Al­pha chef

The high priest of mod­ern Greek food ex­pands his flock

Sunday Tasmanian - Tassie Living - - FRONT PAGE -

James Calom­baris is proud of his dad and wanted to take a friend to Gazi, one of his fa­ther’s Mel­bourne restau­rants, for lunch. “Have you booked?” asked Ge­orge Calom­baris, of MasterChef fame, when James re­vealed his plans over break­fast. He hadn’t.

“I said ‘James, if you don’t make a book­ing, you are not get­ting a ta­ble.’”

Calom­baris’ part­ner Natalie raised her eye­brows. James is five years old and still at pre-school. Nev­er­the­less, fol­low­ing his fa­ther’s in­struc­tions, he picked up the phone and booked. “That for me is a lit­tle les­son,” says Calom­baris. “I want him to un­der­stand the value of life like I was taught. It’s about work­ing hard. Noth­ing comes on a plat­ter for him. There is no golden spoon.”

Calom­baris, 38, is noth­ing if not a hard worker, but he is pro­pelled by some­thing more than that – a re­lent­less, rest­less en­ergy that makes him fuss over ev­ery de­tail, from the menus in his restau­rants to the tidi­ness of the serv­ing ar­eas and even the di­rec­tion of the toi­let pa­per. He doesn’t walk so much as bounce. “Peo­ple say, ‘Why do you bounce so much?’” he says.“I need to. It’s my en­ergy.”

For some­one who doesn’t read books and lim­its his staff to five emails a day – “Just pick up the phone and ring!” – Calom­baris has be­come one of the most suc­cess­ful restau­ra­teurs in the coun­try, ex­pand­ing his em­pire as other celebrity chefs’ col­lapse.The Mel­bur­nian over­sees 12 eater­ies, from the high-end Press Club to sou­vlaki chain Jimmy Grants, which re­cently ex­panded to the Gold Coast. His am­bi­tion is to em­u­late Merivale boss

Justin Hemmes, who runs a sta­ble of over 40 bars, pubs and restau­rants. “He’s a leg­end,” he says. “If I could get to his point one day, well, great.”

He is the first to ad­mit, chefs don’t al­ways make good busi­ness­men. His se­cret is to be up­front about his fail­ings, and join forces with peo­ple who are strong in ar­eas where he is weak.

Pa­per­work is a par­tic­u­larly weak point. “BAS, tax, this, that, land­lords, rent,” Calom­baris says with mock con­fu­sion. “I quickly learned to sur­round my­self with peo­ple who could do that. One of my busi­ness part­ners knows how to build restau­rants, cost cut, save, and do deals on leases.The other brings a to­tally dif­fer­ent thing to the equa­tion.We are three dif­fer­ent peo­ple ,but around the ta­ble there’s an amaz­ing chem­istry.”

The chef has ex­per­i­mented with ex­pand­ing his brand and clock­ing up guest ap­pear­ances. Later this month, he will ap­pear again at Oh My Greek Week, a five-day cel­e­bra­tion of Hel­lenic cul­ture in Mel­bourne. Re­cently, he also col­lab­o­rated with home­wares brand Salt & Pep­per for a col­lec­tion of non-stick, hard-an­odised alu­minium cook­ware.

He has learned enough about the busi­ness side of the in­dus­try to know that when restau­rants go un­der, as many do, it has a pow­er­ful rip­ple ef­fect. He be­lieves the hos­pi­tal­ity in­dus­try de­serves more fi­nan­cial sup­port from the gov­ern­ment.

“In Mel­bourne, (chef) Shannon Ben­nett and I em­ploy close to 700 peo­ple com­bined,” he says. “If we went un­der to­mor­row, would the gov­ern­ment bail us out?”

Next, Calom­baris plans to ex­pand into Syd­ney. It will be a Greek eatery, work­ing name Elec­tra, in Surry Hills. His chefs are al­ready in Greece, re­search­ing the menu, but it’s not ex­pected to open un­til late next year.

