George Calombaris is one of the most recognised culinary figures in Australia. He is a judge on MasterChef, which has just finished its fifth season, and owns several top restaurants in Melbourne – including his highly regarded flagship, The Press Club – and Greece. I caught up with the 34-year-old to talk about where his priorities lie, how he juggles it all and how he hates to cook at home.
What are you up to at the moment?
Last week I was in Italy and this week I am in Dubai. MasterChef gets aired in 52 countries so I get to travel a lot. And it’s given me the opportunity to do what I do on a global scale.
You’ve had five people in the last 10 minutes ask for your photo in Dubai. Do you get recognised all around the world?
Yes, it’s incredible; you do have to pinch yourself. I will always respect the fact that someone has come to say hello and give them that minute because I just think they never asked you to be on TV, you have put yourself there and you’ve got a responsibility. Doesn’t matter how grumpy you are or how pissed off you are about something; you have got to be nice to them and show them that respect.
With all the things you do – restaurants, TV, books – where do your priorities lie?
My restaurants, 100 per cent. I’m a chef and a restaurateur first and foremost, and I know that I’ve probably got another series [of MasterChef] in me, and then I will just step back solely into the restaurant. I have got this burning ambition to keep driving the restaurant. I want to take The Press Club to another level.
How do you juggle it all with family life?
Sunday for me is family day; no one gets in front of Sundays. [My kids] are young, James is two but he comes to the restaurant with me now. He is going to be part of the furniture, he has no choice. And, look, will he become a restaurateur or a chef? I don’t care, that doesn’t bother me, but what I do know is that the restaurant will teach him life skills and I think that is so important, especially in this day and age … Everyone is caught up with computers and phones. If anything, I will be his teacher.
When you are at home do you share the cooking responsibilities or do you take over in the kitchen?
No, I hate cooking at home! I find it so domestic. It would be like giving Michael Schumacher my car and race around the formula one track, it’s not going to work. It’s the last thing I want to do. Don’t get me wrong, if I need to cook something for the kids, there is no problem. But it’s the simple stuff – a toasted cheese sandwich.
What’s the best part about your job?
It’s the instant gratification, it’s the idea that I can put something on a plate, on a canvas, and see if someone likes it or they don’t. My friend who is a barrister said once, ”I now know why you love your job so much. I love my job but it can take me three months to get through a case, and we will lose and you will be demoralised, but you know if the customer likes it or they don’t then and there.” And if they don’t, you can work to fix it or you hang your hat on it and believe in it.
What do you do when someone dislikes a dish in your restaurant? Do you fix it or hang your hat on it?
It depends. It’s a bit like when a sommelier pops a bottle of wine and pours it – you quaff the wine to smell if it’s corked, but, apart from that, I’ve bought the wine, I’m not tasting it to see if I like it! It’s the same with the food. I don’t care if they don’t like it because of the flavour – they have ordered it from the menu – but I will fix it if there is a problem technically.
Are you one of those chefs who gets upset when customers cover their meal in additional flavouring?
No! It’s like if someone wants a well-done steak, I’ve got no issue. I was in Florence and asked for a steak Florentine medium and the waiter said, ”No, you eat it medium/rare”. I’m like ”OK cool, he knows best”. But I hated it … and I thought, ”Why didn’t I stick to what I like?”
If you were to die tomorrow, what would be your last meal?
It would have to be things that mean something to me, that have nostalgia or a childhood memory linked to it. It would definitely include my mum’s egg and lemon soup.
What are your favourite restaurants, aside from your own?
I love Billy Kwong’s and Porteno in Sydney, and in Melbourne I love MoVida and Cumulus Inc.
WE WENT TO Atlantis The Palm, Dubai.
WE ATE A selection of fruit and pastries.
WE DRANK English breakfast tea and a cappuccino.
I WORE A Camilla and Marc dress.