“We are beautiful, unique, simple and elegant. Just give it to the world and be proud. It’s a great time to be a Hellene!”
Notable restauranteur, cookbook author, and Master Chef Australia judge George Calombaris champions the cuisine of his Greek heritage. His eight restaurants celebrate the full breadth and myriad influences on peasant cuisine across the islands, territories and regions of Greece. Calombaris aims to capture the mood and spirit of taverna dining through his cuisine. The taverna, he says, is a space meant to encourage both quiet reflection as well as spirited discussion, and an overall celebration of life. Calombaris demonstrates his love of his Cypriot heritage through his ongoing passion for reinventing humble Greek meals, using his mother’s authentic, generations-old recipes. Dishes commonly found on his dining table include yogurt and Cypriot sausage, peppered figs, slow cooked pork, and moussaka. Helen Koutroulis discusses food, Hellenism, and inspiration with George Calombaris for GreekTV.
Q. Australia has a strong Greek heritage and a thriving Greek community in many parts of our country. With Melbourne being the most Greek populated city, what do you think is so unique about our food in Melbourne?
A. Yes, Melbourne is like little Athens in many ways. The Greeks have been migrating to Melbourne from the early 90’s and have had a major influence on aspects of this most liveable city in the world. As a first generation Greek Australian I am so proud of the Hellenic Community and what great things it has done in all aspects of life. The pride of the Greeks lives strong in all our hearts and it is what gives this city so much colour and culture, not only in food but in life in general.
Q. How have you capitalized on this in Melbourne with your cuisine?
A. I cook Modern Greek. It’s my interpretation of what I think Hellenic food is. It’s my way and I am proud of it. My mantra is simple. I cook Hellenic food and give people Hellenic service for the non-Greeks first. If the Greeks come it’s a bonus. I want a world where all things Greek are for everyone, not just those Greeks that understand it.
Q. Do you think you have rebranded Greek food and made it universal?
A. I hope so. It’s been my goal since I opened The Press Club back in 2006. There are top restaurants around the world for Italian, French, Spanish, why can’t there be for Greek? There is an idea that we have, that’s so beautiful in what we do. Its filotimo (actions based on generosity of spirit). It’s an amazing ingredient that you are only born with. A Hellenic treasure.
Q. Brand Strategist Peter Economides says that one of the biggest issues facing Greece today is that the country has not carved out a clear role for itself in the modern world. Perhaps this is a crisis of confidence and moving forward is difficult without finding a niche in the world.
Do you think that food could be one aspect of the niche market found in Greek cuisine?
A. YES, the world is changing dramatically. We are becoming a healthy society. The Hellenic diet offers this. We need to promote the fact that if you it live like a Hellene you will LIVE LONGER.
Q. Can you describe the new vision for Greek food and how this could contribute to the rebranding of Greece?
A. It needs to be simple. It needs to stick to its mantra and its core value. It needs to be based on facts. To make reference to the past but it is all about the future. IN HELLENES WE TRUST!
Q. You use Greece as inspiration for your restaurants. Is there any one chef or restaurant in Greece which you feel has influenced your style in some way?
A. Greece is my influence in all its light. I am influenced by the land, the people, the secret. Yes, I have many close friends who are amazing chefs in Greece. Christoforos Peskias is a perfect example of the Modern Greek Chef. I love this man, he is a visionary and a man who I respect. Above all a great person.
Q. How do you think you have contributed to Hellenism and to the people of Melbourne?
A. Not sure. At the end of the day I am just a chef. I am not saving lives.
Q. Which cuisine reigns supreme: Italian or Greek? As you are a passionate advocate for Greece, how do you advocate for Greek food and its customs?
A. Look, Italian cuisine is delicious and I love its regional aspects. But as I only know Greek, I am very passionate about the health benefits and amazing ingredients and produce Greece has to offer. Above all the customs of the Hellenic way is what I am really passionate about. To be Greek is not a religion, it’s a state of mind.
Q. Greece has food traditions dating back 4000 years with foundations of a sensible diet built around wheat, olive oil and wine. How do you observe the Greek diet influencing Australian diets?
A. Our climate in Australia is very similar to the one of Greece. Climate is a major influence on the way we eat. I love the Hellenic diet for this idea. Lots of nuts, pulses and greens. Very good for you at the end of the day.
“We need to promote the fact that if you it live like a Hellene you will LIVE LONGER.”
Q. Greece’s food has been made even better over the centuries by the assimilation of ideas. This has made the cuisine far more varied and vibrant. Greek food has become stronger through adopting ideas and dishes from the Balkans, Turkey and the Arab world. In fact, one of the major reasons the Queen of England married a Greek was to get better food.
A. Yes, Greece has been very influenced for many years from all of the above. I love this. Turkey and more so Constantinople had a major influence on Greece in terms of cuisine. The Byzantine era is a great example of food influence. A diet of no carbs, just protein and fruits to season.
Q. Greece has nine or so totally unique regional cuisines, ranging from Crete, Cyprus and the Ionian islands to Macedonia and Thessaloniki. Our influence on world cuisine still continues.
A. Yes, but we need to promote the fact we have regional cuisine. The Italians have done this so well from their back yards. We need to adopt their philosophy and do it better.
Q. Please list for us your favorite ingredients.
A. Greek extra virgin olive oil, mastic from Chios, honey from Attiki, pistachios from Aegina, saffron from Kozani.
Q. Our seas are filled with fresh fish and octopus, our farms are home to poultry, rabbit, pork, goats, and of course, lamb.
A. Yes, but it’s important to make sure it’s sustainable, not being over fished for example. It’s important to look after the sea and land for the future. Only use local and sustainable produce. I don’t get why chefs in Greece use things like foie gras from France. No need. Grow local, cook local, eat local. Respect your land.
Q. Recently we heard that the Ikarians outlive many people around the world. Why do you think the Greek cuisine combined with lifestyle has contributed to this remarkable longevity?
A. It’s about lots of little things done well. The produce is seasonal and local, and it’s from the land and sea. The air is clean, life has minimal stress. There is much we need to learn from Ikaria.
Q. Our gardens overflow with eggplants, courgettes ,cucumbers, silver beet and tomatoes. Our hillsides teem with wild oregano, thyme, olives and beehives that make amazing honey. We have made making yoghurt an art form and this underpins another one of our great culinary gifts to the world – dips. Much of our cuisine is far too precious to share with the rest of the world, such as our cheeses such as kasseri and graviera.
A. You must share your story. The Hellenic story has been alive and well in the Greek house for decades. It’s time to give it to the world. It’s time to hang our hat on what is great to be a Hellene. We are not dips and saganaki. We are beautiful, unique, simple and elegant. Just give it to the world and be proud. It’s OK to be Greek. It’s a great time to be a Hellene.