Mum knows best … Gare has always involved her own children in her cooking. Photo: Damian Bennett
There may not be any animals but there are plenty of children - and that's just how Anna Gare likes it. she talks to Nicole Elphick about food, fun and the real stars of Junior Masterchef.
A visit to the set of Junior MasterChef is rather like a game of "I spy ..." Look! There's the "m"-shaped stovetop-coil topiary. Aha! There are the young contestants manipulating food in a manner that leaves most adults a little sheepish about their own culinary skills. And behold! There is Anna Gare, the judge and mentor who has charmed the Australian public with her honest but nurturing style of judging. In person she positively glows with the sort of rude health you'd expect from a vocal proponent of home cooking over prepackaged meals.
Gare, along with fellow judges George Calombaris, Gary Mehigan and new addition Matt Moran (who jokingly describes her as the "naughty aunt" of the show), is helping to re-awaken the taste buds of children across the land by creating a league of little Heston Blumenthals - snail porridge, anyone?
"MasterChef has had an amazing effect all around Australia," agrees Gare. "What I really love about the show is they make everything from scratch. If there's a mayo to go in something, they make it. It has turned people on to cooking in a big way."
Junior MasterChef's 2010 debut proved a hit and the new season is aiming just as high, with Julia Gillard already having appeared as a guest judge. Gare laughingly recounts that she couldn't believe that her mum's childhood advice to learn to use a knife and fork because "one day you might get to eat with the prime minister" had come true. "It's an amazing show to be on," says Gare. "The kids are the No. 1 concern, just to make sure that they're having great fun. Watching their ride has been the most fantastic part."
On set, the children look to be having a ball, sweetly yelling out advice to one another, such as "Just take a deep breath ...", during challenges and playfully flinging around pasta once the cameras stop rolling. "If you never work with children or animals, you're missing out on a hell of a lot of fun," says Gare in response to that old showbiz maxim. "They're very supportive of each other and gracious winners, or when they don't go through, the other kids are lovely to them. They genuinely make great friendships in this show."
If onscreen it seems as if West Australian-born Gare bonds effortlessly with the mini-masterchefs, that's because she understands their youthful passion. "I've always cooked - ever since I could reach the bench, basically. I was fortunate that Mum and Dad let me make a mess in the kitchen."
Cooking was not Gare's only childhood talent: in 1982, at age 12, she took a detour from woks and bowls to rock'n'roll by forming a band with her sister and two friends called the Jam Tarts - the name proving food was still not far from her mind.
Over the next 10 years the band toured Australia, New Zealand and Britain, sharing the bill with names such as musician Jonathan Richman and Rik Mayall from The Young Ones. "We were the little darlings of Perth," says Gare. "Whenever Hunters & Collectors came to town they'd say, 'We want the Jam Tarts.' "
On tour, Gare continued her love affair with cooking, inviting bandmates back to her hotel room to put together impromptu feasts. "I used to carry one of those electric pans because you could cook a roast in them. With electric kettles you could cook asparagus or beans. You can even iron salmon!" she laughs. "It's amazing what you can cook in a hotel room ... "
At 24, Gare had her first child, Jackson, and it was then that the on-the-road existence lost some of its lustre (although with her typical enthusiasm she was still performing on stage until she was seven months along). "When I got pregnant, I can remember saying there's no way I'm ever going to stop playing rock'n'roll. But once I actually did have my child I realised that I just wanted to be a mum. The idea of going back into smoky pubs and doing late-night gigs is a very different lifestyle to being a mother."
When she wasn't touring, Gare had worked in various restaurants, and so next up she "accidentally" started her own catering company when the requests poured in after she did the food for a friend's wedding.
During a gig catering for Ian Parmenter (the host of ABC TV's Consuming Passions), Gare whipped up a rustic feast that so impressed him he offered her a backstage role on his show. Since then, she has segued into a welcome onscreen presence via The Best in Australia (with Ben O'Donoghue and Darren Simpson), Quickies in My Kitchen and, most recently, Junior MasterChef.
It wasn't her first brush with the MasterChef phenomenon. Gare had been approached to audition for the original series, but quickly realised the filming commitments wouldn't fit in with her family-oriented lifestyle. "I went to the initial audition and then they asked me back for another, which I didn't go to because I knew I'd have to uproot my family and come live over here [in Sydney]. Perth is where our kids are." When the decision was made to film a Junior spin-off for contestants aged eight to 12, Gare was delighted to receive a phone call. "They rang and said, 'Would you be interested? It's only a short stint of filming.'
I couldn't think of anything better - it was one of the country's top-rating shows,
it was about food and kids were going to be involved."
Since then, Gare's natural rapport with the junior contestants has made her the sweetheart of the show. So, has much changed for her since becoming part of one of the biggest Aussie series on the box? "When you're walking down the street little kids come up and hug you - and I'm fine with that," she says with a dimpled grin.
