When I first heard George Calombaris had a new book out, I’ll admit I didn’t have high hopes. Not that he’s not a brilliant cook (he helped shape the face of modern Greek food in Australia), but he’s a TV celebrity chef and, more often than not, their cookbooks play to the masses (a focus that at least one of his former books can be charged with). We get it; big numbers, lower common denominator. Not Greek. It’s Calombaris’ fifth title and it could be his best yet.
Greek has character, substance and dare. Is it celebrity wishy-washy? Not one lick.
Like Curtis Stone’s critically acclaimed Los Angeles restaurant, Maude, which proved the TV star could still hang with the culinary heavyweights, Greek serves as a reminder that behind the bright lights and role of judge on MasterChef, chef and restaurateur Calombaris is still an innovator at heart.
First up, there’s the edgy design. Greek is all cool graphic elements, hand-written typefaces and spray-paint flourishes, inspired by street art and graffiti (apparently, one of George’s loves). The food photography has soul, too – moody, textured, messy, alive. They’re good looks of the sorts that make you want to pick up the book, and linger through it. The alternative style also sends the message: this is the new Greek, not just what Yia-yia (Nana) cooks.
Likewise, Greek brings it with recipes. They’re joyful and abundant and produce-y in that way that Greek food is adored for, but also cheeky, and cutting edge and fusion-y in the way that progressive dining venues are serving food in Oz right now. Think a little bit restaurant-quality, a little bit home-style and bucket loads of flavour.
Melitzanosalata, the traditional Greek eggplant dip, for example, is given a makeover with “it” ingredient miso, while pistachio baklava is taken-up a few notches with chunks of loukoumi (Turkish delight). It’s not all riffs on traditional Greek fare, however; there are on-trend veggie-forward numbers such as roasted heirloom carrots with whipped feta and toasted walnuts, plus cheffy homages to Calombaris’ high-profile friends, like a Marco Pierre White-inspired salmon confit with tomato butter sauce, and a whole chapter penned by Mary Calombaris, George’s mum, with classic Hellenic dishes including slow-cooked lamb and veg stew (tavas) and Cypriot keftedes.
Calombaris’ range of dishes definitely appeal on paper, from melty, crispy saganaki with spiced cumquat and currant jam (glygko) to bombe Alaska laden with Greek brandy and mastic musk sticks. Do they translate in the kitchen, and ultimately onto the plate? Yes, but…
In our test-run of two dishes, we gave a big tick for the concise and accessible ingredient lists, but a cross for a few recipe holes. ‘Fried egg, sautéed greens, tomato sauce’ looked irresistibly soft and stewed in the pic, but didn’t include cooking times. Despite the guesswork, the flavours were generous and comforting. Meanwhile, Greek-Chinese dumplings with an olive oil and soy dipping sauce wasn’t quite the fusion sensation the combination of ingredients promised, but we polished the pliant balls in no time. Read: very more-ish.
Calombaris’ desire to share his love of food is ever present in Greek. Occasionally it might feel a little like overkill, particularly if you read the hardback from top to tail, but mostly it’s endearing and for all accounts, genuine – here’s a guy that just loves what he does. And in Greek, as with his restaurants, he’s pushing the bounds and not afraid to own it. Welcome back George.
Cook the book:
Recipes from Greek, by George Calombaris, with photography by Earl Carter (Lantern, $59.99, hbk)
Want more George?
SBS Radio chats to the chef about school lunches and the Greek table.