Australian Masterchef hits the UAE

“What we’ve got here are pine-nuts – an ancient aphrodisiac.
Apparently if you eat pine-nuts, certain things happen.”  George Calombaris


World renowned chef George Calombaris is always on the go. He’s Masterchef’s master traveller. He’s visited the UAE twice this year and I’ve been lucky enough to catch up with him on both occasions for Dubai One’s ‘Emirates News’, first at the Gourmet Abu Dhabi festival and then here in Dubai.

George recently took part in Victoria Week, a trade promotion event, hosted by Atlantis the Palm. While on stage, he was asked about the reputation of Victorian produce and started to tell a story about the time Heston Blumenthal paid him a visit, Heston is one of only three British chefs to have been awarded three Michelin stars and apparently he was so fascinated with Victorian produce, he just had to take a souvenir.

“Heston was amazed by this heirloom variety of carrot that we grow out in the Yarra Valley, so there we were out the back of the kitchen, rolling up these carrots in paper so he could put them in his suitcase.”

So when I had the chance to sit down with George, I started with the produce:

Noni Edwards: You were saying that Atlantis seems to really appreciate Victorian produce?

George Calombaris: Yeah, they do things properly! You know the chefs do an amazing job. I’ve been spending the last couple of days in the kitchen. I’ve got my team who’ve come from Melbourne working with the team here preparing an amazing menu for the next couple of days and there’s so much Victorian produce in their kitchen so I was sort of scratching my head going, “Where am I?” because it’s all familiar! It’s wonderful how the world is such a tight community now. I mean, we’re in Dubai, Melbourne is 13 or 14 hours away and we can get fresh Victorian produce here now!

NE: Personally, what does it mean to be promoting Victoria, promoting Melbourne? It’s not an effort for you, is it?

GC: No, because it’s what I know. When I was asked if I’d like to do it I jumped at it because I’m an advocate for everything Victorian, everything that is Melbourne. I love the buzz. Not just the food side of it but we’re coming into the Spring Racing Carnival with the Emirates Melbourne Cup, we have the AFL Grand Final, the Australian Open, the Formula One. I love it because it’s social, it’s about people meeting up with each other. It’s about food. It’s about all those things that we love to do in life so it’s a beautiful thing!

NE: Now this series is not screening here yet, so no spoilers please, but I hear we have a new Victorian export now, that’s being filmed in Melbourne this time?

GC: Yes, that’s right, Masterchef’s moved to Melbourne. Sydney’s done a great job for the last couple of years but it’s exciting to be in Melbourne. Melbourne’s a beautiful place, there’s a reason I have seven restaurants there, not only for the brilliant produce, the amazing chefs, it’s why it’s the most liveable city on earth, again!

NE: And now you don’t have to spend so much time in Sydney!

GC: Yes, fewer trips to Sydney but I’m going to miss that.

NE: Oh you don’t need to be politically correct!

GC: No, it’s got some amazing restaurants, it’s got the best harbour in the world, but you know what Melbourne’s pretty beautiful.

NE: Are you amazed at how much global success Masterchef has had? You could walk down a street anywhere and be recognised?

GC: Yeah, it’s freaky. We get amazing letters sent from the most amazing countries. We were in a mall, locally, just a couple of days ago walking through and people stop you and say hello and I had to ask myself, “I’m not in Australia any more” No, you’re in Abu Dhabi. So it’s quite freaky that the show’s on here and people are loving it. I think that’s so exciting.

I was just in South Africa doing some live theatre shows there and people were just nuts for it.

If anything, I hope it’s changing the way young kids look at food and hopefully they’re going to eat healthier and better. That’s the most important thing, seeing the way young kids think about food now. Some of them know now where a carrot comes from! They thought it just comes from the supermarket, if that. Where now they know it actually comes from the ground, has dirt on it and how to peel it and prepare it.

If I think about it, I’ve got the best job in the world. I get to taste food every day. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not all good. In the first series, there was this time, I looked at Gary and Matt and said, “I’m not tasting this”. I got really repulsed, so we did ‘paper, scissors, rocks’ and Gary lost. Gary always loses. So Gary went up, stuck his fork in, lifted up a piece of something and as he put it in his mouth, this guy had red long dreadlocks and one of those dreadlocks was in Gary’s mouth. It was horrendous but so funny.

NE: Are you enjoying your time in the UAE?

George Calombaris: I’m absolutely loving my time here. It’s such a mystery, this place. You can feel it when you walk around. It’s inspiring, I can’t believe how young this country is but how old it feels. It’s great to be here.

NE: What’s your impression of food culture here?

GC: There are definitely chefs out there who are starting to push the envelope and open up restaurants. What needs to happen is they really need to embrace their culture and their heritage and if they come from Bahrain or Oman, or all these places to live here, well go for it! Express your food and be proud of it because they should be proud of their culture, it’s a wonderful place.

NE: Australia does fusion food very well, there’s the Asian, there’s the European, it’s coming together. There’s also a real multicultural melting pot here in the UAE, but we haven’t really seen that kind of experimentation.

GC: You know it’s difficult. There are some great chefs in Australia who really understand how to juxtapose those two things together, how to bring in their influences but also tie-in a theme. I think it takes time. You’re a young country, let’s not forget that, so is Australia, we know that, and it takes time to develop those ideas and create those ideas.

In essence the most important thing is respect for your surroundings. Two days ago I went to the local market, fish market and found the most amazing local fish. It was caught that morning and they’re so proud these fishermen of their fish and what needs to happen is everyone needs to embrace that and love it and enjoy it. “Eat local,” that’s the way to go.

