Caterer grabbed 10 minutes with George Calombaris, celebrity chef, restaurateur and MasterChef Australia judge, during his recent trip to Abu Dhabi for the Gourmet festival
Thoughts on preparing for an overseas culinary competition
It’s always a tough one. We have to write a menu very strategically and look at where we are. You come to a foreign country and Ben, who grows you beetroots just the right height and exactly half a centimetre in diameter, and who pulls them out for you just at the right time, isn’t there. Suddenly you haven’t got the convenience that you’ve been used to for so long.
On his flagship restaurant
The Press Club [in Melbourne, Australia] is my baby. It’s the first one I opened – the mothership of all the restaurants. It’s the fine-diner, the one that all of our restaurants aspire to be. When you start in my group as a chef, you work your way up to get to the Press Club kitchen.
The credibility of MasterChef
MasterChef’s not there to make the contestants into chefs. MasterChef is there to change people’s lives – to galvanise a young generation of kids. Everyone thinks that they’re a chef or a restaurateur or a café owner, but there’s a big gap between aspirations and capabilities.
It’s seven or eight months of intense [experience] condensed into a few weeks. If I asked any qualified chef to come up with a new menu everyday for a different genre, they’d struggle. So as much as some people in the industry look at it and go ‘look at them, who do they think they are’, that’s naivety. They’re not looking at the big picture, and that is how it’s promoting our industry.
On Gulf produce
[When I was I Abu Dhabi] they took us to the date market and I found some dates that I love. I’m going to work out how I can create that lovely little moment, when I tasted one and thought ‘wow’, back in my restaurants in Australia. I love the kingfish, tuna, prawns – I think your prawns are wonderful.
What makes a successful restaurant
A person must have some reason to go there: because of the chef, because of the concept, because of the feeling, because of where it is. One of my restaurants is in a little lane, underground, so it’s very sensual and people love that.
Then, of course, the food has to back it up, but it’s all about the experience. Priority for people is the experience and that includes the service, the warmth as soon as you open the door, the energy that you feel when you get in there, that little smile from the first person who greets you.
In my restaurant in Mykonos, when you walk in through the front door of the restaurant there’s a signature smell that we have, a fragrance we’ve created, it’s just got this aquamarine smell that reminds you of the beach, of the sea.
I wanted people to have that little emotional connection to the restaurant – through the touch and the feel.
In my newest restaurant, all the cutlery’s black and everyone looks at it and goes, ‘ooo, that’s plastic’, and the water cup looks like one of those crinkle-cut plastic ones, but it’s porcelain, and when you touch it you go, ‘oh wow’ – I like putting people through these emotions.
And why he’s so successful
I don’t think I’m successful yet. I’ll probably think I’m successful when I’m retired and I’m sitting back on my big rocking chair, looking at what we did.