George Calombaris' Hellenic heart
It is not surprising to learn that as a young boy George Calombaris loved food. He was obsessed by it. As we sit down for a chat at his Hellenic Republic restaurant in Brunswick, a very fit-looking George (he is almost equally obsessed with his regular gym routines these days) recalls a couple of prime examples as to how much food was always on his mind.
“Dad had an independent supermarket and our job on a Saturday was to sweep the floors. While my brother was stealing cigarettes; I was stealing tubes of condensed milk,” he says.
“I remember going to an uncle’s house and while my cousins were out the front kicking the footy, I was standing at the barbecue stealing charred bits of octopus while no-one was looking.”
It was almost ordained therefore that George would become a chef. Although he never cooked at home as a child “there was no romantic story of me with my hands in the bowl beside mum because we weren’t allowed in the kitchen”, what is somewhat surprising is the fact that when he did start manning the pans, he wanted to cook anything other than Greek food.
He learned French cuisine through an apprenticeship at the Sofitel Melbourne, then the same at Fenix before taking on the head chef role at Reserve Restaurant in Melbourne’s Federation Square. It is here he turned heads, being awarded Young Chef of the Year and two prestigious chef’s hats from The Age Good Food Guide. But it all came to a grinding halt when the restaurant went bankrupt. It is perhaps due to George’s indefatigable charisma that he was able to turn adversity into a pivotal moment in his career, and at the same time, find his Hellenic heart.
“I was out of a job, distraught, 26 years of age, and that made me go and do a lot of soul searching,” he recalls.
“I asked, who am I? Who am I as a cook? Suddenly, a light bulb went off and I went, ‘Hang on, I know what my culture is, I have lived and breathed it all my life.’ I could see a massive hole in the market being all things Greek – from fast food to fine dining. From that, The Press Club was born. Nine years on, it has been an incredible ride to where we are now.”
Changing food culture
Now, George is one of the most recognisable faces in the Australian food industry. As co-host of the super successful MasterChef TV series, he is projected into lounge rooms across the globe. For George, the overwhelming positive from it all is the fact that it has got people thinking about food.
“What has happened has been incredible,” he says. “I remember getting a call from a friend who works at the local Bunnings and he says, “Mate, what did you cook last night, because we have sold out of blow torches?” We had done crème brulee. The show influences everyone from young kids to adults. I walked down the street the other day and a tradie showed me pictures of macaroons that he made with his daughter. That, for me, means we are winning.”
Away from the small screen, George is at the helm of a Melbourne restaurant empire serving everything Greek from street food at five Jimmy Grants outlets, casual wholefoods at Mastic cafe, contemporary fare at Hellenic Republic and Gazi, to top shelf dining at the Press Club. Plans are also afoot to launch into the Sydney market with a Greek restaurant in Surry Hills. Stay tuned.
Cooking the books
In addition to all of this, George has published five cookbooks. His most recent, of which he is proudest, is simply titled Greek, and features the recipes that mean most to him. Ones that his family has passed down to him, fellow chefs have shared and even recipes that he makes with his children.
“Great cookbooks are not about the recipes, they are about the story,” says George. “It’s about the influences other chefs have played in my life, my mother, even my kids. There is a recipe in there for vegemite and avocado cruskit – you don’t have to be a genius to make it, but it is not about that – it is about the experiences that we share that make us who we are.”
There is even a whole chapter in the book about pasta. Given the name of the book is 'Greek', it begs the question, why?
“A lot of people don‘t know that my dad’s mother is Sicilian,” reveals George. “My dad migrated from Egypt, my grandfather was Greek, my grandmother Italian. On my mum’s side my mother, grandparents are Cypriots. Of course, Cypriot food is Greek influenced but also very influenced by the Ottoman Empire – Turkish flavours, Middle Eastern flavours. So when I was young, I was getting fed everything from falafel to moussaka to pasta and ricotta. I was so bloody lucky.
“So this book is about everything that has influenced my life, from a souvlaki at Jimmy Grants to a Hills Hoist at The Press Club and everything in between. This is, for me, where I am right now.
“I set out on my journey to do all things Greek for all people,” he says. “It’s taken me a long time to get here, 19 years with mistakes along the way. But I’ve loved every minute of it. Now we’re ready to go even harder and I hope there are another 19 ahead. I am just starting. I’m at the beginning of what I wanted to do.”