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KITCHEN KING

A cook for all seasons

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Long before he became a celebrity judge on MasterChef, George Calombaris had changed the face of modern Greek cuisine in Australia. He opened his flagship restaurant The Press Club when he was just 26. It's now a gastro-tourism destination in Melbourne with a month-long waiting list. He now has seven restaurants in Australia and one in Mykonos. But for Indians who've made the transition from beaten malai to crème fraiche thanks to MasterChef, he's the diminutive judge who dishes out Georgisms ( harderest challenge ). This week, he and co-presenter Gary Mehigan head out to India for OzFest, a four-month-long festival of Australian culture in India. The 33-year-old tells TOI-Crest why he likes to plate up surprises. Asparagus and ash or fish with ice cream, anyone?

You're a big star in India. Even vegetarians who've never heard of pancetta or panna cotta are glued to MasterChef Australia. What is it about the show that has Indians hooked?


I get a barrage of tweets from Indian fans. It's amazing to see how the show has touched so many nationalities and cultures. It has got the family in front of the television and it's got them in the kitchen cooking. Behind its success are lots of little things - great production values, an incredible amount of planning and attention to detail. We never forget that our credibility - and that of the show - is on the line.

The fifth season of MasterChef is about to begin. What do you look for in a contestant?


A basic knowledge of cooking but what I want is people with dreams. I can take a plumber off the street and teach him how to cook but there is a lot more that makes a great chef - stamina, focus, discipline, and an understanding of produce. In an audition, when folks come and say they want to become reality TV stars, I instantly reject them. Also, what we're not looking for are villains or bitchiness to push up TRPs. I don't tolerate bad behaviour in my kitchen and the same goes for the contestants. They are an extension of my staff. But at the same time, I don't want to rip into them. They are amateurs who have left good jobs to pursue their passion.

Most reality show judges bicker and lose their temper but three of you seem to get along. Are the fights edited out?


We knew each other before the show started. Gary employed me in my first job and I worked for him for six years. Matt (Preston, the third judge) has often critiqued my food. We don't argue because food is either good or bad. The only thing we disagree about is how much butter goes into mashed potatoes.

Are you looking forward to your visit to India?


I visited Delhi five or six years ago and honestly, I didn't have an appreciation for Indian food then. The Indian food in Australia is pretty average but since then, I've tasted some good Indian curries in London - especially Cyrus Todiwalla's slow cooked mutton - and I'm hoping to sample some great meals here.

Do you still get time to cook?


What gives me the right to be on the show if I'm not cooking and being critiqued every day? I am. I don't need to be in the kitchen frying onions but I develop the dishes that go into my restaurants. Just click on notes in my mobile phone, and you'll see it's full of recipes and ideas. A lot of the dishes that cook come from a time, a place, a moment that represents the happiest and saddest times of my life. And that's what food does, it brings out emotion.

What have you created recently?


My latest is a dish called Sorry I Dropped My Ice Cream - we literally drop an ice cream cone on a plate and throw deep fried fish around it. The ice cream tastes of tartare. I want people to eat and go 'Wow, what's the mind of the chef here?' At the same time I want them to say 'yum' because that's the goal, finger-licking food.

Who are your toughest critics?


The Greeks in Melbourne. They come to Hellenic Republic (his modern Greek tavern in Melbourne) and go, 'This is not as good as my mum's or my grandmum's cooking'. Well, it's not. My food is modern Greek. I am classically trained in French cuisine and I use those techniques to create better flavours without being gimmicky.

A dish can look so easy on television but it's so difficult to replicate it at home. What's the secret?


Cooking is not about ingredients, it is about technique and ability. At home we throw in a pinch of this and that - and there's nothing wrong with that. My mother cooks like that and I would never complain to her or she'll give me a backhander. But it's repetition that makes one get better and better.

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