George Calombaris sheds some light on the inspiration behind his back-to-(ancient)-basics cooking approach to Greek food
When Time Out catches George Calombaris on the phone, he’s about to start a three-hour tasting session for all the new dishes at his new, refurbished Hellenic Republic restaurant in Kew. His excitement is infectious as he giddily describes some of the new menu items – DIY souvlaki, roasted mushrooms, whole-roasted beetroot – that he’ll cook in his brand-new wood oven which has been built based on ancient Greek cooking techniques.
We wouldn’t have expected anything less from the man who famously bounces on the balls of his feet in Masterchef, and who, in the past few years, has opened a slew of successful restaurants at a cracking pace.
His latest is the redevelopment of Hellenic Republic Kew. The original Brunswick East restaurant has become a stalwart of Melbourne’s dining scene, loved for its simple, traditional Greek fare with a focus on high-quality ingredients.
George, can you tell us about the inspiration for the new Hellenic Republic?
Hellenic Republic Brunswick opened seven years ago. It’s a foundation restaurant – it’s become this little institution on Lygon Street. Pretty much a third of the menu has never changed and will never change, and the rest evolves. It’s a classic Greek taverna and we’re very proud of it.
I don’t want to dwell on the past, but [Hellenic Republic Kew] was St Katherine’s, then I bought my business partner out and I’ve finally got the restaurant that I wanted to have in Kew. I look at it with a three-leafed approach: there’s Hellenic Republic on the left, Mastic (my wholefoods cafe) on the right and upstairs this incredible function space. I’m not a big fan of function spaces because they can be very clinical, and what we’ve tried to do upstairs is create events that feel like a restaurant.
How much has the kitchen changed?
Hellenic Kew is centred around this three-and-a-half tonne, Melbourne-made wood oven. The Melbourne Fire Brick company have made it for us… when I said I wanted a wood oven based on ancient Greek cooking, which is all about firing the oven from the bottom and allowing the heat to rise to the top, they knew exactly what I wanted. I’m standing in front of it now, this oven made of bricks, mortar and steel. It’s just beautiful, it’s a work of art. Our chefs are baking flatbreads for the DIY souvlaki that we’ve got on the menu and we’ve got mushrooms behind roasted. Every single piece of vegetable, meat and fish will be cooked out of this oven. I specifically didn’t allow any gas ovens in the kitchen here, so there is no excuse. This is the only form of cooking equipment that we’ve got, and it makes us think, ‘How do I cook that whole corn in the oven? How do I roast that sweet potato in here?’. It’s an ancient way of cooking and it’s a beautiful, healthy way of cooking.
So what can we expect from the new menu?
It’s all hinged around that oven. The menu is pretty much a list of dishes – it’s not entrees, mains, desserts. It’s a typical Greek style of eating, it’s more categories of items. So you’ve got a whole leek that’s been roasted in the coal and served with black garlic yoghurt and sage. You’ve got beetroot, which has been whole-baked and served with barrel-aged feta and walnuts. So it’s not a dish, it’s about an ingredient and the way we’re cooking it. You can tell I’m very excited about this oven!
Has this new style of cooking been an education process for the chefs?
For all of us, including me. I’m classically trained in modern French kitchens – my Press Club kitchen has not one bit of gas in it, it’s all induction, and it’s a totally different style of kitchen. This is driving chefs to think beyond other realms of cooking. My Press Club kitchen is all about high-tech equipment, whereas this is all about fire and wood.
Where are you sourcing most of your ingredients from?
I reckon about 95 per cent of our ingredients are all locally sourced. And when I say locally sourced, we get marrons from WA at the moment, we’re getting corn from Gippsland, tomatoes from South Australia. In saying that, my olive oil I get from Greece.
How has the interior design of the restaurant changed?
Dramatically. March Studios, who have done all our restaurants apart from this one, have done this one now. We’re the only restaurants that they do and we’re very lucky to have March Studios as part of the process. Like all of our venues there’s another ceiling feature (with Gazi you’ve got the terracotta pots; with Press Club you’ve got the brass interior) – in Hellenic Republic it’s about ratan; this massive ratan ceiling that’s intertwined, with every stick connecting to another. What does this mean to me? Well, it means family. It’s about people sitting down and breaking bread and eating from the middle of the table and connecting. And that’s exactly how the roof feels. Nothing’s perfect about the ceiling; it’s this mish-mash which symbolises unity, family and friends – really why people come to the restaurant.
|Venue name:||Hellenic Republic Kew|
26 Cotham Rd
|Opening hours:||Daily noon-4pm, 5.30-10pm|