Before he was introduced to Australian audiences as a judge on reality-based cooking show MasterChef, George Calombaris was already a star of the culinary world.
Calombaris first won accolades in the early ‘00s for his work in the kitchens of high-profile Melbourne restaurants Fenix and Reserve. So lauded was the young Greek chef that in 2003 he was invited to represent Australia at Bocuse d’Or International Culinary Grand Prix in Lyon, France, one of the world's most prestigious cooking competitions.
Since then Calombaris has created an empire founded on the food of his heritage. His Melbourne businesses include two Hellenic Republic restaurants (along with Mastic at the Kew location), Gazi and the flagship Press Club in the CBD. The Calombaris name has become synonymous with quality food.
So you can’t blame him for never imagining he’d open his third, no-fuss souva bar, Jimmy Grants in a third-storey CBD location.
“A lot of things are put under my nose, and I have to say no to 99 per cent of them because they compromise who I am as a chef,” says Calombaris. “When Emporium called me four years ago, they promised there would be no mass-produced food in its food court.”
Jimmy Grants is Calombaris’ most accessible venture, and turns the cliché of greasy, 3am souvlakis on its head. Ingredients are fresh, the meat is rich but not dripping and options are varied. The Patris souva, for example, comprises prawns, attiki honey, mayonnaise, cucumber, mint and coriander.
With a new Richmond location joining established stores in Fitzroy and Ormond, along with outlets slated for Ascot Vale and Glen Waverly, Jimmy Grants’ third-storey Emporium location reaches a different customer, where the demographic varies from day shoppers to RMIT students.
“Restaurants are not just places you go to get fed and watered anymore,” says Calombaris. “They’re modern-day nightclubs. That’s why we amp up the music at Jimmy Grants – we want people to get buzzed.” For Calombaris, who grew up in Noble Park, serving souvlakis is his chance to recreate (and improve on) his experience of eating out when he was a kid.
“On Friday nights we’d go down to the local shopping centre for some fluro sweet-and-sour chicken from the bain marie – it was bad, but it was exciting,” he says. “If you’d told me 10 years ago, ‘George, you’re going to have a shop in a food court’, I would have said, ‘I am a top chef, don’t be ridiculous’.”
Calombaris says he wants Jimmy Grants “to be everywhere”, and in that regard, opening in Emporium was a prescient move. Surrounded by everything from frozen yoghurt to dim sum, his food is being exposed to new, potential souva-converts everyday. In many ways, it’s a return to his roots.
This article is presented by Emporium. If you find yourself in the city with a few minutes to spare, head here to see everything on offer in the Emporium cafe court.