A chef's treat indeed...

A chef's treat indeed...

A Varsha Rao goes on a special tasting session with celebrity chef George Calombaris to finds out what gets him ticking, his food preferences and take on criticism.

It’s a rather nondescript Friday afternoon. Somewhere in a five-star hotel in Bengaluru, an open kitchen of sorts has been set up. A group of chefs has huddled over plates of food, discussing how best to present it. For those who are regular viewers of food shows, you would know that plating your food is as important as nailing the flavours.

Soon enough, we know where this obsession for perfection is coming from. Celebrity chef and a judge on the popular show MasterChef Australia, George Calombaris is the man of the moment.

As we settle down to enjoy a three-course meal curated by George and his team from the famous Press Club restaurant back in Sydney, George describes how much he enjoyed his morning breakfast that day. “How can anyone go wrong with deep-fried savoury doughnuts?” he asks, referring to medu vadas.

Food on the plate

Remind him of a MasterChef episode, where he proclaimed he wasn’t a big fan of Indian food, he responds with “I am a big fan of the flavours, not the heat.” Citing his favourite ingredients in India to be varied spices like curry leaves and mustard seeds, he says, “They are all such cheap and humble ingredients, but add so much flavour. You don’t need truffles and foie gras to make your food good, you just need lots of love. And you guys do just that.”

Heading over to help his team, George brings out the first course – ouzo cured Indian seabass with miso eggplant, celery and herbs. He’s busy employing the
smear-plating technique on all the plates. And keeping in mind Indian sensibilities, George has also made a vegetarian alternative for the first course – capsicum stuffed with rice.

For the second course, he brings out soft-shell crab souvlaki with honey lime, coriander and mint. “It’s a famous street food in Greece,” he exclaims. For the vegetarians, he just replaces the crab with onion bhajis. Trust an international chef to please every guest of his. Now, that’s hospitality.

The fact that his team behind the kitchen counter is all-male is hard to miss. “But women are hands down the better cooks in the world,” George proclaims. Meanwhile, he announces the third course of dessert, which can be a meal in itself. Salted caramel rice pudding with almond biscuit and rice ice cream – if goodness ever took form, it would be this.

This celebrity chef, who believes adaptability is the key to survival for any chef, praises British chef Sat Bains, best known for his two-Michelin star restaurant, Sat Bains with Rooms in Nottingham and Manish Mehrotra, the chef at the famous Indian Accent Restaurant, who have managed to give a modern feel to the desi flavours.

Like many other international chefs, George too is a fan of pani puri and loves the acid flavour that comes from the tamarind. Ask him how he would reinvent the dish and he quickly doles out the alternative ingredients – pickled onion, feta, star anise, mayonnaise and parmesan.

Pinch of salt

But of course, all is not always well, even if you were adjudged the Best Chef in 2008. Thanks to social media, reviews of restaurants are instant today and not always favourable.

So, how does George handle criticism about his food? “Yes, everyone is a food critic these days, which is good because everyone is talking about food. That’s great. But if you are going to write something bad, call up the restaurant first and show them the respect they deserve. I would definitely take the opinion of someone like Matt Preston seriously.

He is a true food critic, has lived and breathed food. He knows where he is coming from and has devoted his life to critiquing food. So, you are assured of credibility there. Before critiquing something, understand how a restaurant works and the kind of hard work that goes behind it. At the end of the day, we are not perfectionists.

Occasionally, things do go wrong,” reasons George.

After much talk about how Australians are the current leaders in the field of
conceptual food, he signs off  by painting a picture of how important his job is to him: “It’s like in the movie Chef, where at the end, the guy is explaining how to make a cheese sandwich. When I am in the kitchen, I don’t care what’s going on out there. Nothing else matters to me.”

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