You could rightfully say that George Calombaris was part of the initial movement which saw chefs not only come out of the kitchen, but transition into some of Australia’s most recognisable faces. The ratings success of MasterChef was unprecedented for a cooking show and now in it’s 7th season, it still remains a viewer favorite. George’s ambassadorship roles include Bulla Dairy, Vittoria Coffee and Swisse Australia. He aligns himself with the Starlight children’s foundation and he is the number 1 ticket holder for the Melbourne Victory. Lunch with Liz managed to drag George out of the kitchen (seriously it was hard to get him away from the food preparation) at Brisbane’s E’cco Bistro, for a bite to eat, chat and sneak peek at his new book ‘Greek’.
WHERE WE WENT: E’cco Bistro, Brisbane city.
WHAT WE ATE: to start:
Pickled Cucumbers – Ouzaki Mezathaki, Taramasalata ~ entrée: Soft-shell Crab, fresh herbs, honey, mayonnaise ~ main:
burnt Leek, Almond and Feta Ravioli
~ sides: Garden Peas, Cauliflower, Almonds, Lemon Cabbage Salad, Balsamic, grated Kefalograviera ~ dessert:
risogalo, salted caramel, kourambiethes
WHAT WE SIPPED: Louis Roederer Champagne Brute Premier, Apani sparkling
WHAT GEORGE WORE: Zenith watch. Chef whites.
WHAT LIZ WORE: Portmans.
Why do you think Aussie’s love Greek food so much?
“It’s the food of the Gods, God damn it! Greeks are the sexiest people on earth.”
What makes this cook-book unique?
“I’ve created dishes that you know and I’ve Aussie-fied it. I’ve take classics you love and given them an Aussie twist. You could start with a baklava cocktail, moving on to dishes such as taramosalata popcorn, ouzo-soaked cucumbers, slow-cooked lamb and miso eggplant souvlaki… and prawn saganaki tortellini with tomato and mustard seed vinaigrette. My mum contributed some recipes. I’ve included cocktails, which is a bit unusual for a cookbook, but they’re achievable and exciting. How good does a Greek Salad Cocktail sound for Christmas?”
If you were to recommend one spot in Greece to visit where would it be? (I’ll just chip in here and say that mine is Paros!)
“A lot of people land in Athens and straight away take off to go to the islands. I say, stay a few days. Athens is this incredible city with this underground world, that once you discover is phenomenal. That’s everything, going from the fish and meat market where underneath the market there’s one little man and all he cooks is a casserole, a salad and a grilled fish, that’s it! It’s fantastic. For a foodie there’s so much to discover. It’s an amazing capital city. Then my next tip is to go north to the middle top half of the country. It’s incredible, you think you’re landing in Switzerland when you get there. It has the second largest canyon in the world, the most incredible scenery, that’s where Feta cheese comes from. Everyone goes to Santorini and Mykonos, there’s definitely more to Greece than that.”
At what point did you recognise your passion for food and when did it transition into a career choice?
“I don’t know if it was more of a passion or just an absolute obsession in eating, and then I became a chef. There’s nothing glamorous about being a chef, it’s a hard job, I never looked at it and went ‘oh I want to go and be a chef’, it was just that I loved food. I was obsessed by it and the next step was to start cooking!”
Were you surprised at the success of Master Chef Season One?
“No. I knew we had something special. Even season 7 still got it, we had the highest rating finale this year. It felt right from the start. It’s real, there’s no smoke and mirrors. What you see is what you get and people like that.”
After all the seasons of Master Chef, when reminiscing, is there one particular contestant that pops into your thoughts?
“They all affect me in some ways. It’s not their food it’s more their emotions and the people that they are. The Pos, the Julies, the Julias, the Alvins, they all in some way shape or form pulled a cord within me and that’s what I love and the most important thing about a successful contestant on Master Chef, is the honesty. A lot of the people stay in my thoughts”.
You’ve received so many awards and accolades, such as Chef of the Year in 2008, what do you reflect on as your career highlight?
“Representing Australia at 2003 at the Bocuse, which is the largest culinary competition in the world, was an amazing moment for me, standing there with the code of arms on my chest, that was a real wow moment. Throughout my career there’ve been some amazing highs and lows and I don’t take for granted either of them. My past is what forges forward my future. I’m very lucky to have had these experiences and memories. One can’t outweigh the other”.
You’re considered one of the most influential chefs in the world, what continues to inspire you?
“ Life in general and people! The places I visit, the people I see, my culture, my background, I’m still discovering that! My childhood memories inspire me, I was just back in Greece recently and there were moments there that really touched me. We were in Athens and my daughter was sitting on the kitchen bench while Mum was cleaning calamari, and I took a picture of that simple moment, because they’re the times I never want to forget and am grateful for. Grandmother and granddaughter bonding over food; that’s what the kitchen is for, those are the things that mean a lot.”
As a restaurateur, have you witnessed a change in diners with the introduction of social media and smart phones?
“Oh big time! Dining is different these days. Everything is so instantaneous and quick. Everyone’s a critic. Unfortunately some restaurants can fall because of this new medium, social media can hurt. We have to be careful with it. I like it but I like it when it’s honest real and respectful. I was taught if you’ve got something bad to say, keep it to yourself! Do we really need to hurt people’s livelihoods? What many people don’t realise is restaurants aren’t just about the people who own them, but the people who work in them and their families too, the suppliers, a simple comment can hurt many people along the way. Good restaurants will always prevail, the restaurants that don’t care, well they’ll fall by the wayside. Let them do that themselves.”
How did you meet your Italian partner Natalie and I’m always fascinated to ask a chef ‘who cooks at home’?
“I don’t cook much at home, she does most of the cooking, and she’s really good! She was a marketing manager for BMW and I did a gig for them, I was this cheeky 24-year-old young chef who thought he knew it all and she was the clever marketing manager … and the rest is history!”
Kara’s Question. *note to reader Kara is my adult best friend (not a child) who gets to ask each week’s celebrity one question: Are there any foods you won’t let your kids eat?
“Yep, any processed fast food are off the menu, they don’t want to eat that crap anyway”. At this point we are interrupted by a diner who has come over to tell George “you’re looking younger”….