At 33, George Calombaris has achieved more than chefs dream about. A celebrity judge on the reality series MasterChef Australia, lauded restaurateur and author, Calombaris is kept rather busy. Debashine Thangevelo found out about his journey.

HIS out-there approach to food as well his modern take on Greek cuisine has earned Aussie-born George Calombaris a sterling reputation.

Viewers around the globe got a foretaste of his passion when he debuted as a judge on the immensely successful MasterChef Australia series in 2009. And his age belied his experience.

At that stage, Calombaris was apprenticed at Hotel Sofitel, one of Melbourne’s five-star hotels – and bagged the Bonland National Apprentice of the Year honours – as well as leading a team of 11 qualified apprentice chefs, and was voted as one of the Top 40 Chefs of Influence in the World by Global Food and Wine Magazine following his success at Reserve.

His rise in rank and accolades along the way saw Calombaris bag guest chef spots on Ready Steady Cook, among other television shows.

In October 2006, Calombaris opened his flagship eatery, The Press Club Restaurant and Bar, which won Best New Restaurant (at the Victorian Restaurant and Catering Awards in 2006 as well as in the 2008 Age Good Food Guide Awards).

He has since opened several other restaurants as well as written an array of cookbooks, with The Press Club aptly being his first inspiration.

As for how his life has transformed since giving the nod to being a judge on MasterChef Australia, he says, “My life is most definitely busy. Since being in the public eye a whole media side of my career has also emerged. What keeps me grounded are my seven restaurants and 350 staff – they keep me focused and I get to do what I love most. Being a chef is who I am and with everything else that is happening it means I am the luckiest man on earth.”

So did he pick up any cooking tips from the amateur chefs on the show?

He laughs: “I don’t know about tips, but the amateurs remind us all that love is the most important thing when it comes to cooking. You can’t cook from any place other than your heart.”

On his plethora of prestigious awards, which is undeniably flattering, I asked him which one meant the most and why.

An unassuming personality, Calombaris responds: “All are special and all of them belong to me and my staff. My staff have done the hard work and without them, I am nothing. In 2006, The Press Club was named Best New Restaurant and I was named Chef of the Year… that was a great day and a proud moment in my life.”

Given the chef’s frenzied schedule, especially with his TV commitments, he relies on his staff to manage his restaurants.

“I can’t do anything that I do without them. I have amazing business partners in each restaurant that look after the day-to-day operations. I try to spend quality time in all my restaurants, but I find that I spend most of it at The Press Club,” he shares.

Does he have any signature dishes?

“I don’t really have signature dishes,” he reveals. “I like food to evolve. Time, place and moments change food and give you a different perspective to the way you create a dish. I love to take classics from my heritage and give them a modern touch.”

He says his one must-have in the kitchen is olive oil, though.

Although for some, who don’t know their spatula from a whisk, cooking can be a daunting prospect, Calombaris advises: “Cooking is easy. You don’t need to be a genius to be a great cook. Yes, you need to have some basics under your belt, but you need to have great produce and you need time.”

Previously in SA for the 2010 World Cup, the acclaimed chef says he will be cooking food that has influenced his life so far at the Durban Good Food and Wine Show.

On what’s cooking on the career front, he reveals: “I am working on opening a bottle shop/modern take on a souvlaki bar. It will be a very cool little hole in the wall. My focus will be great wine and amazing souvlakia. I am also writing my sixth book, My Big Fat Greek Cookbook. I love to create. I love to make. I am a servant, I was born one and I will die one.”

• George Calombaris will be at the Durban Good Food & Wine Show from today until Sunday.