MasterChef Australia judge and food writer Matt Preston is known for his sartorial style but - following the release of his new book - tells Kim Hill of his punk-band roots and three months spent in a Grecian herder's shed.
Preston is a familiar face to Kiwi fans of the show, known for his cravats and colourful, occasionally outrageous, suits.
He says the show’s enduring appeal stems from its essential warmth and the ubiquity of food in all our lives.
“Every single ritualistic event, food is always there: births, deaths, marriages, Christenings, Christmas Easter - they’ve all got their particular food comforts to go with them,” Preston says.
A senior editor for Delicious and Taste magazines, Preston also writes a weekly food column for Newscorp's metro newspapers and has published several books. He says the latest -Yummy, Easy, Quick: Around the World - is about flavours that naturally coexist.
“There are certain flavours that naturally over time have developed an affinity for each other and have also developed an unshakeable connection with the cuisine of a country,” he says.
As for simplicity, it includes a recipe for baklava which he insists is easy to make - and a good mindfulness technique to boot.
“It’s a bit like those mindfulness colouring books, instead of colouring in cutouts of a picture of Nelson Mandela you’re colouring in sheets of filo pastry with an easy brush stroke of melted butter.”
MasterChef Australia is now into its 11th season and is still rating highly. Preston, along with his fellow judges Gary Mehigan and George Calombaris, had a very particular idea about how they would judge contestants.
“We didn’t want to be your classic reality show judges, the ones that scream and throw things at the wall and do all that kind of palaver. We actually wanted to be supportive and nice - which is of course normally absolutely television death.”
He has no time for some of that bullying that characterises other reality TV.
“It’s more exciting watching someone cry from happiness than cry from being bullied.”
He says the show was in danger of losing its way six seasons ago.
“We had a year when the contestants were picked by the TV people [instead of the judges] and we walked in on a cast that maybe didn’t have as many good cooks.
“The audience was very blunt. We lost about a third of the audience overnight: ‘I don’t want to watch a cooking show about people that can’t cook and their histrionics’, and they turned off. It took us two years to win them back.”
Now he says the show has regained its purpose and is more reflective of Australia than some other reality shows with their “buff tradies and ex-beauty queens.”
Preston was once in a punk band The Volcanic Rabbits and he says he’s seeing a similar punk DIY ethos in Australia’s food scene.
“The whole thing about punk was you didn’t have to be great to be celebrated and have a good time, you’re seeing this now with food, a very interesting trend. We are starting to see we’re kind of in a punk, do-it-yourself era for food.
“They’re making their own sourdough, they’re making their own cheese, fermenting and making their own kombucha - we’re in a new punk generation for tucker now.”
Plant-based cuisine is also “pumping” Preston says.
“Here it seems to be plant-based eating as a short hand for tastiness - whether it’s reductatarian or flexitarian, people are going 'I’m going to eat meat once a week rather than three times a week'.”
Preston arrived in Australia from England in 1993. Prior to that he had a varied career which included a stint living for three months in a goat herder’s hut in Greece.
“I was working for a radical left-wing magazine running their classified ads department and this guy came in and said ‘I want to put an ad in to rent my cottage in the island of Sifnos'.
"It’s now very trendy and it’s all 5-6 million euro villas. Back then it was £100 for three months, I said 'I’ll have it'.
“There was no running water, no power, no stove. It was very basic, but it was also very cool.
"I put that story in the book to annoy George Calombaris. I think up until this year of George’s wedding I’ve spent more time living in Greece than George has - I’m more Greek than George.”
Preston says cooking shouldn’t be hard and believes anyone can do it.
“It’s been mystified by chefs, but if a chef can do it, you can do it: find a good recipe you trust and follow it.”