“FIFTEEN minutes only," I’m warned by his minders as George Calombaris goes through an assembly line of interviews in a corner of the ballroom at the JW Marriott, Bengaluru. Calombaris, 37, is here not in his capacity as a judge of Masterchef Australia – the seventh season concluded two weeks ago on Star Premiere – but as the host-chef for an event organized by Zomato, the restaurant search portal, and Gold Rush Entertainment. Going by the reactions of the media, public relations personnel and the hoteliers themselves over the closely monitored afternoon, however, it’s evident that the Masterchef hat overrides any others he may wear.
Edited excerpts from an interview:
Would you still call yourself a chef first? Or does the Masterchef judge persona overshadow everything else?
(Even before I can complete the question) Oh, one hundred percent. I’m a chef and a restaurateur. I was a cook, I became a chef and now I’m a restaurateur. I’m still in my kitchen, I’m still cooking, still writing all my menus. Without that, I can’t do Masterchef – because who gives me the right to judge other people if I’m not being judged, as I am, right now, every night, in my restaurants? I’m George the chef, and I love that. In fact, just the other night, I was at dinner in a Melbourne restaurant (Minamishima) with Heston (Blumenthal) discussing this exact question, because he gets it all the time too. I might not be at the stove any more, but I’m very close to the flame.
So what was the last thing you made in the Invention Room? (The penultimate week of Masterchef Australia Season 7 had Calombaris showing the top four finalists around the ‘Invention Room’, adjacent to his restaurant Press Club.)
I took a marron – it’s a crustacean – and turned it into a carrot, with black taramasalata, lentils and carrot cake [shows a photo under his Instagram handle @gcalombaris]; it’s called The Marron That Wants to be a Carrot on the menu. And how did I know it was working? I asked my two-and-half-year-old daughter Michaela what it was, and she went, ‘It’s a carrot, daddy!’
Is that something you enjoy, plating food that messes with the mind?
Oh, I don’t know... some of my food is nostalgic, some things are produce-driven, some things are cultural, some things are travel.... For instance, when I was here (in India) in 2012, one of the things I had was a thali. Now, at Gazi (Calombaris’ Greek restaurant in Melbourne CBD), we were having trouble getting the food out quick enough for lunch. Then I saw the thali and I loved it, because it had everything on there – and I thought why can’t we do that at Gazi, a Greek version? And we’ve done that, and it’s been very successful: We call it the Bend Over Box (‘savoury to sweet, quick and fast’) – and you’re in and out in 25 minutes.
Travel reminds me, that’s been absent from Masterchef Australia for the past couple of seasons. Is the show more consciously Australia-focused now?
Is it about increasing the ratings? No. But Australia is becoming the envy of the world right now: this beautiful, pristine, produce-driven, multi-cultural place inspired by everyone, including Indians. Maybe next year, we’ll go away again. I do like going overseas, it’s fun for the three of us (judges) – we go and eat out a lot!
So tell me, how much input do you guys have in the show?
A lot. We control it. The reason is that we’re very passionate about it, is because we know it, better than they (the producers) know it. There’s a certain ethic and belief about the show that we can’t forget.
What’s your favourite element of the show? What tests the contestants most: the pressure test, the mystery box, the invention test...?
I love the team challenges, they resonate a lot with my life. Even the mystery boxes... because they make the contestants think quickly. I mean, what kitchen or restaurant in the world will ask a young cook to create something new every day? And I love the Masterclasses too, which are an opportunity for us to show off something. The one I probably struggle with the most is the immunity challenge... I’d never put myself in that situation.
That dovetails with my next question. Would you back yourself in an immunity pin challenge against a contestant?
Oh, I’d definitely back myself and do it but, you know, they’re good.
Ok, so at what stage of the competition do you start identifying the likely winners?
You know, I’ve got that so wrong all the time. Like everyone thought Reynold (Poer, who just failed to make it to the top three) would win this year. What I’ve learnt is not to pick a favourite or, actually, not tip someone to win, but to just go with the flow. Because every day is a new day and it all depends on how they walk into that kitchen, the mental space they are in.
For viewers, it seems the three of you have distinct roles to play in the show. Is that deliberate? For instance, you seem to be the one cheering people up when they hit a low spot...
Yes, it is a conscious thing, based on what our strengths are. For example, Gary (Mehigan) is the narrator, he explains what the challenges are; Matt (Preston) is there for the history, the context. And I’m the one who’s in the kitchen, still cooking, I understand the emotional value – I’m not saying that Gary and Matt don’t, but I rally my own staff around me every day. So if something is not right, it comes naturally to me to go in and help them emotionally and, obviously, with their dishes.
Okay, now the question that must have struck most of your viewers at some point: How can you guys eat so much?
I want to ask you Indians that because all I’ve done in the last eight hours, since I landed in Bengaluru, is eat! But seriously, all you have to do is plan your day properly. So on the big tasting days, I don’t eat anything outside the sets.
Masterchef Australia has been running for a few seasons now, and contestants research every last thing about the show: They know you can’t bear heat, that Gary loves crackling, that all of you adore butter. How do you deal with this?
I love the fact that the contestants know what we like. But there’s one thing you can’t do, you can’t come in and pretend. Food does this wonderful thing: It exposes you. And over long days, it brings out your vulnerabilities. And that’s a powerful thing. That’s what makes it interesting, to make sure the right people win. Because we don’t want fake people. We don’t want people who are there just for the camera. We want them there because they love it.
But does Masterchef Australia really prepare people for the food industry? It’s one thing to be top goldfish in a goldfish bowl, but real life is something else altogether.
Sure. What Masterchef does is give them a springboard, a platform. And you have someone like Kylie Miller (from Season 4), who’s now working with Mugaritz, the no. 6 restaurant in the world. Or Andre Ursini (from Season 1), who’s got one of the most successful Italian restaurants in Adelaide. Or even Reynold – he’ll go on to become an amazing pastry chef.
At the same time, they have to work their way up in a kitchen. No quality kitchen will put you at the top. You come to my restaurant, you start at the bottom. It’s just the way it is – and look at the way the Press Club challenge exposed Reynold’s flaws. So he knows now what he needs to do, he needs to go out and get that experience in everything despite having incredible pastry nous. Great cooking is not about how creative you are, it’s about methods and consistency.