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MasterChef judge Matt Preston

About that cravat, the one so impeccably arranged it could be held in position by invisible florists’ wire. It’s gone, replaced by a jaunty chrome-yellow neckerchief. And the flowing Wildean locks? Gone too.

Matt Preston has a new look. “It’s a bit radical,” he says. Like an old-fashioned cowboy, a dash of Deadwood, a touch of RM Williams. Preston is a man unafraid of colour in a largely black-clad world. He also sports a watermelon-pink shirt, a cocoa-coloured jacket with a yellow paisley silk pocket square, jeans, and boots with Cuban heels.

Thus attired he turns all heads as he enters Kitchen by Mike, the new canteen-style café in Sydney’s Rosebery. We’ve barely had time to order the pork belly with piccalilli and the pumpkin roasted in chef Mike McEnearney’s mighty woodfired oven before Preston is accosted by a woman who asks to have her photograph taken with the MasterChef judge. He obliges. Preston says he loves his fans, the result of exposure via what is arguably one of the most significant television phenomena of recent years, and is always nice. He’s eminently affable, open and an inextinguishable talker. And his enthusiasm for – and protean knowledge of – food is palpable.

Preston is a Londoner and he loves the place. He met an Australian woman there, they dated for five years and he came here to see what it was like. “I was seduced by the lifestyle,” he says. He was also seduced by one of his girlfriend’s girlfriends and went on to marry her. They live happily in Melbourne and have three children – Jonathan, 11, William, nine, and Sadie, seven — all of whom love food but are not uncritical. “Sadie is brutal about my cooking,” he laments.

Preston’s march to eminence on the local and international food scene has been purposeful and inevitable. The journey started with writing gigs in the UK, and when he moved to Melbourne in 1993 he wrote about cheap eats for The Age and also contributed to specialist food titles.

But it was landing the job with MasterChef that propelled him to a broader fame, from critic to 24-carat celebrity in one season. He wears his fame lightly, limiting his name-dropping – Heston and Jamie crop up most frequently – to a minimum, and is generous to a fault with recommendations, both local and international.

If an Aussie visiting London for the Olympics wanted the names of three good restaurants at which to dine, which ones would he suggest? “Number one would be The Fat Duck. The Ledbury is a must. I’ve been there every year for the past four years. It just gets better.” And by way of something cheap and cheerful he suggests Pollo in Old Compton Street, Soho.

Chefs he admires – besides Heston and Jamie – are Melbourne’s Andrew McConnell and Ben Shewry, Hobart’s Luke Burgess, and Sydney’s Andy Bunn at Honeycomb. More names come tumbling out: chefs, restaurants, cafés, bars, pubs and remembered dishes.

This gastro-litany might create the impression that Preston masticates 24/7. Not so. His other interests include music (“I’m an old punk rocker from the King’s Road”), soccer and AFL. “I also play tennis. Not very well but I’m better than George [Calombaris].” He places food only third on his list of interests.

Why was he chosen for MasterChef and not Australia’s Got Talent? “The produ­cers saw a picture of me and probably thought I looked disheveled and slightly untrustworthy. They wanted a bad guy.”

MasterChef, now screening in its fourth series, involves seven months of filming each year. Most of it is done in Sydney but they also venture interstate and abroad, making Preston ideally placed to fashion a report card on the state of culinary art around the globe.

We agree on our dislike of attention-seeking combinations such as lobster mousse with caramel (“disgusting!”), but disagree on molecular cuisine, which he argues “brought humour into the kitchen”. But he senses a shift towards food that’s “getting too intellectual”.

Many things impress him about Australian cuisine. “The growth of small bar culture is an Australian phenomenon. London does high-end very well but they can’t manage the kind of easy, relaxed food that one finds all over Australia. But it’s gradually catching on thanks to the likes of Skye Gyngell.”

What does he miss about Britain? “Hard English cheeses such as Caerphilly and Wensleydale.” And mushrooms. “I miss the vast range and subtle flavours of the mushrooms at home. But I love Australian food, although in 18 years here there are two things I’ve never grown to like and never will: Sara Lee and Vegemite.”

PHOTOGRAPHY JULIE CRESPEL

This article is from the June 2012 issue of Australian Gourmet Traveller.

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