It's hard to overstate the success of the MasterChef franchise. Its arrival seemed to herald a "nicer" breed of reality TV. It wasn't interested in mocking the untalented yet deluded, like the early audition rounds of Australian Idol, or giving fame to the fabulous nobodies of Big Brother; it aimed only to find Australia's best amateur chef and created addictive viewing in doing so. More than a ratings juggernaut, it has had a positive side effect in reigniting interest in cooking and fine dining in an age of fast food and rising obesity levels.
Gare is proud of the part that Junior MasterChef has played in the "good food" revolution. "For a while there, I think we were losing sight of what food's all about," she muses. "This is a great comeback for food and definitely bodes well for our future dinner tables and restaurants."
Research has found that getting children cooking is one way to help encourage healthier food choices, and Gare has received positive feedback from parents about Junior MasterChef's impact. "People can't believe their kids are so engaged and interested in food," she says. "It is fantastic in a time when we really have gone way too far. There's too much prepackaged food. There are additives and preservatives in everything. And then these kids are watching the show and getting into real food again. Cooking at home is such a fantastic thing to do with your kid. Some of the best conversations with my kids have been over the kitchen table."
Gare herself likes nothing better than throwing together a banquet for her loved ones. "As far as I'm concerned, the more the merrier. Cooking for 20 people is a breeze," she says, in a nod to her commercial catering past. "We don't have a lot of ceremony in Western society. So getting together with the family and just eating and celebrating that we're all healthy - it doesn't get much better than that."
And family get-togethers are never dull in her clan; Gare's husband of three years is ex-NBA star Luc Longley, whom she lovingly describes as "as amazing as he is tall - and he's seven foot two". Together, they are raising four teenagers, two from Gare's past relationship and two from Longley's.
Also in Gare's extended family is her sister's husband, British comic Ben Elton. And while she admits he's as hilarious as you'd imagine, she saves her highest praise for the traditional Sunday roasts he prepares for their 20-strong extended family when in Perth. "He makes 72 Yorkshire puddings every Sunday. He likes to make at least three for each person - and usually the kids have four. He's a Yorkshire-pudding machine."
So what does Gare consider the secret to her considerable success? "I've never really planned [my successes]. I'm driven and I try to do my best, but it's not like I said, 'I want to be on TV.' I've naturally just fallen into it. I followed my passion. If you're doing something that you love, then you usually do it well."
Gare says one of her proudest achievements was the recent release of her first cookbook, Homemade. "I bought my kids up on real food. Once you taste a real biscuit, and then you buy the biscuits off the shelf that last for a year and a half - they taste like cardboard. I try to make people's life easier with simple recipes - and the kids can do them, too."
For her future, Gare dreams of moving to the country, growing her own food and writing more cookbooks. But while the "celebrity chef" label sits a little uneasily (she prefers her husband's suggestion of "food maniac"), it's unlikely she'll be hanging up her ladle any time soon. "I constantly think of food.
I still wake in the morning and go, 'Hmm ... what am I going to cook tonight?' "
Top chefs tell what they feed their children to keep them happy and healthy.
Justin North of Bécasse (father to Sophia, 4, and Charlie, 3)
What meal do they love?
Hainanese chicken is a favourite. It's quite simple - it's a chicken that has been poached in chicken stock and then the rice is cooked in stock.
Do they help you in the kitchen?
Charlie likes to wash stuff - even if it's not suitable to be washed, like a bowl of peelings. Sophia gets more involved, she has a blunt knife and helps to chop. When they've been part of the process, then they really want to eat it. Pizza is one dish they love to make and throw all the different toppings on.
Does your family always have dessert?
Pretty much, but healthy desserts like yoghurt and fresh fruit. I have a big sweet tooth and so do they.
Neil Perry of Rockpool (father to Indy, 5, Macy, 7, and Josephine, 17)
Do they eat their vegetables?
It's funny; my littlest one, Indy, just adores vegetables - she asks for broccoli for breakfast half the time - but doesn't eat any fruit. Macy is the opposite; she absolutely adores fruit, but isn't so big on vegetables.
What about spices?
Macy doesn't like it, but Indy really loves it. She'll eat Indian and Thai curries and go, "Daddy, it's hot", then she'll go get some more. Josephine - now, she eats as much chilli as I do. It's just about exposure.
Do they eat fast food?
My children have never been to McDonald's or KFC. All that fast food is full of salt and sugar and just gets them addicted to the taste. There's nothing wrong with pizzas and burgers and pasta, but you can make it at home and cook it fresh.
Matt Moran of Aria (father to Harry, 9, and Amelia, 6)
Do your kids cook?
No. I suppose the theory is "Dad does it, so why should we have to?" If poor Harry was stuck on a deserted island with a gas barbecue he'd still be eating raw fish every day.
How did you avoid picky eating?
They're very good eaters. When they started on purées I used to change it around a lot, so every night they'd have something different to eat and I think it helped them develop their palates.
Do they have fine-dining tastes?
Many years ago we were coming back from Spain and there was a choice of entrées - one was a foie gras dish and one was a caviar dish. Harry turns to me and says, "How about you get the foie gras and I get the caviar and we'll swap halfway through?" He was five.
From Sunday Life