Gary Mehigan’s Proof is in His Coffee

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Celebrity chef Gary Mehigan collaborates with Australia’s leading specialty coffee roasters Veneziano to create an ultimate coffee blend committed to turn each coffee experience into a special occasion.

The global pandemic has forced us to think beyond our comfort zone. This is the new normal and it will continue to stay with us in the coming year. As we try to understand this restructuring of our lives, I believe that we have become more creative in our approach to life. But the new normalcy has not spared anyone, not even a MasterChef.

So here I am, tucked away in my apartment as I invite Chef Gary Mehigan and Pete Licata of Veneziano Coffee Roasters into my lounge through Zoom. I was very excited when I learned that the former MasterChef judge has come out with a range of speciality coffee, delivering right to your home. Who wants to miss that? Definitely not me.

Zooming from my lounge into his house, I make my secret fandom loudly known, slightly smitten by this amazing food artist talking to me about his launch of “Gary Mehigan Specialty Coffee”. We share a laugh about how lockdown has blessed us all with that extra muffin top.

Mehigan, 53, tells me the idea started back in 2003 when he was looking for a coffee roaster in Melbourne, as he was tired of imported bland-tasting coffee. A relationship of 17 years started with Bella, his benchmark coffee blends for both his restaurants (The Boathouse and Fenix). Then, as history would say it, Craig contacted him six months ago. Mehigan recalls it being perfect timing. There’s a gap in the schedule, he loves the coffee and yes, now is the time to do something exciting.

Licata jumps into the conversation, saying that partnership with Veneziano Coffee Roasters had been brewing for a couple of years. Craig Dickson, one of the founders, originally reached out at the start of the year for a collaboration – but being a celebrity chef means a busy life, and the collaboration to develop coffee blends took a back seat.

As Mehigan says, his relationship with Veneziano there was a shift in trend when the first lockdown started – a lot more homemade coffee making. This was perfect, as a lot of people want to learn the art of coffee making, taking some beans home and trying it out – like he does for four to five coffees per day. This couldn’t be better timing. Priorities have surely changed.

I ask Mehigan if he sees coffee as a part of food, and he notes that the collaboration with Veneziano is not about food – coffee can be a stand-alone. He goes on to say that Melbourne is the hotbed for a resurgence in establishing speciality coffee movement around the world.

For Mehigan, coffee has always been an integral part of his life. His morning, noon and evening are all dictated by a cuppa. He tells me little is more annoying than when he goes into a café and they bring his food before his coffee; the whole experience and aroma, the moment to savour the coffee, is gone. These are the little pleasures in life. I do agree with him that coffee has been flirting with food since we have understood how to perfect that blending when smoking a duck or including it in a cake.

Formally being a tea drinker myself, having converted to coffee since I moved from India to Melbourne, I ask them if they see India shifting from a nation of tea drinkers to being coffee drinkers. Licata says that the perspective is very global; countries like Russia and China are also tea-drinking countries and the shift is happening where coffee blends are perfectly relevant. It’s more of an experience.

Mehigan jumps in to say that it’s selling the dream of lifestyle choices – for example, when buying a house, that they are not just buying a box but a home. He illustrates this by explaining to just imagine yourself standing in an espresso bar in Rome and soaking up the experience – it’s all about lifestyle choices. “Bringing the café style experience into people’s houses with our speciality coffee is what our coffee is all about.”

Mehigan talks about how coffee has a fabulous opportunity in India, as South India has been growing coffee. Why not take advantage of an unstoppable global trend? And on many levels, coffee brings great opportunities to India. Mehigan’s father was an avid instant coffee drinker, mother a tea drinker and Mehigan’s tried both – now an espresso kind of guy, but with Licata and the team – and the process of using products like Chemex, AeroPress and the French press – now he weighs his coffee and measures his water at home as well as in the restaurant. He enjoys his coffee like tea, as an infusion … the difference between espresso and pour-over coffee is chalk and cheese.

The edge coffee has over tea is the texture, the flavour, the aroma and the temperature. As a foodie, Mehigan relates to tea and coffee as fusions of flavour, but for coffee, it’s all about texture. If you compare espresso to a pour-over coffee, it’s delicate and light, similar to a beautiful chai. But when you compare to espresso, macchiato or a creamy flat white, then coffee blows tea out of the water.

Mehigan’s range is unique because of the focus on the fruity acidity in the coffee. You can tell the freshness by how the blends are put together: the selection of beans, how they’re roasted, and the selection of the growers. Adding to that, Licata says that coffee has a lot of acidity and natural chlorogenic acid, which makes it fruity. So both sourcing and properly roasting the coffee are highly important. The roasting is what sets them right apart. It’s a fine balancing act of Maillard caramelisation, fruitiness and acidity.

Mehigan’s personal favourite has changed over the years, from Bella to The Dawn. The latter is his favourite; he loves the bitterness that goes well with his double shot flat white. His daughter also loves this with her French press. The unique thing about this particular blend is that it’s from Nishant Gurjer, the sixth-generation owner of Sethuraman Estate in Karnantaka. His Robusta beans are in ‘The Dawn’ blend. Its sweetness adds a lot of complexity; the flavour of sugar cane cannot be dismissed. A fantastic coffee and a fantastic story that his connection with coffee naturally blends in.

These are strange times. As Mehigan says, borrowing the saying from his chef friend, if you don’t cook you are highly likely not to care. If you do cook, then you care and it’s about returning to the good old days, like cracking an egg, and the storytelling that comes with it. Coffee is still the same; we need to enjoy and take that moment. We are reconnecting again and enjoying the process.

As it approached time to wrap up the interview, Mehigan tells me how he loves Kolkata – the rich history and its food, especially katthi rolls. Him cooking bhapa ilish (steamed hilsa) with actor Sreenanda Shankar ‘s Masters of Taste – Fox live. He also tells me about his true love for India, and its rich diverse culture. As he was connecting with India – with his interpretation with the sound and colour, the dust and the chaos – I too went back in time. He wants to go back.

For me as a Bengali, I couldn’t be prouder of sitting in Melbourne and talking about Kolkata. I can hear the busy bazaar, the tram, the fishmongers haggling over their fresh fish. I am there on this little trip to Kolkata with him and I can hear the city’s heartbeat as Mehigan talks over our coffee gossiping. Suddenly I miss it more.

What else can I say about Gary Mehigan? I think of Swami Vivekanada: “Take up one idea. Make that one idea your life; dream of it; think of it; live on that idea. Let the brain, the body, muscles, nerves, every part of your body be full of that idea, and just leave every other idea alone. This is the way to success, and this is the way great spiritual giants are produced.”

While up close and personal with Gary Mehigan and Pete Licata, I received a quick lesson in perfecting a cup of espresso and the whole new world of coffee.

We now have the choice of bringing home “Gary Mehigan’s Speciality Coffee” and enjoying that café-style coffee in our homes.

Jump onto their website (www.garymehiganspecialtycoffee.com.au) or Instagram and Facebook (gary_mehigan_specialty_coffee) to get a subscription and a sample pack. These strange times have let us beat the barista to make and order our own coffee.

By Nandita Chakraborty