From Combe House, Laurie moved to Gee’s Brasserie, Oxford, then as head chef at Pinewood Film Studios, where he worked with his wife Jacqueline. He further honed his culinary skills with stints at The Fat Duck and Gordon Ramsay on Hospital Road, both awarded three Michelin Stars, and at Sally Clarkes.

Jackie and Laurie opened The Artichoke in 2002, and it was wildly popular until it closed in April 2008 due to fire damage. During this sabbatical, Laurie worked at the world-renowned Noma in Copenhagen. The Artichoke reopened in 18 months to many awards and much glory.

Food is all about the experience and the feeling, and can work for so many different reasons: celebration, comfort, memory. “Sure, sometimes it’s great to be pampered and have a Michelin Star meal. If the moment’s right, you could be having fish-n-chips, sitting in the car with the windows down, looking at the sea, and that’s a three-star meal.”

Laurie knows little about Indian cuisine—“For the most part, we in Britain know only bastardised shabby imitations.” He expected it to be overspiced, like curries in Britain that don’t appeal to his sensitive palate. But he’s been blown away. He likens idlis to a “Scandinavian sour dough”; and is pleasantly surprised by the precision of the spicing of food, akin to the “finest of French cuisine in terms of marriages of flavour and seasoning”. Who would’ve thought!

Marcello Tully, Kinloch Lodge, Isle of Skye

At 14, Brazil-born Michelin Star chef Marcello Tully was serving tea and coffee part time, on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Within three-four months, he was put in to the kitchen of the restaurant, where he worked for about three years. Post professional training, he joined the legendary Roux Brothers for six years in diverse Roux establishments including the restaurants Le Gavroche, Rouxl Britannia and La Boucherie Lamartine, and Home Rouxl, the first sous-vide processing plant in the UK.

Marcello then left the restaurant industry for food manufacturing and development. He met and stayed in contact with food writer Lady Claire Macdonald, the wife of Lord Macdonald, the chief of the Scottish Clan Donald. “She rang me out of the blue one day in 2007, asking whether I knew anyone who would go to Skye to take over the restaurant at the Kinloch Lodge. I said: ‘Me.’” he says. “The rest, as they say, is history.”

Since, he has won several awards, making the Kinloch Lodge on the Isle of Skye a sought-after food and hospitality destination in Scotland. “It’s been a lot of hard work, making the hotel, and not just the food, bigger and better.” Though he’s in a remote location, what’s exciting to classically trained, Brazil-influenced Marcello is being in a place where he has access to the best product and ingredients in the world.

Though he says he likes “any food that has been done well”, given a choice, Marcello would only eat at the best restaurants in the world, those with Michelin Stars (there are 16 in Scotland, including his). “I’m a chef,” he asserts. “If I eat something, I will know immediately how fresh the ingredients are, how skilled the cook is. Eight out of the ten times I’ve been to a restaurant without a Michelin Star, I have been disappointed with the food.” He follows this by confessing to liking a McDonald’s hamburger. “People are shocked when they hear me say this,” he says, reading my mind. “You bite in to a cheeseburger, and think, ‘Umm that’s really nice.’ But when you eat each component by itself, it is disgusting. The burger is bad, the bread is dry… but somehow, together, it works. It’s very well to be snooty and call it cardboard, but look how many burgers they sell!” He also surprises me when he says that he can have an aeroplane meal and think: “Wow!”

What Marcello finds beautiful about Indian food is the passion poured into it, something he respects. “It has a wonderful balance of ingredients, so I love cooking the food, and enjoy eating it too.” He likes curries, but not too hot, and would rather have a couple of roasted chillies on the side than have them cooked into the food. “My food is very versatile, I have a lot of different cuisines going on, some Oriental sauces.” He has a curry on the menu at Kinloch Lodge, that he’s called a Brazilian coconut and lime curry—“But it’s not!” he chuckles. “It’s got very Indian influences, with all the ingredients: ginger, chilli, garlic, and even a bit of Madras curry powder.”

An edited version of these interviews appeared in Harper's Bazaar in December 2013.