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Getting To Know MasterChef Contestant, Simon Toohey
28th May 2020
Simon's not your typical serious and stern chef (believe us, we've worked in many kitchens), he's the slightly goofy, loveable and inspiring chef who's changing the game on the current season of MasterChef Australia.
If you haven't tuned in, this is Simon's second season competing on the show and he's been very passionate about cooking vegetables and making them more exciting than your average boiled broccoli. For the usually meat-heavy show, this was sure to stick out and, as the popularity of his meals grows, so do his followers.
We chatted to Simon about how he got into cooking, his vegan smokehouse pop-up and plans for the future with The Sustainable Earth Network.
Interview with Simon Toohey
When did you start cooking and where did you study? Did you have a job in a different field before you became a chef and did you always know you wanted to cook?
I really only started cooking when I had to when my parents moved to Byron Bay. I knew from watching my mum cook and helping her sometimes how to make a few of her classics, like Red Thai Curry, amazing pasta, and Indian curries, she was an amazing cook. I also cooked lots of my dad's dishes which was definitely the more rustic Australian home style like stews and roasts. Very meat driven, but that made sense as he grew up as a farmer in the Southern Highlands and at the time was the CEO of the Cattle Council of Australia.
I have always worked in the service industry. In fact, other than a quick 6 months as a travel agent (which was bloody awful) it’s all I have ever worked in. I wanted to be a psychologist, but my marks for my final year of school exams didn’t reach what I needed to be one. So I went into the first job that came to me, working in a tiny pizza restaurant, down the road from my house. It was so busy and I learnt to work hard and fast. I loved the speed and the food and I got paid doing something I loved. I was hooked. Hospitality took me around the world. I spent 5 years in the UK, 4 of those were running one of the best cocktail bars in the world. I always LOVED food and as my late-night, hard-partying and long hours started to take a toll, I decided it was time to move to the thing I was craving the most. I studied Gastronomy In Edinburgh and loved it. Finally, I made the leap into the food world.
Are there any celebrity chefs that you admire?
There are so many, but it is the invention of dishes that inspire me to like the chef, especially vegetable-based dishes. People like Matt and Joe from Oakridge, Coskun from Tulum, Jeremy Fox, Sean Brock oh and Ben Shewry. The list goes on...
Tell us about cooking on MasterChef, what is it like to be cooking mostly plant-based meals and do you think you’re making more people aware of how delicious veggies can taste? There seems to be a master plan behind this.
I absolutely love the fact when I get the chance to cook just vegetables. It gives me great joy. It seems to give others joy too as I receive a lot of messages saying thank you for finally bringing an appreciation for plants to MC, that has been such a meat-heavy show since day dot. I also receive messages telling me that they aren’t veggo or vegan, yet they really appreciate the fact I cook vegetables as they are interested and want to move in that direction. It's a fantastic feeling. But the best is that mums and dads have stopped me in the street and told me their kids eat veggies now as I've made them 'cool'… Now, ‘cool’ isn't something I would ever consider myself, but I’ll take it. There are some great plans coming as well…
What’s it like coming back on the show for a second time?
Hard, really bloody hard. It just felt like I was just there. Like I had a long holiday, without the beaches and relaxation and then I was right back in that kitchen again.
You might be sick of answering this question, but just to clarify for some people… Did you actually think ‘pancake’ was a country? Tell us what happened here!
HAHAHAHAHAHA! I totally forgot that I had done that and because I was hiding my answers I couldn’t really tell anyone about it. Cheeky of the camera person that’s for sure. I haven’t stopped laughing about that. But let’s be a little serious. How good would pancake be as a country!? There are 3 towns in the US called 'pancake', and I think I will make it my mission to check them out.
In October 2019 you opened a vegan smokehouse pop-up, what was it like? Did you sell out? Were you nervous people would be confused or upset when they found out your smokehouse differed from the normal smokehouse menu containing meat? Did you advertise it as vegan? It was the best time ever! I absolutely loved it. We upcycled everything. Even the space was an old carpark that the owners used shipping containers in for a bar. The roof was old tin from a farm and one of the owner's sails off his boat. The tables were giant wire coil holder things. We built the bbq area from stuff on the side of the road and old worksites and the smoker was donated. I was stressed coming up to the opening as I was doing it all on my own, but about 3 weeks out from the opening date I got a call from an acquaintance offering his help. Needless to say, he saved my arse from the whole thing being a flop and we are now best friends.
