George Calombaris, chef
We live in a day and age where there are so many sicknesses and illnesses. Food is the medicine and we just need to put it down our traps. We’re too busy worrying about giving people penicillin, where we should just eat well and let food cure us.
After quite a few MasterChef seasons, it’s safe to say we’re all pretty familiar with who George Calombaris is. The Melbourne-based chef and restaurateur has recently opened his first ever venue outside of Melbourne right here on the Gold Coast. The Kitchens at Robina Town Centre is now home to Calombaris’ popular Jimmy Grants, which is a move he says ‘felt right in his gut’. Well, we’re pretty happy that he went with this gut feeling to open up the country’s largest Jimmy Grants right here in our backyard … and so are our stomachs. We caught up with George during his recent Gold Coast visit to chat about Jimmy, nostalgic food inspo, baklava ‘choc-tops’ and using food as your medicine.
Congratulations on your first Jimmy Grants on the Gold Coast, and actually your first venue outside of Melbourne. How have the first few opening weeks been?
Thank you. So far, it’s been unbelievably good. I’m pinching myself. What’s exciting though is that we’ve employed 40 local kids so far and that will grow. They have been incredibly receptive. Without disrespecting the young kids back in Melbourne, they are just so bubbly and happy up here. I think it’s the sunshine! I think you guys breed it into them. We’re putting in a massive amount of effort to make this a success. It’s not about hanging the hat on that ‘this is a George Calombaris venue’ though. For me this is about making sure we put lots of infrastructure, process and our culture, which has worked for us down in Melbourne, up here. So, it’s exciting!
It’s a common trend to see restaurants go from Melbourne to other bigger cities like Sydney, then Brisbane and then eventually the Gold Coast. Why the Gold Coast, and why now?
You’re right, and we’re doing the opposite. This is our first venue out of Melbourne, which is a coup to the Gold Coast. Why the Gold Coast? I think, why not? Our food definitely resonates with this climate. It’s wholefood that’s light, refreshing and good for you. Everyone assumed Jimmy Grants was going to go to Sydney next. Yeah, we’ll get to Sydney one day. But a lot of it sometimes isn’t theories or business plans or numbers – it’s got to come from my gut and when I came here for the first time, I felt something. I visit many sites where it just doesn’t feel right – but we’ve got it right here.
What drew you to be part of The Kitchens?
The Kitchens and QIC know what I am all about. What’s in here (in The Kitchens) is quality, and people that actually care about what they do. I just had breakfast upstairs at Honeyeater and it was beautiful. That could be sitting in any great city in the world. The thing is that we’ve all got to make sure we’re at that level here, it’s our responsibility, and it’s exciting. That’s what we want. We’re not the big Melbourne boys walking into town – it’s not that at all. We respect the local operators, the people and the produce here. This is a takeaway shop – this ain’t the press club, this ain’t Gazi or Hellenic, this is Jimmy Grants and its what I want all Aussies to eat. I don’t want them to eat processed, bad food that’s not good for us. I think I have a responsibility, I’m not saying I am going to change to world, but I do have a responsibility to give people great food. That’s what we’re doing here.
Give us an insight into the Jimmy Grants culture?
There is a little bit of Jimmy in all of us. We’re all immigrants of some description, and that’s what my Dad was called when he came to Australia, Jimmy Grant – you remove the J and it’s ‘immigrant’. But that’s what we’re about – community and really imparting our culture. In saying that, I am not too concerned about the customer as such, my sole mission is giving the staff the dream, giving the staff something to walk away with. That’s why I am here. If I look after my staff, then they’ll look after our customers. We have 11 venues, we serve thousands of customers per day – I can’t look after every single one. But, if I know I can culturally add value to my staff, which is my responsibility, then the rest will come.
What have you got in the pipeline for Jimmy Grants on the Gold Coast?
This is the biggest Jimmy Grants we have in terms of size and footprint. We will add a lot of new and interesting elements to this location as we go along, through activating different events and cool little festivals. We do a festival called Oh My Greek, which is a seven-day festival with 25 chefs from Greece and New York and it’s massive. So maybe within the next year we will do a little branch of the festival up here in conjunction with it. I have just been playing around with the ‘choc top’, you know, that that nostalgic ice-cream we eat at the cinemas. So we’re creating a baklava version, and I want to bring it here in a real nostalgic way with a little trolley that gets moved around through the restaurant. We want to make it a bit more than just ‘come to the counter, order and go’. And, we’re planning to develop more dishes on the menu that are driven from local ingredients.
Let’s talk about you. You draw inspiration experiences, with dishes like ‘the chocolate bar in my pocket’ dessert and the ‘hills hoist’ chip and dip dish – what sparks this nostalgic inspiration?
I’m always reverting back. A great food experience isn’t just about what you’re putting down your mouth – it’s got to put smiles on people’s faces and we all have a little story from your younger years, like the hills hoist. I’m in this really wonderful space right now, I’ve got an amazing development kitchen in Melbourne and my job is simply to help my staff dream, guide them, protect them, push them, kick them, and be creative. And If I’m not doing that, then I am not doing my job. Nostalgic memories like that play a big part in how I do things.
Did you always want to be a chef?
Yes, I think I was about 13 when I knew the next logical step was to become a chef. I knew I loved to eat. I was a food junkie, it was my drug. Though, being a chef isn’t glamorous, it’s bloody long hours and it takes its toll. But I would not change it for the world. Why? Because, I’m obsessed with and love food. I remember Mum and Dad taking me to a fancy restaurant and sitting there and watching the waiters swoop by with their napkins and their bow ties, hearing the trolley walk by, waiters dropping food and at the time I was like – wow! That was so powerful. There aren’t many jobs in the world where you can be instantly gratified – but I’m always instantly gratified by putting something on a plate and seeing people’s faces.
How do you manage to stay innovative in the culinary world?
It’s my job. The inspiration comes from life experiences in the past, present and the future, where I can see food going and how I think I want to make food. It’s about not following and not copying. Even though I am on social media – it’s all my words and pictures, but I don’t actually have it on my phone. I don’t want to be on there looking at what everyone else is doing. What happens then is you fall into a pattern of everyone else. You start copying and connecting too much. You start referencing too much. You should be creating your own references. It’s about always constantly thinking of what we’re going to do next.
What’s your favourite memory of food?
My Mum’s egg and lemon soup. Even now when I get sick, it’s the thing she will bring me. When I have it, I realise how much food is a cure for us. We live in a day and age where there are so many sicknesses and illnesses. Food is the medicine and we just need to put it down our traps. We’re too busy worrying about giving people penicillin, where we should just eat well and let food cure us. And that’s a memory I’ll never forget.
What will you always find in your fridge at home?
Pickles. Cheese, of some description. Chilli sauce, which most people think I don’t like, but I actually love it. I can also tell you what’s not in my fridge at home – no soft drinks, no processed food and no refined stuff. That’s what’s drummed into my kid’s heads. They will only eat wholefoods – they will not eat shit. That’s my food religion.