George Calombaris is one of Australia’s most celebrated chefs, largely due to his influential style of modern Greek cuisine sweeping the globe. With MasterChef Australia returning for its ninth season, expansions at his stable of restaurants on the table, and a young family at home; George has a lot on his plate.
“Nicole, George speaking,” his voice so familiar and sprightly over the phone, I can envision him bouncing with every word – just like he does on television.
It’s a Tuesday afternoon and George Calombaris has been filming for MasterChef all day, taking a brief break to chat to me before heading to The Press Club for dinner service. Still, after all these years of being a ‘celebrity chef’ George can still be found in the kitchen, doing what he loves most.
“It has to be that way for me, because I need to legitimise the reason I’m on TV,” he says earnestly.
Born and bred in Melbourne, George’s Greek heritage was central in his upbringing, where food was, and still is, everything – greatly inspired by his mother and grandmother who were both brilliant cooks.
“It was more about the generosity and the spirit of food and the fact everything that I loved about growing up, was around that dinner table,” he says.
“I don’t think I ever said, ‘I want to become a chef’. What I did know, I was obsessed by eating and food, so it was the obvious choice to be a chef.
“I’ve been in this industry for 21 years now, I’m 38 years old with varicose veins and a bad back, you don’t do this if you’re not absolutely obsessed by it. It’s not glamourous, I’m not going to sit here and pretend it is, it’s hard work mentally, physically and emotionally.
“But I’m an absolute junkie over it, it’s my everything.”
George has experienced an exceptional career, beginning with being named Bonland National Apprentice of the Year Award in 1999 and representing Australia at the Bocuse d’Or International Culinary Grand Prix in Lyon, France in 2003, where he achieved the best result for an Australian representative at that time.
In the same year, he was the mastermind behind the successful Melbourne restaurant Reserve, then in 2006, at the age of 27, George opened his flagship restaurant, The Press Club. He has since gone on to own and operate The Press Club Bar, The Little Press & Cellar, Hellenic Republic, Gazi and Jimmy Grants. George has also been named as one of the Top 40 Chefs of Influence in the World and continues to win highly esteemed awards.
“I’m very fortunate, I’ve got my restaurants, but every single day it’s a challenge, it’s still long days,” he says.
“I’m still at the coal-face, I’m not over the stove cooking, but I’m definitely close to the flame. I know exactly what’s going on and need to because it’s what I do and I know one day it will come to an end, but geez I’m bloody enjoying it as we speak.”
This month, MasterChef returns, where another round of aspiring chefs put their talent, passion and determination to the test.
“Last year they were really intense and amazing cooks, this year you’ll get absolutely amazing cooks but on top of that they are really fun people,” he says.
“I relate to them a lot in terms of having a laugh and I like that; life’s too short. Don’t get me wrong, I’m serious when I’m in the middle of service, but I don’t like dull moments and I like to have fun, this is stressful enough.”
While we all know and love him as George, he is also Dad to five-year-old son James and four-year-old daughter Michaela.
“We try and involve them in the (cooking) process, they’re very lucky their grandparents have massive vegetable gardens and they understand where things come from and the fun of being able to go and pick some berries and eat them, and kids like that,” he says.
“I tell people all the time, encourage your kids, take them to the market with you, get them involved.”
As if George’s life isn’t full enough, he has plans to continue expanding the restaurant group over the next 12 to 24 months, including taking his wholefoods cafe Mastic into the Mornington Peninsula.
“We’ve just occupied about 19 acres out there, so this winter we’ll do our first plant of ingredients, all that will just be for The Press Club. I want to get to a point where 90 per cent of my fruit and vegetables come from there,” he says.
“I’m enjoying every minute, the challenges are extreme in running businesses, it’s not easy, but as my father said, ‘Georgie, if it was easy everyone would be doing it’, I’ll keep giving it a go and so far so good.”
Profile: Favourite thing to cook?
George: To be quite honest with you I don’t do much cooking at home, but in saying that, I did help (my partner) Natalie last night whip up a quick curry and that was delicious. At home it’s very simple, it’s very clean; we like to eat very healthy.
Profile: Favourite thing to eat?
George: Anything that’s tasty! I love food, I’m obsessed by it. I think the most disappointing thing I can ever have is a bad meal, there’s nothing worse, I feel like someone’s stealing from me.
Profile: Favourite ingredient?
George: I’m obsessed by olive oil. I’d hate to know how many hundreds of litres we go through in the group a week, we do everything with olive oil and I love it, it’s this incredible, amazing, wonderful ingredient. It’s my go-to.
Profile: Anything you don’t like?
George: There’s this egg the Chinese use, it’s called a 100-year-old egg and it’s fermented in the ground. I don’t want to criticise anyone out there who does like it, but obviously you must have an acquired palate to be able to eat that.
Profile: Who is a better cook? You, your mum or your grandmother?
George: My grandmother is the best cook, 100 per cent.