I actually didn’t give a stuff if people didn’t know it was vegan or not. It said it on the initial booking, but we never advertised it as completely plant-based. My goal is to make delicious food, to make people happy, and to get people thinking about what they eat and of course to leave full. The dinners were so successful we upped our seating to 37 which was originally 25 and extended 3 more sessions. We sold out after the second evening with people literally rebooking while eating their second course.
There was one time when we gave 4 tickets away to some people in a raffle, it turned out that the 2 men coming in were both butchers. They called up the day before and said: "I’m sorry, but we were given the vegan menu, can we please upgrade to the meat menu". We mentioned that it was all plant-based and that if they wanted to have meat, they can head to the steak joint that was literally below us. Oh, how ironic. Needless to say, they loved the meal and left so full. The two women said their husbands only eat meat, peas and potatoes every day. I had them eating smoked broccoli, roast pumpkins, burnt cucumbers, braised leeks and they loved it. I’m sure they went back to their original diet, but I still wonder… maybe, just maybe they will open their eyes a little more to the world of plants.
I loved the fact I opened something that would get a lot of people talking. Opinions are what drive thought. The same food over and over isn’t exciting. Exactly like Flora and Fauna. I’m sure you have had plenty of 'comments', but all it does is drive you to prove your point…the world needs more people like you.
We are huge fans of the Sustainable Earth Network and loved watching your series ‘The Whole Thing’, tell us where this idea came from and when did your passion for food waste begin? What are your plans for this network in the future?
The Sustainable Earth Network came from the smokehouse. I think no food waste is a natural progression from having a plant-based lifestyle. You are making a conscious decision to change the way you eat, whether for health reasons, environmental or animal. So with this, it shows you care and think about your food. I met Andrew and Giuls (Co-founders of Sustainable Earth Network), at the opening of the smokehouse. They were brilliant and we hit it off from the start. Andrew studied gastronomy and they were both totally involved with my want to change peoples perceptions on how we eat and in turn help the world the best way we could. We discussed potential ideas and then we finally landed on this one...' The Whole Thing’. It was to let people know there is more to eating veggies than just steaming them to mush like our grandparents did. If we could create delicious dishes using plants and got people thinking about food then all the better. We have another season coming out soon. We're just working on getting some funding as we want this one to be big. Heaps of amazing places to visit in the pipeline. People who through their farming/producing/making practices are also playing their part in making a cleaner environment. One we will be proud of having our kids grow up in.
Who helped shape your perspective on food and inspired you to try and make a shift in the industry?
I have the most amazing family. They all work in ways to help shape the planet for the better. My mother has her own ‘Career Intelligence: Leadership Coaching’ company focusing on team growth and performance with a strong push on empowering women in their workplace. My brother works in Climate Justice which is brilliant and my father advises on animal welfare and biosecurity. I think the reason I moved towards a plant-based diet was because my partner Georgia is veggie. We started just eating vegetarian and then vegan. It excited me because it was a challenge to create beautiful food that isn’t the same Instagram colourful bowl of raw veg on noodles or rice. I wanted to explore flavour. It's hard sometimes, vegetables are mostly considered a ‘side dish’ so how can I make it the number 1 thing on a table?
Favourite restaurant or cafe in Melbourne?
Oooooo, ummm, Tulum in Balaclava (Melbourne), an amazing modern Turkish place. Mine and Georgia’s go to all the time cheap and fun place. Favourite meal ever?
Probably Attica in Melbourne. That was just mind-blowingly good. Per Se in New York was fantastic too. But I think in truth, some of the best meals I have ever had were on the street stalls in Thailand, India, Nepal. It comes down to timing and environment. Sitting on top of a mountain, at a tiny hotel looking over at Mount Everest and eating Dal Bhat for $2 would be up there with the best food I have eaten In my life.
If you're keen to see the exciting projects Simon's got coming up, you can follow him on Instagram and of course, watch his journey on the current season of Master Chef Australia.