George Calombaris talks frappés, fulfilment, and what the future has in store

MasterChef

Chef George Calombaris has enjoyed more than 25 years working in commercial kitchens and a decade as a household name on MasterChef. 

Coffee to George Calombaris is about storytelling and memories. It’s about remembering his late grandmother sitting at the kitchen table with a Greek coffee, a good kaimak (foam), and sharing her story of coming to Australia with no shoes on. It’s also the ritual of tipping the coffee cup upside down to predict the future.

“I remember my grandmother vividly reading my cup. She would never give me anything negative. She would say ‘that’s going to happen, and this will be amazing’. I reckon 99 per cent of it was made up, but it’s part of that moment when you realise the power of coffee is more than just the flavour,” George says, talking to BeanScene at The Gertrude Hotel in Fitzroy.

Despite growing up in a Mediterranean household, instant coffee was generally brewed in the morning, and its aroma could be smelt from down the street. It may not have been the most pleasant to drink, but to George, it was part of the morning ritual.

“Still to this day my 83-year-old dad, God bless him, will still have an instant coffee, and so do I. I love an instant coffee, especially in the afternoon around 3pm when you just need a kick,” George says.

“I do love a coffee in the morning. I have one at 5.30am before I hit the squash courts. I need it because I love the flavour and I love a bit of bitterness in my cup. It turns my engine on and gets me going for the day. I adore it.”

Around Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula where George resides, he enjoyed visiting Miller’s Bread Kitchen in Dromana and hole-in-the wall Flat Blk in Sorrento, and Proud Mary when he’s in the city. But the best part about Australian coffee, George says, is that it’s rare to get a bad cup.

“Coffee is nostalgically what we do as Australians and Melburnians especially. We go for coffee,” he says.

“Globally, we make the best milk-based coffees in the world. I think we do an incredible job. We are so spoilt. But the best non-milk-based coffees, for me, are in Italy. If you go into an auto grill off the freeway, you’ll see a grandmother behind the machine punching out espressos to a line six-deep, and you’ll only wait two minutes tops. Bang, bang, bang. Off you go. It’s beautiful to watch.

“I love that passion for coffee making no matter the age. If you threw me on a coffee machine right now, I would really struggle. But ask me to fillet a piece of fish and I’ll do it blindfolded because I’ve done 10,000 hours of it. It’s muscle memory and that’s what it’s like for the older Italians who have grown up making coffee.”

When George is in Greece, however, it’s all about the frappé (ice coffee). Commonly made with Nescafé coffee, Greece is one of the top consuming countries of frappé in the world.

“I never drink frappé unless I’m in Greece. My favourite café in Athens is called Carpo, and they do brilliant espressos and frappé. Being there with my cousin, sitting there for two hours over one frappé – you can only do it in Greece. As the Greeks say, ‘frappé is not about drinking it to drink. It’s about the moment’, and it’s so true,” George says.

He tries to recreate ‘the moment’ with his own kitchen team at Hotel Sorrento in Victoria before service, sharing a round of coffee just as he once did as an apprentice chef.

“Enjoying coffee with your team is still a big thing in the hospitality world. I go and make the team coffee and get them pumped up for service. It’s a beautiful thing when you feel that coffee is more than just coffee,” George says.

In the many restaurants George has operated over the years, he has always served Vittoria coffee, which started as a friendship with Managing Director Rolando Schirato and has turned into a long-term partnership.

“I’ve got a bit of a love affair with the Schirato family. I really adore them,” George says. “Some of the best coffees I have had are in airport lounges that use Vittoria coffee. It’s a brand that has held the same, strong ethos for quality throughout everything it’s done, and the fact it’s still going strong says a lot.”

Quality and strength are also the qualities that have guided George through his 25-years in the culinary world. Growing up in a middle-class family, George was always surrounded by “good food on the table that was homely, yum and delicious”, rarely eating out.

“I love the spirit of food. I love the power of food, and I think that’s what resonated in the first instance,” he says.

That spark ignited a chef’s apprenticeship where George won the Bon Land scholarship in 1999. He spent two years working at Reserve in Melbourne’s Federation Square where he won Young Chef of the Year at age 24. He has opened establishments including flagship restaurant The Press Club, Maha Bar and Grill, Hellenic Republic, St Katherine’s, Mama Baba, Elektra in Melbourne, and The Belvedere Club in Mykonos.

