Last year, Mehigan, Calombaris and Preston went on a two-week “boys’ trip”. They didn’t know it at the time, but this overseas jaunt would indirectly hasten their departure from MasterChef, a cooking show that broke ratings records and became a genuine cultural phenomenon.
We’d always imagined we’d farewell our viewers … that’s what saddens me.
After a decade on the hit series, the men decided to celebrate with a round-the-world food odyssey, from street vendors in Peru to high-end restaurants in Europe. No TV cameras allowed. This was their time.
At first, Mehigan had his doubts. What quicker way to ruin a friendship than a joint holiday? But aside from Preston’s messiness, which irked Calombaris when they shared a room, there was little tension. “Even after we got home, we couldn’t stop talking in the taxi,” Mehigan says. “It solidified the idea that working together on other projects was something we’d enjoy.”
In February, the men formed a company called GaryGeorge&Matt. Books, podcasts, cooking festivals, a new TV series: all ideas were on the table. But when Ten insisted on contracting them until the end of 2020 – while they wanted to finish earlier in the year, after MasterChef’s 12th season wrapped – negotiations stalled.
“It would have limited our ability to do other things,” Mehigan says. “All the financial terms had been agreed; it was purely about the length of the new contract. We wanted to keep making MasterChef, but we needed space to stretch our legs and do our own thing.”
Still, he hoped for a compromise.
“That’s what saddens me,” Mehigan says. “We’d always imagined we’d farewell our viewers and pass the baton to three younger and possibly brighter stars … there was a grieving process; a sense of loss, a sense of anger and some tears.”
Last month, Fair Work Australia announced a $200,000 fine against Made Establishment, a restaurant empire – in which Calombaris is a shareholder and former director – that had underpaid staff by almost $8 million. Most had been compensated by 2017, but the fine drew fresh attention. “The timing couldn’t have been better for Ten,” says one TV executive. “It was the perfect contrast between rich TV stars and poor hospitality workers.”
Mehigan chooses his words carefully, focusing on his 23-year friendship with Calombaris: “We surrounded him because we were worried,” he says. “For one person to take that amount of scrutiny; it threatens your personal health.
“I know he’s going to become a champion of [improved working conditions] … he wants to leave a different legacy for this industry that he loves.”
In September, Mehigan, Calombaris and Preston will appear at a food festival in South Africa, where MasterChef’s Australian edition is popular. The series also does well in Spain and Italy, where the judges’ voices are dubbed by local actors, but its biggest fanbase is in India. “People forget there are dozens of languages, different religions and so many types of food across India,” Mehigan says. “It’s a bundle of multiculturalism and they see that [reflected in the show], and they love our humour and positivity.”
It’ll be a while before the three men can plan their next move. Mehigan, for instance, is releasing a Weight Watchers recipe book, extending his homewares range, hosting a third season of Masters of Taste (filmed in India, where it’s a hit) and making more episodes of his podcast, A Plate To Call Home.
“On MasterChef, I’d get a minute or 30 seconds to talk,” he says. “On my podcast, I can have in-depth conversations with foodies for an hour. Working on MasterChef was a joy. But after 11 years, it’s time to step off those floorboards and do something different.”
Michael Lallo is a senior entertainment writer at The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald