IMAGES JOHN DONEGAN
Chef Gary Mehigan has one of the most recognisable faces in Australia. Born in Britain, he sees himself as a Melburnian but has been spending most of his time in Sydney lately, where the hugely successful MasterChef juggernaut is filmed. His multiple TV shows, two restaurants, 2½ cookbooks, product ambassadorships and family keep him busy to a nearly comical degree, but to this day he still makes time to indulge in one of his great passions – fast motorcycles.
“I’ve been riding bikes since I could get a licence. I think in England that was 17. I used to work on the weekends and I was just saving for a bike, because I wanted to be cool, you know? I was going to impress the girls.
Yeah, I never did. I always used to think that when I got a bigger bike, that’d impress the girls, but it was never big enough. Because by the time I did get a big bike, they wanted to be chauffeured around in comfort.
“I saved my pennies – in fact, that’s how I got into hospitality and catering. I got a part-time job in a local hotel. We used to work Friday night, Saturday and Sunday and I saved up and bought a CG125, which was a Honda single [cylinder], pushrod bike. We’re talking a long time ago.
“It was completely gutless, but it felt like magic at the time. I took my test as quick as I could, got myself trained and passed the test, and then I bought a GS250 Suzuki. After the 125, that felt like a proper-sized motorcycle.
I realised about a year after that that it just didn’t have the guts. It would do about 70mph (120km/h) on the motorway and just run out of gas. So I bought what they used to call a ‘flying breezeblock’ back then, which was a Honda CX500. It was a beautiful bike, a poor man’s BMW, and again, that jump from 125 to 250 to 500, that just felt like a million bucks.
“I would’ve got knocked off about five times in London – all low speed, cars pulling out in front of you as we were moving in between the traffic. I remember a doctor knocked me off my motorcycle once. I remember lying in front of the No.?8 bus from Willesden wondering why nobody was going to come and help me.
“We’d buy all our spare parts from the wreckers and it was always trouble, because I had no money, and it was funny that there were always no left-side parts, because that’s the side that everybody fell off and slid on. So you’d go in looking for a muffler and they’d say, sorry, we’ve got the other side but we haven’t got that side.
“To be honest, it was practical and it was the only way that I could afford to get around – and get around fast. I couldn’t really afford a car, being a chef back then, and even when I bought a car it was just impossible to get around London. So it was always a motorbike.
“I bought a VF500F when I came to Australia. I bought it in Healesville. The guy told me it was a train ride and a taxi ride from the city – it was Badger’s Creek! So I got off at Lilydale and the taxi driver said ‘it’s going to cost you about 50 bucks to get to Badger’s Creek’. I was like ‘What? This bike better be good!’ – and it was.
“I used to ride from Box Hill up into the Dandenongs every day – I worked at a place called Bernaducci’s – I used to love that little line up the Sherbrooke Road. There’s a little devil’s elbow, can’t remember what it’s called. I used to go up fast and down fast every day – and then I got to know the roads. I mean, in Victoria, obviously, there’s the Great Ocean Road, but coming back through Dean’s Marsh is just a cracker. I love that one and I love the Black Spur, but that road up to Lake Mountain is probably my favourite road in Australia, just absolutely beautiful.
“Now I live in Sydney and I’ve been trying to find their equivalent. But you know, Victorian roads are bloody good – and that Lake Mountain road is well looked after because it’s a snow road. Halfway down there’s a beautiful vista right across the high country.
“You can get out from work, go out for a ride, it’s what, an hour and a half, you can give it a good old squirt going up there and on the way back down you can stop and just listen to the birds and [inhales] take in a bit of the countryside, then fang it all the way back down.
“I bought a Honda VTR1000 from Peter Stevens. I loved the idea of having a poor man’s Ducati. I couldn’t afford a Ducati, thought it was a bit extravagant. I loved that bike – even now, it’s one of my favourite bikes. Most people would bag that and say it’s an old man’s bike, but I just think it was so easy to ride. I did the California Superbike School on that, up to level two. It was my plaything, basically. I sold that in 2002 and had a hiatus for about six years – just because we had a little girl and I never had time to ride it.
“I got back into it after that and bought a Triumph Thruxton – again, avoiding the superbikes because I thought I was going to kill myself. Obviously you can kill yourself on anything, and then, ridiculously, I find myself on a track day on a Triumph Thruxton, thinking ‘why on Earth did I buy a Triumph Thruxton? Why didn’t I buy the 675 [supersport bike]? What’s going on?’ But I love it, there’s no frills about it, it’s got a lovely little feel. It’s got Staintune [exhausts] on it and they pop and backfire when I throttle off, and I just love the style and the fact that there’s nothing flashy about it. I commute on it, pop up the coast for a coffee and I really feel like I’m part of that Triumph thing, that Triumph lifestyle.
“My dad was always into Triumphs. He’s nearly 70. He came off and broke his shoulder and arm about four years ago. It was only the third time he’d been knocked off. He said ‘I’m getting too old. I can’t recover’ and that’s a shame because I wanted to do something together, go for a big ride together. That probably won’t happen now.
“But my sister rides and her husband rides in the UK, so we’ve got to do something together at some point. When they came over to Australia, lucky enough I’ve got two bikes now. So Scottie and myself, he’s her partner, he took the Thruxton. I’ve also got a BMW K1300R, a naked bike, which is now my favourite. We went up the coast, up to Terrigal and back around the long way via Singleton and down the Putty Road. We swapped bikes every so often and it’s beautiful, it’s like getting out of a jet fighter and into a Spitfire. One’s instantaneous, fast, smooth, torque on tap and the other one takes a bit of a wind-up to get going, but it’s really supple and easy to ride – and you know it has limits to its capabilities but it’s a beautiful ride.
“I went back to the Superbike School about two years ago and did level one as a refresher. Don’t quote me on the stats, but I think that BMW will do 240-250 down the straight, it’s just awesome. Then putting a question mark over whether you should go out on that last session of the day. Sometimes I just think I’m tired, I’ve been lucky all day, I’ve had a great day, I love it, but it’s time to have a cup of tea and go home. It’s a nice little decompression.
"I’m not a psycho... I must be doing something right in terms of keeping myself alive."
“I don’t tell Channel Ten when I’m going on ride days. Last year we had a MasterChef party with all the Channel Ten celebrities, press, the whole thing. It was a George, Matt and Gary thing where we get up, give ’em the intro, tell ’em what’s happening this season, it’s a big event, cocktail party, Champagne’s flying. I had a track day booked that I’d never told them about. They told me the launch party was on say, April 15, and I thought, shit! That’s my ride day! I ain’t cancelling the ride day.
“My wife does my diary and I told her, whatever you do, don’t tell them – just say I’ve got another commitment. They booked in to do rehearsals and, unfortunately, because I had ‘another commitment’ I couldn’t do them. I figured out it would take me 45 minutes to get back from Eastern Creek back to the house, grab my suit and get to the studio for make-up. I still had helmet hair when I did the opening speech. I was wired, absolutely wired. I was so wired that when I did the opening speech, the guys were asking ‘what’s the matter with you?’. I had to tell them ‘I’ve just had the BEST day. Gorgeous, 21 degrees, chewed a bit of tyre up on the Thruxton, tweeted some photos’.
“I’ll leave that for track days, make sure I get it out of my system and then trundle home at 80Ks an hour on the M2 and go home. Then it doesn’t tempt me to pop a mono down Willoughby Road, and I like that. It’s a sensible approach to having fun.
“A lot of chefs ride bikes. It’s more about working unsociable hours, needing a good commuter and not having a lot of money to spend when you’re starting off in your career. So you end up finding people like Jacques Reymond, who’s been riding Ducatis for years, or Matt Moran, who also rides a Ducati, or you see some chef turn up on some crazy chopper incarnation with ‘EAT’ as his number plate – that’s Michael Moore. Or Colin Fassnidge, who rides an R1. It’s a nice little club actually.
“It’s funny how bikes galvanise people. I mean, when I talk to [fellow MasterChef judges] Matt and George about things I’m interested in, like bikes, you just see them glaze over. I mean, they’re talking about tennis and golf, which I think is about the most monotonous game on the planet. I mean, I can handle nine holes with good friends and a golf pro to get me through it, but to go out and do that on a Sunday morning? You’ve got to be joking! I want to go for a ride! To those guys, they take the mickey a bit – it makes no sense to go out and risk your life on two wheels, whereas I don’t think they get any of the freedom or the thrill that it gives you riding a two-wheeled machine.
“I love a bit of alone time. Maybe it’s like a bit of a guy thing, but I don’t mind going out with a bunch of guys and not having a conversation about anything that important. Being in silence in your own crash helmet, enjoying the countryside, enjoying the thrill of the power and the open road. And when you get a beautiful road, there’s just something really – cleansing is the wrong word – something liberating about that. You approach a little bit of a bend in the road and you can see it’s going to be a nice sweeper or a series of sweepers and you can just give it a little bit of gas, and there’s this lovely sort of liberation for me of just letting that go.
“Most of my life is surrounded nowadays by staff at my restaurants – I’ve got 75, 80 people working for me between the two restaurants. Limited amount of time, maximum amount of information. Sometimes it’s nice to go, you know what? I’m going to book that morning off and go out on my bike. It’s good alone time. There’s a few passions in my life – food, family, motorbikes.
“I’m not a psycho. I’m not a super-fast rider. I’ve been a rider for a long time, so I must be doing something right in terms of keeping myself alive. I’m cautious and defensive in the city. In London, you had a choice, you’re either going to be a psycho, like the couriers – I remember riding along Park Lane one day and two couriers splitting either side of me, one bolting that way, the other bolting that way and you could hear them screaming as they went in different directions, they just basically raced each other down Park Lane – I could never do that. The day I got carried away I’d find myself sliding along on my arse on the tarmac. I had enough little reminders in London to keep myself safe.
“On the open road I enjoy more to choose where I give it a bit of gas and where I don’t. Long straight road, think twice about feeding in the throttle. That’s preservation of licence more than anything else. Whereas, up the hill on a bit of twisty road, you can go for it, and chances are you’re going to have a great time if you ride smoothly. You’ll get to the end and have a great day. So I don’t know how I’d describe myself – cautious with the odd mad moment, how about that? It’s kept me alive so far.
“I never look down on anybody who rides slowly. But anyone who asks, I’m happy to share what I know. Often I’ll just say ‘get yourself down to the Superbike School, or HART, or any one of them and just do the training’.
“It sounds a bit Zen, but I try to live the moment. I pop my little tinted visor down and then nobody knows who I am. It’s quite nice.”