MasterChef Australia judge talks bringing a new restaurant to Dubai
Tell us about your cooking style, is it Greek or Greek Australian? Haha, yes, Gringlish! I'm an Aussie boy with a mother born in Cyprus and father born in Egypt (to a Greek father and Italian mother). My food is influenced by childhood memories, but I grew up in an Aussie house, and I've been classically trained in a French kitchen. I create modern interpretations, juxtaposed with Greek, Hellenic flavour. Australia is a place of acceptance and opportunities, and they've accepted my ideas and loved them.
There has been an increased focus on the food scene in Australia, why? I was in Italy recently, and I had one of the best pastas I've ever eaten, and one of the worst. Suddenly I thought, I could get this pasta so much better in Melbourne. Within a few streets, you can get the most amazing Thai, Vietnamese or modern French cooking. We've got everything all in one place.
Why is Melbourne in particular such a restaurant hot spot? The ingredients are one reason. We grow amazing stuff, using increasingly ethical and sustainable processes. It's an interesting climate. It's also the culture in Melbourne; even going out for coffee is an experience. Bad coffee places go broke very quickly in Melbourne and the barista is king. We're not crave driven like the rest of the world. Everyone else is going crazy about this 'cronut', I tasted one yesterday in Dubai. What a waste of calories!
There was outrage recently in the Australian parliament, because the official crockery was made in the UAE. What do you make of this? I agree. We've killed our artisan industries. 99 percent of my ingredients are as local as I can buy, although I use Greek olive oil because Australian olive oil just doesn't compare. There has to be more thoughtfulness in what we purchase.
How would that translate to a restaurant in Dubai? You've got me in a corner now. We've been inundated to open a restaurant here. On tonight's menu [at Ossiano, Atlantis The Palm] we're using camel milk and dates, because they were the two things we could get locally. Someone needs to look in to developing this. There's a serious amount of desert out there, let's find ways of doing something with it.
And will you open a restaurant here? We are in serious talks, but all the boxes need to be ticked. How would my integrity be managed? How would my standards be kept? If the answers are no, forget it.
Your Melbourne concepts range from fine dining at The Press Club to a casual souvlaki bar at Jimmy Grants. What do you have in mind for Dubai? I'd definitely not put The Press Club here. I can't replicate what we do there, anywhere else.
Because you can't keep your eye on it over here? Yes, and when people are spending 300 dollars upwards, it's got to be spot on. But Jimmy Grants would rock here, and Hellenic food lends itself to this climate so well.
Let's talk about MasterChef Australia. Realistically, how far does the show offer contestants a foot in to the food industry? As long as they have a single minded approach about what they want to do, that's fine. If they say I want to be on TV, and I want to open seven restaurants, it ain't going to happen. You go on MasterChef to elevate your cooking, for us to bring out who you are and to sell yourself to the Australian public, and the world.
Can TV cooking competitions replace the traditional training undergone by chefs? To become a chef you need to get your hours up, repeating the same job week in, week out, to become better and faster. MasterChef is not going to replace that, but it is a spring board. These guys want to change their lives. It's intense for them, they are put in a house and get their phones taken away from them.
They can't call their family? It's like jail, I think they get one call a week.
You recently filmed an episode in Dubai, what happens? We took the contestants out in to the desert and had them cooking for local Emiratis. At Ossiano, they had to recreate dishes from the menu, including two that I had created for Ossiano last time I was in Dubai.
Final question... Let me take a guess, Miss Chu?
Yes... another Melbourne restaurateur has claimed you copied her concept for your newest opening, Jimmy Grants... I knew it! It was a ridiculous statement by her. Her restaurant is right next to my house and I love her rice paper rolls. My restaurant, Jimmy Grants, is my vision of a souvlakis bar, it has no similarity with her restaurant whatsoever. Vietnam and Greece are poles apart. For her to say I should thank her! I replied saying, then I also need to thank you for The Press Club, Gazi and my father coming to Australia in 1956. It was more for publicity than anything else. It's a tough industry, we should be linking arms not knifing each other. I've made it quite clear I will never go back to her restaurant again, which is a shame, because I loved it. The episode of MasterChef Australia, filmed in Dubai, will air on Sunday October 13 on Fox.