On reflection of his culinary pursuits, George says it was his tenacity and determination that paid off.

“I think like anything, talent without hard work is like a tree without its roots. You have to work hard. There’s no question about it. That has been my philosophy from day one. I wouldn’t be where I am in my life without hard work, commitment, and dedication. In the last couple of years due to a little thing called COVID, I actually got to stop and have time to reset, reimagine, and now we go again, but it’s been a wonderful career. I’m very grateful,” George says.

George made his television debut on reality cooking show Ready, Steady Cook before being approached to be one of the three original judges on MasterChef Australia. It was a role that changed his life and lasted over a decade.

“Television came to me as an opportunity. I took it with open arms, and I was okay at it. It led me into some really cool opportunities. MasterChef was a show that had integrity. It’s a rare thing, especially in television, for a show to become successful and have the longevity we did. I was just a little cog in a big wheel, but we were making something really special that aired in 140 countries around the globe. The influence it had was massive. People were religious about it,” George says. “I loved all 11 years of it. It was a wonderful show and still is.”

George says juggling the success of MasterChef along with 20-odd restaurants and a team of 550-plus for 11 years was “madness”. That’s why now, with “chapter two” of George’s culinary endeavours about to kick off, he says he’s going in a lot more educated and his eyes wide open.

“Chapter two” includes the launch of an online platform George has co-founded called Culinary Wonderland, due to launch later in 2022. Effectively, the “Google” equivalent platform for food and drink will connect close to 150 global chefs in one destination for users to search recipes, read stories, watch video clips, make a booking at a restaurant, and shop for all their culinary needs.

“The online industry is so fragmented with recipes from all angles and different star ratings, but here, everything is under one banner. You want to cook profiteroles this weekend? You can find that recipe from the best pastry chefs in the world. Cook a ceviche from one of the biggest Peruvian chefs in the world, Gastón Acurio, and digest content from Michelin Star chefs,” George says.

This is one step towards reconnecting the hospitality industry. Pre-COVID, George says the industry was already “bruised” before the pandemic threw another curve ball. But for some, like George, it was also an opportunity to revaluate and understand what was needed to move forward.

“[COVID-19] was a depressing time for a lot of us, including myself. I struggled. I had to dust myself off, get in the kitchen, and cook with the most important people in my life – my kids, whom I neglected for so many years because I was obsessed by being in the restaurants and being on television,” George says.

To get the industry back to where it once was, George says an injection of fun, intrigue and creativity is what’s needed.

“We’ve got to bring creativity back, and we’ve got to be bold and brave. We built this industry on creativity first. It’s not some formula in a maths book,” George says. “I say to young chefs, don’t be afraid if you cook a dish that doesn’t taste that great, because failure is your best friend. Fail, learn and progress.”

George is being brave himself. He’s taken on a new role as Culinary Director at Hotel Sorrento and at the time of print, was preparing for 700 Mother’s Day bookings.

“I’m really excited to still put that chef’s jacket on and cook. I want to influence rather than being the lead guitarist, or the lead singer where it’s all about ‘the George show.’ It’s not. I consider myself the coach in the background, pushing my team to succeed. That’s where I get fulfilment. And I want to influence them with the life experiences that I’ve had: the good, bad, and ugly,” he says.

George is adamant he has much to learn and a lot more to give – to his kids, his peers, the next generation of chefs, and the 3033 first-time offenders he visits at Port Phillip Prison once a month as part of their rehabilitation program.

“At the end of the day, I’m George, I’m a chef, and I’m focused on being the best I can possibly be at my core. A cook is someone that cooks to feed people’s stomach. I want to cook to feed people’s souls. That’s what I plan to do, and I’m absolutely enjoying it – every bit of it,” says George as he receives a text message from Hotel Sorrento Executive Chef Lucas Caporal.

“He says: ‘Chef, can you please pick up vinegar powder on your way back?’ No problem. It’s all part of the fun.”

This article appears in the June 2022 edition of BeanScene. Subscribe HERE.

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