Brett McGregor: The birth of a celebrity chef

By Kerri Jackson

Instead of fading from the limelight, New Zealand's first Masterchef Brett McGregor, has become more of a household name with the upcoming release of his first cookbook called Taste of a Traveller. Photo / Supplied
Instead of fading from the limelight, New Zealand's first Masterchef Brett McGregor, has become more of a household name with the upcoming release of his first cookbook called Taste of a Traveller. Photo / Supplied

Where are they now? It's so often the public catch-cry following reality TV shows. A young unknown is snapped from obscurity into the bright lights and fierce heat of competition, to win 15 minutes of fame in their chosen field of music/modelling/cooking only, more often than not, to disappear back into obscurity just as quickly.

But for New Zealand's first MasterChef winner Brett McGregor the past year has been a whirlwind of food demonstrations, TV gigs with Countdown, training, starting a new weekly food column for New Idea and crucially, putting together his first cookbook, Taste of a Traveller (Random House, $55) out on Friday.

And as of February 22 he's been working in a kitchen - and a house - hit hard by the Christchurch earthquake. "The kitchen is in one piece now, cleaned up and ready to go, apart from some wonky and splitting floorboards, but after the earthquake the bench was in the middle of the room."

The rest of his house is liveable but in need of major repair, with cracked and broken foundations, walls and ceilings.

"The damage is more than $10,000 which means we have to wait to get it fixed and we don't really know for how long - but we were lucky really." With family and friends all safe accounted for McGregor turned his attention and cooking skills to helping well-known Christchurch chef Johnny Schwass, whose own restaurant was reduced to rubble, feed the homeless in shelters.

It's a tumultuous time to find yourself promoting your first cookbook, but the publication of Taste of a Traveller is the realisation of one of McGregor's most long-held dreams.

The Random House book deal came as part of his MasterChef prize package, but that didn't lessen the level of work involved in producing it.

Much of 2010 was spent gathering and refining the recipes he wanted to put in it, taking recipes he loved from Southeast Asia and parts of Europe, making them accessible to Kiwis, and able to be recreated in home kitchens.

"The recipes in here are really simple because that's how we cook and eat at home - and they can be done by kids because Jack (McGregor's 7-year-old son) helps."

His brief for the book, even while he was on the show, was to celebrate the food of his own travels and the way food ties us to new experiences and sensations.

"A lot of these recipes I got by knocking on kitchen doors while I was travelling; watching them being cooked and writing recipes down. With this book I wanted to adapt those to a Kiwi style of cooking."

The shared experiences of travel are also one of the reasons McGregor included recipes and the related travel stories from most of his MasterChef season one competitors.

"That was a promise I made in the [MasterChef] house - to include their recipes in the book. It was a good way of saying thanks - we had some great times. And I knew a lot of us had that experience of travelling and remembering great meals or recipes.

"Sue Drummond was the first to send her recipe in [for Mongolian-inspired mutton] and when it arrived, with her story about travelling in China and Mongolia, I thought yes! This is exactly what I want this book to be."

In fact, the Christchurch earthquake saw most of the season one contestants reunited over a fundraising dinner at MasterChef judge Simon Gault's Auckland Euro restaurant recently. While McGregor says it was great to see them all again, he was surprised to learn very few of them have pursued any kind of cooking in the past year.

"Some of them hadn't been in a kitchen since the end of the show." McGregor, on the other hand, has barely been out of it.

Though he initially returned to life as a teacher at Christchurch's Branston Intermediate, he soon found it impossible to juggle his commitments.

"It just all got too hectic. I was writing the book, teaching in a classroom, as well as being the deputy principal, as well as the MasterChef stuff - like cooking demonstrations and the Countdown ads.

"I had to choose - and it was tough. I had worked hard for five years to be where I was in that job, and leaving in the middle of the year is a terrible thing to do - but in the end, food has always been my first love. I don't feel like I'm working when I do it.

"It was like that when I was doing the book. When I won, I thought producing it was going to be heavy task - and it was, but the more I cooked and experimented and worked on it, I just became so addicted to it. It really didn't feel like work and the finished product is just outstanding," he says proudly.

So with the commitment to a food career sorted, it's onwards and upwards, with plans for a TV show, also called Taste of a Traveller, under way and idea for another cookbook.

"If they let me do another book I'd love to do something on the flavours of Eastern Europe. I think it's a part of the world that is a bit of an untapped food zone. I think there's going to be some exciting things come out of that part of the world," he says almost wistfully - you can practically hear him planning a trip already.

"It's important I'm out there, exploring, to make sure I keep learning."

He doesn't call himself a chef - "I was never going to be a restaurant chef. I like working and training in restaurants, but I always wanted to work on the food writing or TV side of things" - but says he's become 10 times the cook he was at the close of MasterChef, thanks to being able to focus on it entirely over the past year.

His five-year plan is to be established either on TV or in print in the New Zealand food scene and then grow more into the "chef" side of things, eventually opening his own restaurant.

He's unsure whether that will be in Christchurch or elsewhere in New Zealand.

"The reality is I don't have a job in Christchurch and I have to travel a lot for work at the moment, which is really hard on the family."

Like everybody else in the city, he's finding it hard to plan too far head. For now he's at home watching season two of MasterChef, empathising with the new batch of would-be MasterChefs.

"It's going to get very interesting, I think."

He's hugely grateful to the show for the shove it's given him, and even more so to his wife Tracey, who nudged him into entering in the first place.

"It was so scary, and I don't think I'll ever do it again, but you only get a few really good opportunities and if you don't stand up and take them, life will pass you by. Get out, get off the couch and just do it."

Taste of a Traveller, by Brett McGregor, is out April 1. Meet Brett at an instore book signing at Dymock's Newmarket on March 30, 5.30pm-6.30pm; ph (09) 522 3343. Gold coin donation to Christchurch earthquake relief.

- NZ Herald

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