An interview with George Calombaris

NOTE April 2018: Jimmy Grants at The Kitchens has closed.

George Calombaris is one of the most highly regarded culinary figures in Australia. A judge on MasterChef, he owns several restaurants in Melbourne, including the highly regarded Press Club. We caught up with him while he was on the Gold Coast to visit his souvlaki bar Jimmy Grants at The Kitchens.

Why did you choose the Gold Coast as your first Queensland venue?

This is our first restaurant outside Victoria! Everyone expands from Melbourne to Sydney (or Sydney to Melbourne), but we chose Robina as a great starting point. We thought ‘Let’s nail Greek food here!’ We’d already worked with QIC [the developers of Robina Town Centre] and there was mutual respect.

We love the concept of The Kitchens. Like all places, it will find its way. There will be adjustments, but you can already feel things happening in this centre. It’s a great place for people to come and do their shopping, make a day of it and eat while they’re here.

Also, the weather in Queensland is very conducive to our food. We’re big fans.

Why open a Jimmy Grant’s here and not a Mastic (holistic health café) or Hellenic Republic?

…or even Gazi, our city brand? Both Gazi and Hellenic Republic could work here. Brisbane particularly would really suit Gazi.

It’s about being controllable. We can control what’s happening in Jimmy Grants from Melbourne. The food is centrally produced so we get far higher consistency of product. For example, we cook two tons of chips a week for Jimmy Grants Australia wide. All our potatoes are produced on a farm one hour from Melbourne, grown and cut into chips there. We don’t have that control with other brands. We have big plans, but we need to crawl before we can walk.

Can we look forward to the opening of another of your restaurants on the Gold Coast?

We’re in high level discussions about doing a pop up Press Club on the Gold Coast for two weeks during the Commonwealth Games. We couldn’t permanently move The Press Club here, it’s such an intense team. It’s an intimate experience, all about knowing the customer. So much so that we research every single customer who enters our doors. But a pop up could work.

By then [2018], I’d also have more understanding of the produce of this region. There’s so much more going on up here that we don’t know about. We don’t want to come in with the arrogance of out-of-towners. There are some great chefs we respect in this region. We need rationale and a planned approach, because it’s about so much more than just selling food. It’s all about the impact we can have on society, employing local kids (as we do at Jimmy Grants), taking the time to train them, and philanthropy – making a difference to the Gold Coast.

What are the main changes you see in today’s food culture?

Today, more than ever, food is on the tip of everyone’s tongue. Kids are cooking at home, which is great! When a construction worker wants to show me the macarons he made with his daughter, I know that food is hot!

There’s lots of interest, too, in being a chef. Twenty years ago, when I was starting my apprenticeship, no one wanted to be a chef. I’d get the reaction ‘Isn’t that for girls?’

It’s an interesting time. With the renewed interest in food, everyone wants to be a critic as well, and many don’t have the base knowledge behind them that years of experience can bring. We’ve got to be careful. Education is really important.

If there was a cultural element you could add to your food, what would it be?

Hospitality is an extension of the household. When I’d take someone into my family home, my mother would offer you water as soon as you entered. If you were hungry, she would feed you. The industry needs people who have a mentality of open arms and generosity rather than those who think they’re special or entitled.

I was brought up in a middle to lower working class family. I’m a servant. I was born a servant and I love it. When my grandmother came to Australia, they confiscated her mortar and pestle at the port, thinking it was a dangerous weapon. Now every second household in Australia has a mortar and pestle. But not everyone.

Sometimes, we forget that there are many people in Australia not shopping at farmers’ markets, not eating what we’re eating. There’s a reason why 80% of Australians buy their food from the two largest supermarket chains: affordability. We’re too big on bulk. Sometimes I look in the fridge and there are three zucchinis we haven’t used. Aaargh! My grandmother and mother wouldn’t waste a thing. Come on, guys. Let’s waste less.

What gift would you give your children to do with food attitudes?

On Saturdays, when I only work half a day, I take either James or Michaela in with me to work. I don’t shield them from anything. I want them to be a part of it. Food is my life, and I love what I do. It’s not that they have to follow me into the kitchen as a career, it’s so they see that I’m passionate about what I do. Whatever they do in their life, I want them to feel that passion.

They also learn life skills in the restaurant: working as part of a team, respect for themselves and respect for others. For example, James, who’s almost 6, wanted to go into the restaurant with a friend to have something to eat, and I made him ring up and book, not take for granted that it was his right to get a table. It’s about doing the right thing.

What is the best thing about your job?

Instant gratification.

A friend who’s a barrister  told me that he can work on a case for eight months, lose it and no one’s happy.

Every day I get to make people happy!

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