You’re in a beautiful place, the dates are delicious, they’ve been kissed by the sun, so use them, and use them in interesting ways not just open with pistachios in them, be creative. I hope to see Date Souffle on the menu!

NE: Do you think you could work with the Arabic-infused elements here?

GC: Having a father born in Egypt to an Italian mother and a Greek father you know, I get it. I grew up in it. I understand the culture, but you know at the end of the day you want people to come to your restaurant for a whole experience. Something that truly says you’ve walked into a place that has captivated you and taken you on an amazing journey for a couple of hours.

NE: You know the topic of Arabic cuisine is very contentious. Some say all Arabic cuisine is Lebanese cuisine. Do you agree?

GC: I’m not going to get into the argument! All I know is that I own a restaurant back in Melbourne called Maha and it’s Lebanese-Maltese, my business partner and chef is Lebanese-Maltese, but at the end of the day, all of our food – me being Greek, my parents being Greek or Cypriot, Lebanese, Maltese Egyptian – you come from some place you know, wherever that was, who knows, who cares. Where that place is, who knows, who cares, as long as it tastes great, it’s delicious.

NE: A favourite food memory from when you were a child? 

GC: My father came from an island called Lemnos. And our table was very laden with everything from all around. I remember a soup called trakhanas which is basically wheat that they cook in sour milk, I’d have big bowls of that and I’d feel good. That for me, is nostalgia.

—–  “My parents thought I was going to be a really smart kid but they got it wrong.” —–

NE: So your own food journey started out with sweeping floors in your Dad’s greengrocers, looking back now, are you amazed?

GC: Yeah I am, but I never forget where I came from. In my own business I can still pick up the broom and sweep the floor, and lead by example. In saying that, how lucky am I? Starting out washing pots and pans and watching the chefs out the front, I knew I wanted to be in their position one day. But like anything, as I tell everyone. it’s about hard work, it’s about what you put in. You’ll get out of it what you put in, your fruits. and these are my fruits. For me to be able to bring four of my staff here from Melbourne, and see their faces when we asked them, that’s the best. And now they’re here and they’re soaking up the culture, we’re off to the mosque next, we were at the Palace the night before, to see these things is a once in a lifetime and I’m so proud I can do that for them.

NE: What is your role with Gourmet Abu Dhabi?

I’m one of the guest chefs here, and I’m quite honoured because the calibre of chefs who come here all in the space of a week is very exciting; some of the top Michelin-starred chefs from around the world. It’s a jam-packed couple of days, but a lot of fun, a lot of buzz, you’re running on adrenaline and it’s a great place to be doing it.

NE: And espresso?

GC: Lots of it!

‪NE: I have to ask you, what’s your food dream? Or have you achieved it all?

‪GC: My food dream? I have lots of food dreams along the way and slowly, slowly I tick them off. But I’m a constant dreamer. I’m dreaming about what I want to do next, where I want to be next and along that process there are a lot of failures, lots of holes along the road, but you get back up, you keep giving it a go. That’s the most important thing. And you wake up every day invigorated wanting to do it.‬ I don’t sleep much. I’ll sleep when I die and while I’m on this earth I’ll do as much as I can to enjoy it.

NE: So what’s next? You’re not giving anything away here?

GC: Next? Busy times. Apart from Masterchef, my seventh restaurant opened in Melbourne a couple of weeks ago, which keeps me busy. Book number six, I’m writing at the moment which is probably going to be my biggest and it’s probably going to take me a good two years to produce. It’s called “My Big Fat Greek Cookbook”. It’s going to be the bible for my interpretations of Greek food. So that’s keeping me busy.  I’m really blessed, I’ve got seven amazing restaurants in Melbourne and one in Greece.

NE: When are we going to be seeing a George Calombaris restaurant here?

GC: You never, never know! I’d definitely consider doing something in Dubai. It makes a lot of sense. I’ve got all my restaurants in Melbourne, one in Mykonos, one here would be a lovely bridge but for me it’s about the right time, the right opportunity and of course having the right staff that would come from Melbourne to team up with staff here to create a concept that is truly ‘George Calombaris’.

George’s Advice in a Nutshell:

On a dish anyone can cook:Olive oil chocolate mousse is very easy: cream, olive oil, chocolate, simple as that. And that recipe I’ve always paid respect to who gave me that, it was a chef in Greece, an amazing chef and he showed me in his kitchen and I thought how good is that. Especially for people who are gluten intolerant, or to eggs.”

On sous-vide: “We cook a lot of things under cryo, not because it’s fancy, or not because it’s new – it’s been done for centuries – but because we want to retain as much of its goodness as possible. Now if I cooked that in a pan or in the oven, I’d lose 30 per cent more of its weight than I would in a bag. Because the bag cooks at a low temperature for a long period of time. Now I don’t want to get into the mathematical science of it all, but if you’re interested, buy yourself a couple of books and start understanding how it works. Because there’s no point cooking at a low temperature if you’re not going to cook it for the right amount of time because bacteria levels change as well. People have this weird idea that bacteria happens at low levels, it does, yes, but if it’s held there for a long period of time bacteria dies, it goes “please I need to die”

On recycling food memories: Growing up as a kid in the summer, we’d have as I call it in Greek, vissino. Vissino is basically cherries that have been steeped in sugar-syrup for many days and we’d have that on top of yoghurt, a big spoon of that on yoghurt and it’s heaven. So that memory for me sticks in my brain so what I do is I take those cherries and I puree them up, simple, then I use them in a dish. Duck cherries, amazing combination. Duck and fruit goes back to the Byzantine era, the ancient Greek soldiers would fuel themselves on no potatoes or starch, like the Italians, but on meat and fruit. Delicious combination.

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