Chef interview: George Calombaris

The Masterchef Australia judge talks restaurant concepts and local twists

George Calombaris is working on a few new projects, but there is no Middle East opening yet [Photo: Aasiya Jagadeesh/ITP Images].
George Calombaris is working on a few new projects, but there is no Middle East opening yet [Photo: Aasiya Jagadeesh/ITP Images].

George Calombaris reveals his current projects, how he incorporates local twists into his menus, and what makes a restaurant concept stands out

You’ve visited the UAE a few times now; do you think you’ll open a restaurant here one day?

I’ve frequented the UAE every year for the last six or seven years. There’s something about the region that keeps me wanting to come back. There were legitimate talks about doing something in Abu Dhabi ... but it’s got to be right. I’m not just going to do it because I need my name on the front door of the restaurant. If I do it, I need to do it properly with a lot of thought, and the concept needs to be right for this city. My restaurants around Melbourne are made for the area they are in. If I was to open something outside of Australia I’d definitely look at Dubai. But nothing firm yet.

Has the region’s F&B scene changed since you started coming here?

Quite dramatically. I had dinner at Fümé [at Pier 7 in Dubai Marina] and at one point I had to remind myself we were in Dubai and not in some cool little restaurant in Melbourne or New York City. I just love that it’s progressing so quickly and people are embracing it. It’s exciting that you don’t have to have top name chefs from around the world to come here and open up restaurants. It can be great concepts. A concept isn’t about the food or the ambiance. The concept is about all the little things done well.

What would we find in your kitchen at any point of time?

It’s all about understanding seasonality. At the moment it’s spring in Australia, so broad beans, peas… I’m excited that tomatoes are going to be out soon. I’m excited by what the land and the sea gives me throughout the year. As the consumer, as the chef, we need to respect the land and sea and make sure we’re giving back what we take from it. Staple things you’ll always see in my kitchen are olive oils, good salts, interesting vinegars, and interesting cheeses.

How do you juggle running restaurants and being in the kitchen with your TV commitments and other appearances?
I’ve been very persistent about staying in the kitchen. I don’t want to become a TV chef, it’s not my ambition. My ambition is to just cook the best food I possibly can and still be in touch with my craft; and if I’m not, then there’s a problem. Monday to Friday I’m generally in the kitchen. I write every menu for every one of my restaurants. My head chefs work very closely with me, I’m there to inspire them, to direct and follow up.

What do young chefs need to remember about this industry?

You’ve got to absolutely love it and be obsessed by it. I don’t wake up and go to work. I wake up in the morning and I live my life, so if you think of it like that, you’re going to go a million miles. But if it’s a job, you become a jobber.

What do chefs need to remember about opening their own restaurant?

You can’t just open a restaurant anymore and hope that the food is going to be great and that’s going to get you by. It’s more than that these days, it’s about the whole dynamic of the place. It’s so intense now to have a restaurant and that’s great. That makes our job challenging. You need to do your homework, and you’ve got to set yourself some goals of what do you want out of it. Because if you open a restaurant just because you want to pay yourself a wage, you might as well work for someone. It’s about making sure you really set some clear goals and targets because restaurants will swallow you up quickly. If you’re not on the ball, before you know it, you’ll go broke. And that’s the sad reality of it. Don’t be afraid to work for someone to get as many skills as you possibly can and learn from their mistakes. Don’t learn from people’s successes; I always look at failures because I learn from people’s failures.

What are you working on right now?

I’m really busy with the new Press Club, which I’ve moved into a new space. I’m doing a couple more Jimmy Grants stores, which are these modern takes on the soulvaki bar. I’ve got three more being built at the moment. I’m also opening a new café at the end of this year called Mastic and it’s going to be a holistic, healthy café in Melbourne. I’m also opening a pub called The Hellenic Hotel in the western suburbs of Melbourne. We’re around 380–400 staff and by the time these open it will be 600–700. There’s never a dull moment.

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