“It’s my first ma­jor foray out­side of Mel­bourne, which is pretty scary and daunt­ing,” he says. “I can’t put my fin­ger on why, but I know it is dif­fer­ent. We need to knead it and work it and un­der­stand it and ad­just ac­cord­ingly.

“I want it to be ac­ces­si­ble. There will be no rules, no ‘You must be in at eight, you must give your credit card.’ We will cre­ate op­tions – you can book, you can walk in, you can get pick-up or de­liv­ery. It will be a Gazi-es­que type place. It’s grungy, it’s gutsy, it’s not about mak­ing ev­ery­thing 90 de­grees and per­fect.

“It’s about fo­cus­ing on flavour, be­ing en­ergy-driven, and a night out where you go, ‘How cool is that?’” Calom­baris jug­gles all this with

MasterChef, the cook­ing show on Net­work 10 that made him fa­mous. He has signed on for an­other three years.

“I’m not go­ing to sit here and bulls**t you – of course it brings cus­tomers to the restau­rants,” he says. “But it’s a dou­ble-edged sword. Peo­ple’s ex­pec­ta­tions are through the roof.”

He be­lieves the key to the show’s longevity is its in­no­cence and in­tegrity. Not for them the catty con­tes­tants whose per­son­al­i­ties out­shine their food.

The three judges, Calom­baris, Gary Me­hi­gan and Matt Pre­ston, have made it clear they won’t stand for that.

“We are the mafia of our show.We lit­er­ally run the ship,” he says. “I don’t want to spend time with peo­ple who are ig­no­rant, ar­ro­gant, not car­ing. We don’t need the cliched types.”

Calom­baris has of­ten said that food is his re­li­gion.To be sure, he is a zealot, evan­ge­lis­ing in his many dif­fer­ent tem­ples al­most ev­ery wak­ing hour of ev­ery day. Ex­cept Sun­day.

Sun­day, he de­votes to his fam­ily. Although, of­ten that in­volves food, too. Some­times he will take his kids, who are banned from eat­ing fast food such as McDon­alds, down to a fam­ily-run burger restau­rant in a Mel­bourne park.

“We have chips – I don’t hold any­thing back,” he says. “What I do teach them is my re­li­gion, as you would if you were Bud­dhist or Catholic. My be­liefs are about food – it’s a whole food diet. It’s real, it’s tasty and it’s yummy.”

Calom­baris has never had re­sis­tance from James on his McDon­alds ban, even though he sends him to fast-food par­ties with a healthy packed lunch. “He’s been so brain­washed,” he says. Michaela, his three-year-old, is not far be­hind.

Even the Calom­baris kids’ grand­par­ents are devo­tees to this food re­li­gion, and their mother Natalie, orig­i­nally a nurse, is study­ing nutri­tion. “Their grand­par­ents have a mas­sive back­yard with chick­ens, bee­hives, veg­eta­bles, fruit, ev­ery­thing,” he says.

“My fa­ther-in-law makes his own sausages, his own wine. My kids, they taste wine. They’re not sculling wine, but they taste it. They stick their fin­ger in. We have this binge-drink­ing epi­demic in Aus­tralia. It’s hor­ri­ble. When I am in Europe, I don’t see drunk peo­ple. It’s not some­thing that’s taboo, then when you turn 18 you go nuts.

“You are happy to stick how many tea­spoons of sugar in a soft drink into a kids’ mouth, but some­thing made from grapes – and yes, it’s fer­mented – you’re not happy to give them a lit­tle taste?”

Not ev­ery­thing Calom­baris at­tempts is suc­cess­ful. He and Natalie are not mar­ried, de­spite his ef­forts. “I keep ask­ing her, and she keeps say­ing no.”

He doesn’t, how­ever, agree that chefs make ter­ri­ble hus­bands. “I think it’s about the chef mak­ing sure they are with the right per­son, some­one that un­der­stands this life.”

“My be­liefs are about food – it’s a whole food diet. It’s real, it’s tasty and it’s yummy”

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