MasterChef Australia judge George Calombaris was in town yesterday to promote the latest season of the cooking competition. We were at La Cucina in Pullman Bangsar where George spent the afternoon tasting three Malaysian dishes as voted by fans – Assam Laksa, Nasi Kerabu and Penang Style Oyster Omelette – before moving on to cooking to his signature dish with an Asian twist (we’ll share the recipe really soon!).
During the event, a Q&A session was held and George spoke candidly about his Greek identity, what sets Season 6 apart from the previous seasons and how he deals with the tears on the show! Read more below:
Where do you find inspiration to come up with new recipes because Australia is such a multinational hub and you travel so much – how do you get to your recipes and how do you imagine them?
It’s a lot of things – it’s my heritage, my culture, my family, it’s travel. At the moment, about 30 or 40 chefs meet in Margaret River every year for a gourmet escape and I’m doing an event with a chef called Massimo Bottura and I’ve got a very similar idea of food that he does and that has to be playful and fun and exciting. He will be demonstrating a dish he called ‘Oops’ where he drops a lemon tart and I’ll be doing a dish called Zorba The Greek where we basically, plate up a dish playing Zorba the Greek and then we smash plates over the dish and that’s an edible component towards the dish. The food must be fun, must be yum. It must put smiles on people’s face or else really, why do you go out for dinner? I don’t cook to feed people’s stomachs, I cook to feed people’s souls – it’s as simple as that and it’s super important.
How do you maintain and embrace your Greek identity in Australia, being a multinational country?
I look at it like this, when I’m struggling I think about my grandmother and my grandfather. They came to Australia in the 50’s and my grandmother got her mortar and pestle confiscated at the docks because they thought it was a weapon so I think about their struggles leaving their native land to come to Australia and I think about them not being able to speak English at all. I’m a typical Aussie, I’m as Aussie as you can get. In saying that, I don’t ride around on a kangaroo – a lot of people think that and I don’t have a pet kangaroo either. We have Malays residing in Australia and they are Aussies as well because they’ve somehow influenced what we do as Australians. They’ve created Australia – The Greeks, The Chinese, The Japanese, there’s a whole plethora of people who created a country that is Australia right now.
What’s it like working on TV compared to working in restaurants?
Look, I’m the boss in my restaurant – there’s only one chef and it’s me so I control every single element of everything that we do there. I’m an obsessive compulsive and a control freak so that’s great – it’s my freedom, my restaurants. I step in my kitchen and I’m free, there’re no boundaries. TV is different – I’m not the boss there. Don’t get me wrong, we’re the judges and we control whatever we say and what we do but at the end of the day it’s a format and I love it. I guess that’s why I’ve been doing it for so long.
What’s the biggest difference between Season 6 and all the other seasons?
Season 6 we just took it right back. Simple – let’s get the best cooks that we can find at that time, no compromise. I don’t care if they’re good on TV or if they’ve got a personality. We’re not that type of show, we’re not a personality driven show. It’s not a soap opera, MasterChef. MasterChef is about ordinary people, extraordinary food – connect that two together and you’ve got wonderful things. People around the world tune in and we’ve got over a hundred countries at the moment. They tune in because they want to be, they want to see aspirations. They want to see simple, ordinary people that want to change their life go through a process to do that through food. I think season 6 is truly again, lining the sand, another flag at the peak of the mountain to say ‘Boom, we’re here again and we’re here with great amazing people. And all types of people – I mean you look at Laura. Young girl really, wet behind the ears, hasn’t really seen life yet but has so much experience in terms of that homely Italian food that I even know chefs that can’t cook like her. So I’m astounded by that and I love that. We don’t have any prejudice towards age, colour or race or religion – I don’t care as long as they’re good people and make good food.
On the show there a several times you told a couple of contestants that they might win when they cooked outstanding food – why do you think some of the early frontrunners tend to crash out in the middle of the program?
It happens, I always get it wrong. The contestants that I think are going to win, don’t and you know, cooking is like that – you have your off days. What I love about being a chef and a cook is instantly gratifying, you find out if people like or or not. And these contestants find out they will like it or not because there’s no smokes or mirrors, we tell them how it is. If it’s great, we tell them. If it’s not great, we tell them. What’s wonderful about MasterChef is you don’t have to win it to be successful. That experience you had, what you take and make from it is important.
Have you been inspired by some of the dishes put out by the contestants?
No, I’ve been inspired by the people. I don’t get inspired by the dishes. Don’t get me wrong, it’s wonderful and it’s lovely and I love it. But for me, I’m inspired by the person. Food is not about what I’m putting on the plate; it’s about where that soul is coming from.
You’ve been doing this for six seasons now, how do you deal with all the tears on the show?
It’s a tough one especially for the three of us. I speak on behalf of Gary and Matt as well because we get so emotionally attached to them. We invest a lot of time in them – we’re not just their judges, we’re their mentors, their support, guidance, we’re there to protect them look after them and drive them so when I do see them cry, it comes from a deep place. What you see on TV is an hour, that doesn’t take an hour, that takes hours and days so they’re exhausted just as much as if not, more than we are. They can be starting at 5, 5.30 in the morning and don’t finish until midnight but that’s okay, they need to learn that because in my industry that’s how many hours we do. I get very emotional for them especially when they break down because I know they’re not putting it on for camera. We don’t put any contestants on the show if they just want to be on TV – they wouldn’t get past us. The three of us are too savvy and we’ve done this a lot now to work out who are the contenders or the pretenders and we work that out very quickly.
Catch MasterChef Australia Season 6 on weeknights 7pm and 11pm on Lifetime, Astro Channel 709.