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Food

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.”

 

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Words by Mark Hughes on 2 Jul 2015
When Lucio Galletto opened up a restaurant in the Sydney suburb of Paddington he didn’t truly envisage that it would become a cultural icon, as much an art gallery as an Italian trattoria. But due to the warm generosity of the restaurateur and clientele, this is exactly what has happened. Adorning the restaurant’s walls are works by some of the biggest names in Australian art such as Sidney Nolan, John Olsen and Garry Shead, to name but a few. The story of how this all came about and how it has helped develop his food is detailed in Lucio’s latest book, The Art of Traditional Italian. Childhood memories Lucio has always been surrounded by food, and by art. He grew up in a village on the Ligurian coast of Italy where his parents had a restaurant. He recalls the fun and convivial nature of his parents serving both friends and strangers. Almost as vividly, he recalls being mesmerised by the ornate and detailed sculptures, paintings and architecture of his poor, but culturally rich, local church. The combination has had a long and lasting affect on Lucio. So when it came to be that he opened the doors of Lucio’s in 1981 he was determined to extend the same welcoming nature that his parents had shown at their restaurant. By chance, Paddington was home to an artists’ studio, which many of Sydney’s up and coming painters and sculptures used as their creative centre, and for many of these, Lucio’s became their second home. The art evolves “Artists started to come in and some started giving me their work because they found out that I had a love of art, and so it happened,” recalls Lucio. “We didn’t plan this, we didn’t say ‘let’s make an art restaurant’, it just happened over years. “It all started with Sidney Nolan. He was involved with the movie Burke and Wills as an advisor. When they finished filming each day he would come in to eat. One time he drew a little artwork on a napkin and left it behind. I was really taken with it. You know, beautiful gold leaf – I put it up on the wall. “Well, that was the first piece of art on the wall. And when Sidney came back he looked up and saw his art and he was really taken with the fact I had given it so much love. After that he gave me some more drawings and the other art pieces. I think from that, the artists understood that I love art and artists, I look after their work. I am really honoured that they put their work up on the walls of my restaurant. It’s a great honour for me… and it all turned up by chance. “I have some great artists that come to the restaurant and they draw on napkins, plates, or in the oyster shells. They feel really at home and comfortable, and it makes me feel good that I have created this feeling, to be able to collaborate, because of the hospitality, the conviviality of my restaurant.” The Art of Traditional Italian by Lucio Galletto with photography by Ben Dearnley (Penguin) RRP $59.99
Two Blues Sauvignon Blanc 2014
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