VITTAL MALLYA ROAD: George Colombaris is a diminutive man but you would never know it. He is someone who could always see the big picture and the story goes that when he was an apprentice, he used to work with a really tall chef. But George would be too busy running the ship to notice that. He would show everyone how things needed to be done and the chef is supposed to have told him, ‘’You’re like Napoleon!’’
You remember these words when George passes you by in a dusty apron to stand in a banquet hall being decked up at the JW Marriott to welcome a swarm of hungry guests that he and his team will feed. He instructs the staff who will be serving the meal and gives in to that signature bouncing on the heels thing that he is famous for in MasterChef Australia but his voice has unmistakable authority.
This is after all a man who has been cooking for 19 years, was voted at the age of 24 as the Young Chef of the Year, owns seven restaurants, is on the verge of opening an eighth one, is going to release another one of his best-selling cook books, was Chef of the Year in 2008, has won honours too innumerable to mention and is easily one of the most influential and recognised food personalities in the world today.
For his millions of fans, George is however the man they love to watch as a celebrity judge on MasterChef Australia along with Gary Mehigan and Matt Preston.
But you can sense that this is not the only role that defines him though it has prepared him to deal with the excessive attention he gets.
A day before the banquet, George and a few of his assistants cooked for a room full of scribes and bloggers while he answered questions, kept an eye on pots and pans, turned on his charm and his wit without letting anyone know that he was not well.
It is clear that amid all the bells and whistles of fame, it is the real stuff that keeps him going. Food remains his primary religion. His reason to be in this business.
He is almost philosophical about fame even though it takes him away from his kitchen to attend to this interviewer on a day he does not have a moment to spare. He brushes the apology away and says, ‘’It is not a problem. I can give you some time. I was in the kitchen with my boys this morning and I loved it. That is what it is all about. I am smelling of garlic and shallots and I love it but I know I am the property of people now. I cannot take my family out for a meal in Melbourne for instance, because I know people will come up. But then this is another aspect of the journey. When I started, all I wanted was..to slice onions the best way I could. Then the desire to grow takes you to the next step..and the next. You want to be the best chef de partie, the best sous chef and then the head chef and then to own your own restaurant. So, today when someone wants your time, you deal with it. I respect people. Every human-being is entitled to that. And that is why, I will not show disrespect or stand for it.’’
As a judge on MasterChef Australia, he says, his role is also intentionally about nurturing and encouraging contestants and not about cutting them to size. He shares, ‘’The contestants come to the show to change their lives, to add something to their skills and it is my job to protect them and help them along. But if they need to be pushed, I will for sure, push them and won’t stand for excuses like, ‘I could have, should have, would have.’ This is a platform that cannot be taken for granted.’’
Does he realise that the immense popularity of MasterChef Australia has built a bridge of goodwill between India and Australia especially after some hate crimes have shaken the two countries in the recent past?
He responds, ‘’Look, I do not concern myself with politics but as an advocate for my country, on the show and beyond it, I want to say that we are home to many religions, cultures, diversity. In the 40s, 50s and the 60s, the Greeks and the Italians came to Australia and today they are part of the fabric." As an Australian chef of Greek descent, he knows that fact better than anyone else.
Over the past few years, the show has showcased that diversity with contestants like Rishi Desai and Amina Elshafei who was MCA’s first Muslim contestant. George denies that such inclusions are intentional and says, "The intention is to make the best TV show that is real, focuses on food and is not a soap opera.’'
Despite his nice guy TV persona, there is unmistakable, no-nonsense clarity in the way he speaks, cooks, deals with people. Even his plating is minimalistic and his flavours chime like crystal clear bells and he attributes it all to experience. Says he, "Food changes dramatically and like life, it constantly evolves. You can draw from the past (like he does from his Greek roots) and respect it but what you cook and how you cook changes with the produce that comes along, with the place you cook in. My boys and I have had to really think hard about cooking this meal because the produce we are working with is so different from what we are used to. I also learnt that the Indian palette likes things a bit sweeter. Now, that is something I have had to bend my brain around as I usually work more with acidity or the balance between sweet and sour so this was a challenge. But what you learn with time is to allow the produce to shine while you play a supporting role.’’
He was a bit wary about how he his flavours would go down with the Indian guests but he was happy with the feedback. "I sat in my bed this morning reading the comments on social media and they were all lovely. Over the past six years, my interaction with India has only brought me immense warmth from the media and from the people I have met here.’’
His mind wanders off to his family and he says longingly, "I was on the phone with my partner this morning and she was telling me about our son James who is four now and at a stage where he wants EVERYTHING. So now we have to figure out how to deal with that! I may be managing a staff of over 300 guys in my restaurants but being a father is the biggest challenge."
George Colombaris is a happy man with all aspects of his life brimming over with joy and he is visibly grateful and aware that the good that comes must be passed on. And these values come from his mother. He says, "If I could pass on to my son, the one thing that I have learnt from my mother, it would be generosity of spirit. It costs nothing to smile at someone, to offer a glass of water to someone at your door, to offer them something nice to eat. My mother taught me the joy of being of service. Of serving people, feeding them, taking care of them.’’ And the rest is culinary history.