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Published 23 August 2012 04:52, Updated 23 August 2012 05:49
George Calombaris knows his limits.
The 33-year-old who has became a household name as a judge on the popular TV series MasterChef says he regularly gets encouraged to set up new restaurants in Sydney.
Calombaris already has seven operating across Melbourne, including his award-winning flagship Greek modern restaurant The Press Club, and one overseas, the exclusive Mykonos-based five-star hotel The Belvedere Club. While he admits “we’re always looking” to expand, for now he’s sticking to his home town of Melbourne. This is the city where the son of Greek migrants first made his name as head chef at Federation Square’s Reserve and at the age of 24 won The Age Good Food Guide Young Chef of the Year.
“People always ask, ‘Why don’t you open in Sydney?’ Well, I’m not ready yet,” he says. “You have to have the right partners who can put their balls on the line and come in with money. For us, it’s about getting the right business model.”
By “us”, he is referring to his three business partners who help him run his collection of Melbourne restaurants: The Press Club, Little Press & Cellar, Maha, Hellenic Republic, P M 24, St Katherine’s and Mama Baba, which all fall under the Made Establishment banner. Calombaris, who in 2004 was voted by the Global Food and Wine Magazine as one of the “Top 40 chefs of influence in the world”, creates the food, while restaurateur George Sykiotis, and businessmen Tony Lachimea and Joe Calleja steer the business operations. “I’m a chef and a creator,” Calombaris says. “But I surround myself with business partners that are financially savvy.”
Calombaris is also a bit busy at the moment. As well as his regular TV slot on MasterChef, he’s now writing his sixth cookbook. Besides which, the Ernst & Young southern region (emerging category) 2011 Entrepreneur of Year says his restaurants are doing well and he wants to focus on keeping it that way. While he won’t disclose revenue, he says: “At a time when restaurants are closing we’re keeping on top of our game.” His secret: “It’s about not being complacent,” he says. “You have to work hard to make sure budgets are met every week. When you see other restaurants around you closing, it’s scary. It makes us realise that we’re lucky and must work hard to be lucky.”
Being on a popular TV show has helped in recognition; before this Calombaris also regularly appeared on the daytime cooking show Ready Steady Cook. But he says fame is “a double- edged sword”. “In one way it’s great but it also means my standards have lifted,” he says. “Instead of having one sommelier working every night, I now have to have three. Everything must be perfect. I’m out there being judged.”
Despite the scrutiny, there’s benefits: “The show is on in 34 countries around the world,” he says. “I get invited to the most amazing cooking conferences in South Africa, Jakarta and India and have the opportunity to get my staff involved.”
His connection with Junior MasterChef also led to him releasing his cookbook for kids “Georgie Porgie” in September last year. An ability to influence young hearts and minds leaves him most proud. “It’s great how the show’s changed the way young kids eat and think about food,” he says.