Culinary adapter George Calombaris in UAE for Gourmet Abu Dhabi

The MasterChef Australia judge, who's in town to cook and give a masterclass for this month's Gourmet Abu Dhabi, talks about his life and work.
George Calombaris in the grounds of the Yas Rotana. The Australian was recently voted one of the world's most influential chefs by Global Food and Wine Magazine.
George Calombaris in the grounds of the Yas Rotana. The Australian was recently voted one of the world's most influential chefs by Global Food and Wine Magazine.

George Calombaris is pacing about Yas Marina, BlackBerry pressed to one ear. He wants to know every detail. What did she eat? What did she drink? What did the sommelier recommend? On and on the questions go, interspersed with silences as the chef absorbs the answers that bounce off a satellite from Melbourne to Abu Dhabi. Calombaris is talking to the head chef at Mama Papa, the latest addition to the Australian's restaurant empire. It turns out an important reviewer has just dined there - deliberately choosing to do so when the man himself was out of town, close to 12,000 miles out of town.

When we meet, Calombaris has been in the UAE less than 24 hours. He is just one of a constellation of internationally celebrated chefs to have travelled to the capital for Gourmet Abu Dhabi, which runs until February 23. To say that he is enthusiastic is like saying that Gordon Ramsay sometimes swears or that Keith Floyd enjoyed the odd tipple.

Within moments of that Melbourne phone call - a call that, it should be noted, is not a break from his usual routine but a nightly debriefing undertaken with all of the Greek Australian's restaurants - Calombaris is talking animatedly about the dates he bought at market that morning, before professing himself "blown away" by the quality of fish in Abu Dhabi's fish market.

This is how you get to be running eight restaurants - seven in Australia, one in Mykonos - and to have a staff of 340, an international following thanks to a role as judge on Masterchef Australia, a fistful of awards and inclusion in pretty much every "chefs of influence" list, all by the age of 33. The secret, if there is one, is never to get complacent.

Calombaris explains: "You have to be on it all the time. I think I'm so lucky to be able to travel the world, to meet people and to cook and to gain experiences that are constantly challenging and inspiring and influencing me."

Calombaris's role in Gourmet Abu Dhabi began on Friday night with a celebrity dinner at the Yas Rotana hotel, continued yesterday with a masterclass and culminates tonight with a six-course Château dinner at the Yas Viceroy hotel - a sold-out event costing Dh750 a head.

"It's always challenging, cooking my food in a foreign country," he admits. "I'm not going to do stews and braises here. We'll keep it fresh and light.

"Look, I'll be honest. If you come to my restaurant in Melbourne the food will be 95 per cent there - it's never perfect to my mind. Anywhere else, away from your suppliers, your specifics, it's going to be different again. Three of my chefs came out a few days earlier to prep things, but it's going to be 85 or 90 per cent to my standards. I just hope diners will have a spectacular experience and get a bit of a window into how my mind and food work."

For example, he explains, "One of my desserts is my version of rice pudding - it's all different textures of rice, it's taking something very homely and evocative and surprising people. But I'm changing it for here and using the dates and date syrup I found in the market."

Everything Calombaris does and every restaurant he has opened is "a reflection of a person or a story". Much of it comes from his family - his father, born in Egypt to an Italian mother and Greek father, and his Greek Cypriot mother. The name of his latest restaurant, Mama Papa, hammers home the point and is "all about pasta", in praise of his father's Italian heritage and the regional pastas that are also part of his mother's Greek background. Six months ago, Calombaris himself became a father for the first time when his partner, the marketing executive Natalia Tricarico, gave birth to their son James, so little pots of baby food also feature on the menu.

It's all quite different from the edgy appeal of his first restaurant, The Press Club, opened in Melbourne just five years ago and known for molecular gastronomy and what Calombaris describes as "modern Greek" food.

"You have to find the balance," he says. "For me that's about family and work and actual cooking and business. I can't be in the kitchen seven days a week any more. It's not possible. But I can be there at the pass, I can spend services there, I can be very much part of it and make sure that as well as constantly gaining experiences, you're staying true to yourself."

If he has one great hope for his visit to Abu Dhabi, it is to inspire people. "I don't want people to be talking about whether Chelsea beat Manchester United when they're eating my food. I want them to be totally absorbed by what they're experiencing".

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Published: February 12, 2012 04:00 AM


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