Matt Preston is a restaurant critic and the author of three cookbooks as well as being a judge and co-host on MasterChef, whose finale airs on Tuesday, July 26. The 52-year-old talks to me about what surprised him initially about the series, which he thought was doomed to fail, as well as uncovering his favourite places to eat in Sydney and the foods he finds too weird to eat.
When you first started MasterChef Australia, did you ever think it would be the success that it is today?
No, we had a secret meeting before the show. We sat there and said, ‘Mate, no one’s interested.’ It went the other way and it was a real shock … I think especially a shock because it became so big so quickly … We have people on our show that we would never in a blue moon pick for another TV show. They’re too shy or too quiet, they hate being the centre of attention. They let the food do the talking.
After eight seasons, what keeps you interested in the show?
I keep learning about tasty dishes, new flavour combinations and ways to approach food … The other thing I really love is how the adventure continues. So many people have gone on. I was in Bangkok and I was talking to [former MasterChef contestant] Marion Grasby [who has] got all her products [Marion’s Kitchen food range] in the American supermarket. That’s massive, you know… Also, kids will want a photo [with me] and show you the pictures they’ve taken of the chicken they roasted yesterday or the cake they made, and that’s really cool. That’s what takes me back.
Has the talent become stronger over the years?
The producer has become better picking people who are genuine, in terms of their passion … They have an authentic food dream that’s achievable, and they’re good at cooking. We got better at picking out the dickheads and not casting them, and got better at picking out the people that just want to be on TV.
Would you pick the same people that you picked on season one, if they auditioned for season eight now?
Well, at the end of the day, yes. We pick on the food.
Do your friends get nervous to cook for you at dinner parties?
It is not about the food. I don’t care what you cook … You can go and get Indian, or have a take-away pizza. It doesn’t matter; I want to spend time with the people. Food is a lubricant to conversation. I understand the work that’ s gone into it, the stress that’s gone into it, you know, and so I’m probably one of the more appreciative people. I understand what you’ve done, and you’ve thought about it, and you’ve thought about what you’ve ordered or put up.
You were a former food critic.How did you critique a restaurant?
As a journalist, the whole thing was to find the angle to connect people. It is not about judging the restaurants. It’s telling you what you might like about it … A good review should give you a sense of whether it’s the sort of place where they want to go or where they don’t want to go.
What’s your favourite food?
If you were going to die tomorrow, what would be your last meal?
I couldn’t go past Neapolitan pizza. I do like a pavlova and the crispy fat on that chop from the barbecue. I’ve always maintained that if I were going to die tomorrow, I’d want a 200-course meal. And I’ll die the day after, if that’s OK.
What’s the weirdest food you’ve ever eaten?
I always maintain that cheese and eggs are about the weirdest thing you can eat. Pure breast milk and an egg, when you really think about it, it’s super weird! … I’m not a big fan of anything that smells and tastes like poo or wee. That makes me a bit of an outcast for some areas of food. That’s almost the whole basis of [French] cuisine … In Florence there is a typical dish called lampredotto, which is the fourth stomach of the cow, the one nearest the bum. I don’t want to eat what smells of bum!
You’re a great cook. What’s your go-to dish at home?
It may seem weird, but I love salads and grilled or roast meats. I love lamb, pork shoulder on the barbecue … When I come back from travelling, the things I’m craving are cucumber, iceberg lettuce, lime. All those really fresh, crunchy fibres.
What are your top Sydney restaurants?
It’s really hard. There is always somewhere new. It is like stamp collecting, it never ends. There’s always another stamp, there’s always a new addition. It’s no secret I love The Dolphin. Ava Stangherlin from MasterChef is cooking at The Centennial. I want to go to Bennelong and have the sausage roll and toasted-cheese sandwich. Pilu in Freshwater is a beautiful restaurant. Colin Fassnidge and Matt Moran do great dishes, too. The Gantry at Pier One also does really interesting food.
You have three children. Does the whole family watch MasterChef together?
They have been recently. The kids love Gogglebox and watch MasterChef because it’s on beforehand. My daughter will give me shit for eliminating the wrong person. Their friends tend to be more enthusiastic about MasterChef than they are. I’m the same dad that every dad is … It doesn’t matter how hard you try; you’ll find yourself making that crap dad joke.
What’s next for you?
Next [is a holiday] with three other families in outback Australia. Then we have a place we go to every two years – it’s way off the beaten track, with just one pizza restaurant and a pub that has good fish in a basket. Aside from travel, I want to continue to write and recharge the batteries.
MasterChef’s grand final airs on Tuesday, July 26, at 7:30 pm on Channel Ten.
WE WENT TO The Dolphin, Surry Hills
WE ATE LP Mortadella & olive fritti; Crumbed chicken with lemon guanciale, capers; mash and gravy; marinated sorbello family tomatoes, garlic, basil & mozzarella pizza; baked mushroom, local truffle, ricotta, washed ring & parsley pizza.
WE DRANK Grape fruit juice and tonic; Dolphin G&T