Time Out Melbourne

The food journalist's massive kitchen bench doubles as his home office, allowing for some messy multi-tasking

Matt Preston, that Dionysus of dining, has become a modern Australian brand – despite hailing from the Home Counties. As judge and co-host of MasterChef, he can muster up haughtiness or grave misgivings on cue, and he’s so recognisable in his richly coloured blazers and cravats that his son, he says, was astounded when they were left to walk around unmolested while overseas.

Back in the UK, he studied Politics and Government at university, but wound up an entertainment journalist in the 1980s, for titles including the NME (for whom he covered Live Aid at close quarters), What’s On TV and even Time Out. He moved to Australia in 1993 and eventually settled in Malvern with wife Emma, their three children and their dog.

These days, in addition to MasterChef, he’s a columnist for News Ltd’s Taste section, a senior editor at the ABC’s delicious magazine and author of a range of cookbooks. It’s all generated from his kitchen, on a mighty kitchen bench amid his Thermomix, two big pizza ovens and a ton of books. The kitchen became his office despite the fact that he’s got a perfectly good book-lined one in a nook overlooking the pool. The beauty of the kitchen set-up is that he is required to clear it of all detritus come dinner time – which means there’s no allowing for procrastination or neglect of the family.

Matt, what are you working on at the moment?
I’m doing a story for delicious, finding a traditional recipe and making it modern. I’m fascinated with that. There’s a dish that Daniel Patterson [chef at San Francisco’s Coi] did when he was here for the dinner with [Attica’s] Ben Shewry. It was a crazy coconut curd with passionfruit olive oil. The combination of and olive oil and passion fruit was delicious, so I’ve turned that into an olive oil cake with passion fruit, dressed with extra olive oil – and it’s just fantastic.

How do you develop your recipes?
I’ll always find a pile of Tupperware in that drawer because I work with a couple of mums from a local school and they test all my recipes. And then they find recipes and bring them back to me, which is great. When you write a recipe you have to send it out to someone else, a good cook, and they go, “I think there’s too much oregano,” or “This is terrible; it doesn’t work,” or “I tried it this way and it’s better.”

For example, I sent a chocolate mousse recipe out to Kate, who’s this amazing pastry chef, and she looked at it and went, “Oh, well I make one more like this,” so she reduced the cream and chocolate by half and the result is amazing – it’s in my book.

And their names are credited in your book [Matt’s latest cookbook is Fast, Fresh and Unbelievably Delicious, Oct 2013].
Their names become the dishes’ names. My attitude towards writing recipes is curatorial more than anything else, you know? You go to a friend’s house; they make the most amazing brownie; you ask them for the recipe; you talk about how you’d name the brownie after them… I like the idea that you can only really own a recipe once you give it away to someone else. For instance, Emma’s mum Jude has this great braised lamb, and when someone lifts it from my book it will be Jude’s Braise.

Do you multi-task when you’re working in the kitchen?
I’ll be writing a recipe and while that’s bubbling away I’ll come back and sit down for half an hour, then try and knock something else over. The current thing is retro dishes reinvented. I’ll give you an idea of what that looks like. I’m researching the history of the burger, which is traditionally a beef and speck burger. The Americans would buy brisket and smoked bacon, and get the butcher to grind them together. No seasoning, no eggs, no breadcrumbs, no herbs. All you do is take a handful of that, press it together and put it on a roll. It’s fantastic. So I’ll be researching this old knowledge on the internet; in The Food Chronology [James Trager, 1995]; in Mrs Beeton’s books. Mrs Beeton was a cooking advisor. There are lots of them through history who wrote started to keep their own house but didn’t know how to cook, so they started to write about entertaining. My great, great uncle wrote a book in 1865, which is called Hosts and Guests, all about entertaining. “A fine meal should start with partridge” – that kind of stuff. I’m looking at incorporating some of it into my next book. Some of the lines are so ridiculous, like, “I dined with the Bishop of Mainz last night. He keeps only the finest tables in Europe.” It’s crazy.

What do you drink to fuel you?
PG Tips. It’s the only tea… I’m pathetic about it. My sister comes every January, and anyone that comes from England has to bring PG Tips. The tea is very important. The other thing I’ve been doing recently is making iced tea. The tannin only releases when you use hot water, so you get this lovely tea flavour and you serve it with sliced lemon straight out of the fridge.

And what might a snackette be?
It will normally be something out of those Tupperware containers. Kate will drop off what she’s baked – shortcake, perhaps. Or if I’m cooking something, that’ll be what I eat. Or if it’s a snack it’ll be avocado and feta on toast or homemade muesli.

You have an office lined with books next door – why not work there?
I like to be able to clear the decks when I’m finished working or I wouldn’t be able to give my family my full attention. I would just get lost. What I do is such a great joy that it’s like going down a rabbit hole when I start researching.

I did a thing on cocktail sauce for one of the issues of Taste recently, and it comes from the oyster bars that New York used to be surrounded by. Then they used hot sauce. So you’ve got the rise of the oyster bar, the rise of vinegar hot sauces like Tabasco, and then you think, “Well, who went to these oyster bars and who were the gangs that were running them?”

Would you rather write a memoir or do you prefer research, having a journalism background?
I love research. As a critic you teach yourself to be in the story, but not in the story. You’re a conduit for experiences and people – and the interesting thing about writing the cookbooks and writing recipes is that they’re much more personal, they have a history. They’re shared with someone and you want to put some of that person into it. I am a writer, rather than a cook or a chef. The writing in the book is quite important. For me, the books that I love are those early Nigella ‘domestic goddess’ books – brilliant. They’re so beautifully written.

Have you ever run into hot water as a restaurant critic with the restaurants themselves?
The trick is, if you’re going to be critical, always hold a few things back. There’s no need to criticise everything, because you can give a sense of what’s wrong with a restaurant with just one thing, like “Lack of attention to detail”. And then if they come to you and they’ve worked out how to dismiss what you’ve criticised, you can say to them, “Okay… but then there was this, this and this.”

Do enhance your persona for the sake of TV?
We all have these signature things we do. I twirl this ring on my finger when I’m nervous and I tend to stand like that [brings fist to face and leans his elbow on his other arm]. When you spend six hours in one place, it feels good.

It looks like you’re giving things a lot of thought.
Which is what television’s all about. I call it the three-quarter stare, which is you look up there… I used to write about soap operas in a previous life and there’s the three-quarter stare the actors do when they get to the end of the episode and they hold a look two seconds too long. You’re thinking they’ve discovered something, like, “I don’t know what Brad was doing with her, but they looked very friendly’…” and then the end credits run. It makes people feel uncomfortable, and they ask me, “What’s going on in your head?” I’m actually thinking, “What the hell am I going to say?” When you’re a reviewer you get a week to cogitate and mull over the best use of words.

Can’t you hoard great words and then pull them out as necessary? Like a word that’s a great way of describing a tomato cooking?
You can... I think what tends to happen is those words pop out when you’re talking about it. The problem with scripting yourself is that unless you’re a brilliant actor you can’t do it. We were doing the Spanish challenge and there’s a great Spanish proverb which is ‘opportunity is a bald headed woman’. It’s a classic misogynist proverb and what it means is that you over look opportunities because they’re not good looking. And of course I tried to use it, but it was a disaster. The whole advantage about unscripted television is when it’s good it sounds really good. It will sound truly charismatic or truly bad. It’s what you’re really thinking and feeling… it’s powerful.

Updated on 2 Apr 2014.

By Jenny Valentish   |   Photos by Roberto Seba
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