Australia’s culinary champ is as colourful and artistic as the dishes he plates
George Calombaris in conversation with Cinnamon magazine
Interviewed by: Ruwandi Perera
Whether it’s with his signature Hellenic mess from Greek or pork belly with moussaka vinaigrette or other sumptuous culinary fare, Australia’s culinary champion has wooed guests with his gastronomic extravagances from the time his career took off at Sofitel Melbourne – one of the city’s five-star hotels – where he won the Bonland National Apprentice of the Year Award in 1999.
George Calombaris was inspired at a young age by his mother and grandmother who helped him take his first steps into the kitchen. Armed with a Greek heritage, Calombaris is today one of Australia’s top chefs, renowned for his role as a judge on the MasterChef Australia series.
From opening his flagship restaurant at the age of 27, he now owns and operates several star-class restaurants across the continent. Author of many cookery books including The Press Club, Calombaris lives to cook… not the other way around.
ABOUT HIS RESTAURANTS
Q: You own a number of restaurants in Melbourne and beyond. Tell us about them…
A: I own five restaurants in Melbourne – The Press Club (two hats), Gazi, Hellenic Republic in Kew and Brunswick East, and the Hellenic Hotel. In addition, I have four Jimmy Grants stores in Melbourne (Fitzroy, Richmond, Ormond and Emporium Shopping Centre) and one on the Gold Coast in Queensland.
Q: Do you have a favourite from among your restaurants?
A: That’s like saying you have a favourite child! I’m in the kitchen at The Press Club, and I enjoy eating with my family and friends at all my venues – they’re places I want to eat at.
Q: How do you manage your time so that you’re involved in all the restaurants you own and operate?
A: I have great teams working across the group. I work with all our executive chefs regarding menus, new ideas and creativity.
Q: Have you ever dined at a restaurant in Melbourne and thought: ‘I wish this place was mine’?
A: I love eating out and trying new things, and being inspired by what other chefs are doing. Melbourne is incredible for this, since it’s so diverse. The city’s standard alone is simply amazing.
Q: As a judge on MasterChef Australia, you’re always the one offering help and comfort when things get rough for contestants. Is this a role that comes naturally to you?
A: Yes, of course. I want to be there to inspire them; but also to encourage them, teach them and push them a little further, as I know they can do it.
Q: The standard of amateur cooks on MasterChef grows every year and the show has undoubtedly had a huge impact on what home cooks expect even from themselves. What’s your take on this?
A: MasterChef has inspired everyone. It’s great to see children interested in food. I think it’s definitely bringing families together back at home and everyone’s ‘plating up’ at the kitchen bench. I’m lucky to have been a part of it.
Q: The challenges on the show get tougher from one season to the next. How do you continue to evolve – do you find new ways to keep new contestants on their toes?
A: There’s a great team behind the show. Matt, Gary and I sit down with them and work out how far we can go each year. The contestants raise the bar too, which in turn makes us rethink what we had planned as it might be too easy for them – they’re truly incredible.
Q: You have mentored many talented amateur cooks. Are there any whom you are particularly proud of?
A: I’m proud of being perhaps a small part of their overall journey through food. If I’ve taught them anything, that’s great. A number of people have gone on to open their own restaurants, and it’s terrific to see that. I love supporting them.
Q: What’s your favourite MasterChef moment?
A: I couldn’t say – there’ve been so many of them!
Q: You are famous for your cooking, but perhaps even more so for your personality. How would you describe yourself?
A: Genuine, aspirational, humble and creative.
Q: If not a chef, who did you want to become?
A: If I wasn’t a chef, I wanted to play football!
Q: You often talk about childhood memories of food. What are some of your favourites?
A: These are all nostalgic memories. We all grew up with childhood memories, flavours, smells and experiences, and they’re all great to rediscover.
Q: What or who inspires you?
A: Everything – travel, my staff and my family. I’m lucky to travel and experience many things in life and be inspired.
Q: What remains on George Calombaris’ bucket list?
A: There’s always more you want to do in life; and as a chef, there are many things! This year, it was my goal to learn how to drive a manual car!
Q: If someone were to make a movie about your life, who would play George Calombaris – and why?
A: Hmm, not sure. I’ve never thought of that.
Q: What’s your favourite ingredient?
A: Olive oil
Q: What is your favourite food to cook – and why?
A: I cook and create at The Press Club. I don’t really cook at home, since I find it a bit domestic to be honest and my partner is an incredibly healthy cook – I love her cooking!
Q: Which of your many signature dishes are you most proud of?
A: I never say I have a signature dish. As chefs we’re always creating, refining and improving – nothing is ever perfect.
Q: Do any of your children have ideas of becoming a chef?
A: I encourage my kids to follow their dreams; and if that leads them to hospitality, then I’ll support them. It’s all about working hard and enjoying what you do – because then it’ll never feel like a job.
Q: Who are the chefs you admire?
A: There are many. Raymond Capaldi was a great inspiration to me. Learning to cook under him was incredible, and he’s still amazing. I look up to Heston (Blumenthal) as well; he’s a great friend of mine too.
Q: Whose cooking (other than your own!) do you most enjoy?
A: My partner Natalie’s!
ON SRI LANKA
Q: What do you think of Sri Lanka?
A: I’ve actually never been there but heard really great things about the country. Matt Preston has said the food scene is really blossoming, to be honest.
Q: What are you most looking forward to during your visit?
A: Experiencing the local culture and cuisine.
HOW TO CONNECT WITH GEORGE CALOMBARIS
Twitter and Instagram: @gcalombaris
GETTING TO KNOW GEORGE CALOMBARIS
DATE OF BIRTH
- 4 October 1978
- Mazenod College High School (Melbourne)
- Box Hill Institute of TAFE (Melbourne)
- Fiancée (Natalie Tricarico)
- Children (Michaela and James George)
- Playing soccer
- Table tennis (I play with Heston)
FAVOURITE COUNTRIES FOR WORK
- Everywhere is exciting
FAVOURITE COUNTRIES FOR VACATIONS
MUST-HAVE IN THE KITCHEN
- Good knives, great-quality ingredients, love and passion.
MUST-HAVE WHEN TRAVELLING
MOTTO IN LIFE
- “I have a few… one being, have your head in the clouds but your feet firmly on the ground.”
- “MasterChef has inspired everyone. It’s great to see children interested in food.”
- “I never say I have a signature dish.”
- “I encourage my kids to follow their dreams.”