Friday, August 14, 2015

Exclusive interview with George Calombaris of Masterchef Australia

Draw from your culture, don’t set out to be the next Blumenthal or Redzepi, says MasterChef judge George Calombaris

Announce that you’re off to meet George Calombaris and you’re suddenly in an enviable position. In his role of MasterChef judge he’s become a celebrity, particularly in India, but he is primarily – by his own admission -- a chef and restaurateur. George was in Bangalore over the Independence Day weekend to present a taste of his highly acclaimed Melbourne Restaurant, The Press Club, and I got to chat with him at a tasting session here.
Chef or TV star, I ask him? ‘I’ll always be close to my kitchens,’ he says. George’s restaurant collection currently includes the swank Press Club, The Press Club Projects – which creates exclusive dining experiences on request – Gazi, which is a more approachable, affordable restaurant, the Hellenic Club, Mastic Café and Jimmy Grants, the fourth branch of which opens this month, serving souvlaki, salads and sweets in a casual setting.
All the menus find their origins in the chef’s Greek roots and he pushes them to the next level with his imagination and skill. Especially at The Press Club, the food is ultra-modern, but George abhors the term ‘molecular gastronomy’. ‘It’s a made-up word that means nothing,’ he says, adding that he’s all for experimenting and pushing boundaries in the kitchen. The master of such experiments is, of course, Heston Blumenthal and the two are friends. In fact, when George conjured up a rendition that resembled a clothes line with chips and crisps hanging from it, as if in a lawn, he wanted to infuse the presentation with the smell of cut grass. ‘We tried and failed several times, when Heston suggested using a rotting banana whose components give off the same smell. It’s about understanding those elements,’ George says.
It’s all about the food for this passionate chef. ‘As a restaurateur, I’m lucky that I have a great team that looks after the stuff I don’t particularly like doing,’ he says. So, George can continue to work on elevating the meal experiences he creates, sometimes borrowing an ingredient from another cuisine, at others, using a revolutionary new technique. While the imagination can run wild in George’s kitchens there is no compromising on the basics. ‘It’s about the freshest produce and the best ingredients,’ he says. That insistence was on display when, at the cooking demo-cum-tasting session, he swapped the salmon for Indian sea bass in a dish, because the former didn’t make the quality cut. He also used naan as the souvlaki wrap and made the observation that ‘You have to respect where you are’.
For George, it’s about celebrating the very essence of local culture and its culinary traditions. ‘India has such a wealth of cuisines and such a rich food heritage. That’s what young chefs should be drawing on, rather than aspiring to be the next Blumenthal or Rene Redzepi,’ he says with conviction. ‘On my visits to Delhi, I’ve seen these street stalls that do just one thing, say, jalebis, and do it so well,’ he says.
He’s a firm believer that specialization is important. At the Press Club, for instance, you wouldn’t see more than a dozen dishes on the menu. ‘It has to be that way if you want to deliver quality,’ he says. ‘It’s 12 dishes, 34 diners and 20 staff.’ I tell him that in most restaurants here anything less than 100 dishes on the menu would evoke howls of ‘no choice.’ ‘You come to my restaurant to be in my hands, right?’ asks George. Clearly, the Indian diner has some way to go before he appreciates that sort of specialization and the quality it can deliver.
Besides the food, George’s restaurants are known for their superb service and earn high ratings on customer review sites. ‘I’m not particular about whether they drape the napkin correctly over their arm or pour the water from the left. I enable them only to create a warm, fuzzy feeling for the customers who walk into my restaurants. My staff is my family, I love these guys,’ he says.
His faith in his staff doesn’t mean he’s not watching every move. Can he never stop looking at his phone? ‘Have you been talking to Matt Preston?’ he laughs. ‘Well, I wouldn’t say I’m a control freak, just a very controlling person.’
Among the things he controls is what he feeds his guests, himself and his family. Is it true that when his 4-year-old son James goes to birthday parties at fastfood restaurants he’s given a packed meal?’
‘Would you give a child drugs and alcohol? Junk food – processed, over-refined, bleached  -- is just as bad,’ George says. ‘People have religions, mine is food and I will not have it desecrated.’

Interview & Post by Priya Bala