Matt Preston on Singapore-born MasterChef winner Sashi Cheliah and the greatest challenges facing chefs today
For the love of food
Matt Preston is no stranger to anyone with a genuine love for food, or who religiously keeps up with episodes of MasterChef Australia. The English-born Australian food journalist, food critic, and television personality has a way with his words — making any dish sound like the holy grail of dining. He is part of the trio of judges on MasterChef Australia — which also includes George Calombaris and Gary Mehigan — and is more often than not, the life of the party. What a joy he is to watch as well: Preston is usually the one decked out in colourful suits and dizzying pants — and has since given new meaning to cravats (it comes as no surprise that his Instagram handle is @mattscravat).
Over the course of my 20-minute phone call with Preston last week, he is affable in demeanour, responding to my "How are you?" with a lengthy commentary on Melbourne's beautiful winter weather, and is clearly passionate about what he does. You could almost hear his excited anticipation before every question; his responses, well thought-out and chockfull of insider information.
Last night, most of Australia (including myself) witnessed Singapore-born Sashi Cheliah take home the title of MasterChef Australia Season 10, in the most one-sided final in history. As Singaporeans, we couldn't be more proud of our heritage and the Southeast Asian cooking Cheliah had put up throughout the competition. Here's what Preston had to say about MasterChef Australia's 10th year, Cheliah's gifts and abilities, and what food really means at the end of the day.
ON MASTERCHEF AUSTRALIA SEASON 10...
We wanted this season to be about dishes and dreams. We don't want you to be a good cook; we want you to be a great cook and make your life around food. 75% of people who have been on MasterChef now work in food.
MasterChef is now 10 years old, which is a very long time in television. It started really well and the audience numbers are up from last year. That's incredible given that the general trend in television is going down, so we are doing something right and people have fallen in love with this batch of contestants. At the end of the day, MasterChef is about the contestants and nothing else. They are the be all and end all.
THE GOLDEN RULE WHEN IT COMES TO JUDGING A DISH...
In the past, you might see contestants assemble cool elements to make a dish, rather than contestants who cook really delicious food first. And we've always been about delicious food first.
We've always had a very simple rule: the winning dish is the one you're most likely to eat again tomorrow. It's the only way you can compare a complex, structural dessert to a chilli crab — it's like, "Oh my goodness, I want to have that again." That cuts to the soul of the dish, much like the soul of a person rather than what they're wearing. We (George, Gary, and I) are all slightly different in terms of what we like, but the number of times we've had angry disagreements? Probably only four. There is a universal truth of what makes a good burger or bak kut teh.
PEOPLE THAT HAVE INSPIRED YOUR CAREER...
The amazing chefs that I've worked with before MasterChef, such as Massimo Bottura. I'll never cook like them but the way their brain works is brilliant. But I also take inspiration from eating street food — like that fantastic murtabak in Little India or having to trek across town to a grungy little place for chicken rice.
FIRST IMPRESSIONS OF SINGAPORE-BORN CONTESTANT SASHI CHELIAH...
Sashi has an infectious laugh and smile. He does also get worried. With Sashi, everything he is thinking and feeling is on his face. Given the history of what he's done in terms of work, it's quite surprising — but I think he genuinely loves to cook and he's got a real aptitude for it.
HOW SASHI STOOD OUT FROM THE REST...
His ability with flavour is amazing. Diana Chan was the same last year. Sashi is also great at bringing his style of flavours into European dishes as well, which gives him another string to his bow. Desserts aren't his strength, but the longer the contestants stay in the competition, the more they develop in terms of other skills. They discover their own chinks in the armour and repair them.
THE COMMON DENOMINATOR OF FOOD CITIES WORLDWIDE...
Sashi does come from one of the great places of food, and one of the great places that appreciates food. Often, you talk to top chefs and you'll say to them, "Where do you eat out?" And they don't have a list; but in Singapore, everyone eats out the whole time. You want advice on where to get a specific dish; you can pretty much talk to anyone, whether it's the guy who serves you coffee on the airplane or the guy driving a taxi — everyone has a point of view. This is the same in places like Melbourne, Singapore, or New York, everyone has an opinion and you get really good advice.
THE LOWDOWN ON PRESSURE TESTS...
The perfect pressure test is when the contestant finishes when the time runs out. You don't want them to finish an hour early, and you don't want an hour too little that you don't get the dish up. We work really hard in terms of testing with amateur cooks to ensure the dishes we're giving them is achievable within that amount of time.
We want pressure tests to have something they can use later — where they pick up a skill or learn how to make a custard or a different pastry that they haven't learnt before. Or they pick up another way to make a sauce. When we give them that five-page recipe, the ones that stay are just a bit of a better cook. And you'll find that in every season of MasterChef, there are a couple of people that make the top four who have done a lot of pressure tests. The more you cook, the better you get.
"At the end of the day, most chefs have to come to a decision on whether they're going to make money or whether they're going to make art."
THE GREATEST CHALLENGES FACING CHEFS AT THE MOMENT...
Money, money, money. It's expensive to get a lease and fit out a restaurant. There is so much competition. Not just competition from other small restaurants, but competition from the big chains. I'm a huge fan of eating where the guy who owns the store is cooking — I don't want to go somewhere where the food comes out of a central kitchen.
At the end of the day, most chefs have to come to a decision on whether they're going to make money or whether they're going to make art. Fast food chains are making more money, but smaller restaurants see the joy on people's faces when they try a dish. They will be hopefully creating things that no one has tried before. That's exciting, that's the brave new world, that's the pinnacle of gastronomy.
WHAT REALLY MATTERS AT THE END OF THE DAY...
There are also contestants who enjoy putting up a great mee goreng, for example, and everyone is happy. At the end of the day, we can't get too serious about food. It's something we do when we go out with our friends, and something that keeps us to the table and chatting when people come to our houses. It's not what's on the table that matters, it's the eyes across it that do.
Catch episodes of MasterChef Australia Season 10 on Lifetime Asia. The finale episode will be aired in Singapore in September.
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