As a boy, George Calombaris says he was tied to his mother’s apron strings. These days, the ties have loosened but his Greek heritage is still very much the driving force in his life and career.
“I’ve always been around food. It’s a big part of my family,” says the chef whose modern interpretation of Greek cuisine at The Press Club hit a major chord with diners when it opened in Melbourne in 2006.
His most recent venture, Hellenic Republic, is more like a Greek tavern, offering simple, robustly-flavoured dishes that are more traditional in their approach.
Both are expressions of Calombaris’s heritage, growing up in Melbourne with a Cypriot mother, Greek father, two siblings and 21 cousins, who, whenever they got together, were always surrounded by food.
“In a Greek family, food is not only a time for feeding. It’s cultural, it’s religious, it’s what time of year it is,” he says, noting that they’d be eating lentils during Lent, followed by octopus and calamari at Easter, after which there would be beautiful cakes and pastries.
“I was classically trained in modern French and I’ve juxtaposed that with the flavours I grew up with.”
From the time he was a child, Calombaris knew he wanted to be a chef. After finishing school, he undertook an apprenticeship at the Hotel Sofitel in Melbourne. “It was a real food-focused hotel back then, with 130 chefs and lots of departments so you did six months in one section and six months in an other. There was lots of learning.”
For the first two years, he worked under Raymond Capaldi, a tough taskmaster but one responsible for creating a kitchen full of passionate individuals. Calombaris was desperate to work for the Sofitel’s three-hatted Le Restaurant, which he finally got to do after two years of “hard graft and long hours”.
After his apprenticeship, he teamed up with Capaldi and the Sofitel’s executive sous chef Gary Mehigan to open Fenix, where he worked for two years. In his book, The Press Club, published by New Holland last year, Calombaris credits Capaldi with teaching him “how to think about food and become a visionary” while Mehigan taught him “how to be a manager”.
“Ray and Gary let me bring out my own style ... I learnt a lot from those two men.”
He then took time out to compete in the Bocuse d’Or in Lyon, France. “It was an amazing experience to represent your country at that level, and to be in France amongst the best chefs in the world.”
On his return, he went to work at Reserve, in Melbourne’s Federation Square, where customers would fly in from all over the world to sample its unique brand of molecular gastronomy. It was his first “head chef gig” and at the age of 24, he won Young Chef of the Year, Best New Restaurant and two chef’s hats in The Age Good Food Guide.
But the venture was short lived and after two years, Calombaris had already decided he wanted to open his own place. He could not see the point in doing food that broke down barriers but that wasn’t financially viable. “At the end of the day, I wanted to cook food for the consumer, not for my ego. I took a turn in life where I wanted to go back to my culture and cuisine.”
Greek cuisine is not the “tourist island food” of dips, fried cheese and sugary pas tries that many people believe it to be, says Calombaris. “It’s simplicity, it’s elegance. It’s olive oil, lemon juice, fresh herbs, lots of fish and pulses. It’s not cream, it’s not butter, it’s not starch. It’s a very ancient cui sine. It’s refinement, simplicity and health.”
His food at The Press Club is his own interpretation of Greek cuisine, with “soul, elegance, substance, technique and, above all, respect and understanding of the product”.
Unlike many modern Australian restaurants, he doesn’t use Asian flavours—“I use feta as my salt. I use olive oil, they use sesame oil”. But he does uses some Asian techniques and at the end of the day, he says “we all speak the same language.”
“What is Australian cuisine? It’s all these beautiful migrated people who come out to this wonderful country and food brings them together.”
Early last year, he opened Maha Bar & Grill with his friend and chef Shane Delia. “We did our apprenticeship together and are good mates,” says Calombaris. “We thought we’d get together and do some thing amazing.”
The modern Middle Eastern style restaurant was quickly followed by Hellenic Republic, which he describes as “real traditional and homely” compared with The Press Club’s “upmarket, edgy” style. For Hellenic Republic, he deliberately went for a quirky location in Brunswick, with graffiti on the outside walls.
“It ain’t all whitewashed walls and fish nets.” he says. “It’s noisy and loud, with chefs cooking over charcoal. It’s got all the homeliness of a Greek household. The Press Club is my baby but when I’m in Melbourne, I eat at Hellenic Republic every day.”
Last year was a particularly busy one for Calombaris. In March 2008 he spread his wings internationally and opened the 45- seat Belvedere restaurant in a hotel on the Greek island of Mykonos. The hotel owners had invited him to come on board and he had no hesitation in taking up the invitation. “An Aussie boy cooking in Greece—it was a big coup.”
When Hospitality spoke to Calombaris last month, the restaurant had just won its first major award, similar to The Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide chef’s hat.
At the Belvedere, he is cooking similar food to that served at The Press Club—“a modern take on Greek cuisine”. Calombaris has done brief stints in some of the country’s leading restaurants, and says “there are chefs in Greece who are doing amazing things. I’ve had a great friendship over there with all the chefs.”
He travels to Greece several times a year to keep an eye on the restaurant, although work on a new television program is consuming a lot of his time and he is likely to go only once this year. He says the secret to managing so many restaurants, especially when they are abroad, is to have good staff.
“I have 130 staff and I treat my staff like family. My core staff have been with me for a very long time. They really work hard together and have the same commitment [to the business] that I do.”
At the time of our interview, Calombaris was busy filming the Channel Ten series, Master Chef that went to air late last month. The 16-week series will screen in prime time six nights a week—an Australian first. Hosted by Sarah Wilson and also featuring Matt Preston and Gary Mehigan, the show has 7500 people from around the country vying for the opportunity to become a chef. “It’s a really exciting show,” says Calombaris.
“People who want to be chefs think it’s all fanfare and Jamie Oliver. Everyone thinks they can cook but we put reality into that. It’s a realistic, authentic show. We’re there to educate consumers about what it’s like to be a chef.”
Although he was a regular on the Ready, Steady, Cook TV series for three years, this is Calombaris’s biggest gig on TV so far, and he has had a kick out of helping young people fulfill their dreams. Working on the show “brings it all back” about what it’s like to want to be a chef, he says.
Calombaris is now working on his second book, Hellenic Republic: Stories From The Hellenic Heart, due out in October, but whether or not there’ll be more restaurants, he can’t say.
“When we’re ready to expand, we will,” says Calombaris. “We’re not ready at the moment. I’ll never open the same restaurant. I’m not into chains or franchises. I want every restaurant to be a unique experience.”