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Brett McGregor with Paul Gebbie, Cherie Noble, Panmai Kernkhunthot and Caleb Forbes of Branston Intermediate.

Just two days after he left his job as deputy principal and teacher at Christchurch’s Branston Intermediate, Brett McGregor was missing his class.

New Zealand’s first Masterchef winner has made what he describes as his toughest-ever decision, and is leaving teaching to pursue his culinary dreams.

When he took the Masterchef crown in April the headlines read “Masterchef won’t give up his day job”. The 37-year old says that while that was his genuine intention, the pressures of trying to juggle his day job as a teaching deputy principal with the opportunities presented by his Masterchef success meant he had no life left.

Rewind to last year when Brett, his wife and seven-year-old son Jack had returned to New Zealand from Hong Kong where he had been teaching. “I was basically having six months off when we were sitting at our bach in Kaikoura and Australian Masterchef was on. They were calling for interest in the first New Zealand series. I said to my wife,˜I reckon I could do that”, and she said˜go on then’.”

Huge secret

So Brett auditioned and got through. It was during the first bit of filming for the series in January that he secured the job as deputy principal at Branston Intermediate. “I think that took some of the pressure off me during the Masterchef competition because I’d come back to New Zealand to teach and I knew that I had a job which I wanted to do waiting for me,” he says. It also meant that he started at Branston Intermediate with a huge secret. “I’d won Masterchef but of course I had to keep it quiet while it screened on TV which was pretty hard with all the kids coming up hassling me to tell them. But I kind of enjoyed it because how often do you have a chance to keep a secret like that?” Brett did tell his principal who also kept the news close to her chest.

The “secret” came out when the final was screened in late April with Brett winning a last cook-off with fellow contestant Kelly Young to take the title. Since that day Brett’s life has been “crazy”. He was working full-time at school but was away up to three days a week in Auckland with Masterchef commitments and pursuing opportunities which have fallen out of the show. In the end Brett felt it wasn’t fair on his class and he needed to make the hard call.

New cook book

“Chances like this don’t happen to many people and I decided this is the first chance like this I’ve ever had and I should just take it and see where all these opportunities take me,” he says. “My nickname from the kids at school was˜Ben Lummis’ because people think that once you win these types of shows you have a couple of really good weeks and then it’s all gone. I don’t want that to be true for me.”

So pursuing those opportunities is exactly what Brett is doing. He is running a cooking class in Christchurch, training with well-known chef Jonny Schwass, appearing and speaking at charities and events, writing a column for Zest magazine, talking to an Australian company about a possible TV show, and cooking up a storm in his kitchen as he works on a cookbook due out for Mother’s Day next year.

He’s excited about the book which will have 80 recipes. There will be some kiwi fare but much of it will draw on the influences and flavours from Brett’s years of nomadic travel around the world.

Regret

“While I was travelling I would often knock on the cook’s door and ask what they had put in the food and whether I could watch them for a bit. I would jot everything down in notebooks which I’ve kept but I never thought would come in handy.”

Brett’s decision to leave teaching is tinged with regret. He says he will miss his class and all the banter with his students but won’t miss the planning and “feeling like I’m constantly having to catch my tail.”
He also believes focusing on the pure art of teaching is getting harder. “We’re becoming more like social workers and those issues which come from outside the classroom are taking the focus away from teaching. The challenge is to try and keep motivated. I think as long as you are a motivated teacher and motivated for your students to succeed, they will.”

So Brett is giving himself six months to chase his culinary dreams and might appear back on our TV screens as a guest on the next series of New Zealand Masterchef. But if it doesn’t work out he says he’ll be just as happy back in the classroom as he is in the kitchen.

Busy people’s chicken with parmesan & linguine

Ingredients

  • 400g linguine
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 2 cloves of garlic, left whole
  • 6-700g boneless chicken breast or thighs, sliced
  • Juice of 1 large lemon
  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • ½ cup flat leaf parsley
  • 1 cup grated parmesan
  • Salt and black pepper to taste

Method

Cook pasta as directed. I like to use the Italian pasta Rustichella d’abruzzo because of its beautiful texture. You can find it at a good supermarket.

While the pasta is cooking, heat a pan on a medium heat and add a couple of tablespoons of oil then garlic. Let the garlic infuse with the oil for about a minute then add the chicken. Cook until nicely golden on both sides and cooked through then set aside.

Grab a jar with a tight lid and add the lemon juice, oil, parsley, ½ the parmesan cheese and shake until well combined. Check seasoning and adjust as required. It should taste a little sharp, with the beautiful parmesan taste coming through.

Drain the pasta and add it to a large bowl. Throw in the chicken and pour over the sauce and combine well ensuring everything is very nicely coated. Sprinkle the remaining cheese over the top season again and serve. Brilliant.

Best served with fresh crusty bread. Serves 4.

Brett McGregor’s declicious Quinoa, rocket and pistachio salad with chicken.

Ingredients

  • ½ cup Quinoa
  • 1½ cups chicken stock
  • 1 tbsp Olive oil
  • 600g Chicken breast
  • 50g rocket leaves
  • ¾ cup flat leaf parsley
  • ¾ cup mint
  • ½ red onion- sliced finely
  • 200g cherry tomatoes-sliced in half
  • ½ cup pistachio nuts- roasted
  • 3 tbsp lemon juice
  • 3 tbsp Olive oil
  • Black pepper to taste
  • Salt to taste
  • Lemon wedge for garnish

Method

To cook the quinoa place ½ cup into a pot and cover with 1 ½ cups of chicken stock. Bring to the boil reduce heat and simmer until the grain is softened to your liking and set aside. I like to keep a little bite to add another texture to the dish. Heat 1 tbsp of Olive oil in a large fry pan and cook chicken until nice and golden on both sides and cooked through. Set aside to rest. Place the quinoa, rocket, onion, parsley, mint, cherry tomatoes, pistachio’s into a bowl and gently combine. Take chicken and slice across the grain then add it to the bowl. Finally add the lemon juice, olive oil and season with salt and pepper and mix thoroughly until everything is evenly coated. Serve in a large pile in the centre of the plate and garnish with lemon wedges.