George Calombaris may have plenty of experience opening eateries, with 14 venues in Melbourne under his Press Club, Hellenic Republic, Gazi and Jimmy Grants brands, but the celebrity chef, Masterchef host and leader of a restaurant empire admits opening a restaurant in Sydney is a different beast altogether.
“It probably is and will be our biggest challenge,” he says, sitting by the window in his newly opened Jimmy Grants souvlaki joint in Bondi Junction, in Sydney’s eastern suburbs. “They’re different cities. People go on about that whole Sydney/Melbourne rubbish – I don’t buy into it. I buy into the fact they’re both wonderful and they’ve both got their own beauties.”
This new Jimmy Grants outpost is the famous chef’s third in Sydney; there’s another already hustling souvas in Westfield Sydney in the CBD, and there was a short-lived tenancy in Newtown in Sydney’s inner west, which closed earlier this year.
“It’s a different market up here; they know what a kebab is up here, 100 per cent, but they don’t know what a souva is. That’s what we’ve learned quickly.”
Although similar to the ubiquitous kebab – with meat, salad and sauces tucked into a pita – a souva, or souvlaki, commonly features grilled meat rather than shaved meat, and is humming with oregano, lemon juice, feta, tzatziki and other commonly Greek flavours. Some souvas are bulked with hot chips, making them quite the handful.
Calombaris describes Jimmy Grants as “a fast-food shop with a slow-food mentality” citing the 12-hour cook time on the signature lamb (“I rotate it horizontally because it cooks quicker and the juices roll down onto it”), and chips dressed with crumbled feta and house-made chicken salt.
But despite the success of the Jimmy Grants brand in Melbourne, opening a takeaway souvlaki shop is not a path the chef imagined taking early in his career.
“When I opened Press Club I was determined to cut all the clichés of what people assumed Greek food is,” he says with a smile. “No saganaki, no tzatziki, no souvlaki and definitely no moussaka. But then I grow up and the ignorant, arrogant George moved into a phase of wanting to please people more. And Jimmy Grants is that.”
The name, a nod to his father’s experiences as an immigrant (colleagues would refer to him as “Jimmy Grant”, a a play on the word “immigrant”), is only one way in which the chef wants the restaurant to reflect his Hellenic background.
“The name of each souva has a meaning. Mr Papadopoulas [lamb, chips, mustard aioli, onions, parsley] is one of my uncles.”
He looks up at a mural of the Patris, a passenger ship that carried thousands of Greek immigrants to Australia from 1959 to 1975, Calombaris’s grandfather included. “I asked the [team] to tell me what customers are saying, and they said, ‘We get heaps of people saying their grandad came on the Patris’. So I said, ‘You know what we do? We get them to bring a picture of their grandad and they get to stick it on the wall and we gift them with food just to say thank you’. That’s what I want this place to be.”
Jimmy Grants Bondi Junction also marks the first of the chain’s Sydney stores to partner with the Yo-Chi frozen yoghurt brand since Calombaris’s Made Establishment group acquired it in February. Calombaris sees his souvlaki brand and the self-service frozen-yoghurt station as a logical partnership.
“Greeks are some of the highest consumers of yoghurt. I eat so much yoghurt at home. It’s like kimchi for the Koreans and soy sauce for the Chinese. It’s a condiment that’s always there. It’s eaten for breakfast … for lunch.”
Made Establishment’s acquisition of Yo-Chi and expansion into Sydney comes at the end of a tumultuous period for both the group and Calombaris personally. The group had to back-pay $2.6 million in under-paid wages to 160 staff last year, and the chef had an assault conviction overturned in an appeal in January.
“We owned up to our own mistakes, we stood by them,” the chef says. “We could have run away … but it’s not what we were going to do; that’s not in our DNA.”
In response to what he describes as the group’s “disruption”, Calombaris and his partners created the Made Foundation, due to launch soon. It provides a pillared approach to employee support for the 642-person Made Establishment group, emphasising health and mindfulness. Calombaris says it’s time to get away for the tired, flawed practices the industry has clung to in the past.
“[Made Foundation] will be an incredible platform for our team members, and if we can get that right it will hopefully become something for the rest of the industry.
“I am an archaic human being because I’ve been [working] in an archaic industry. [I’m] creative, yes, but everything else [the industry has done has] been non-existent: the way [the industry] looks after people, the way we care for people, the way we support people.
“There’s no question about it – the Made Establishment family really got bruised and battered over the last couple of years, but … without what happened and the knocks we copped, we wouldn’t be in this space right now.”
When asked about his personal challenges, the chef (who married his long-term partner in a three-day food-and-chef-filled party in Greece earlier this year) reflects on his responsibility to set a good example to those around him.
“My kids, my now-wife, my family – they’re my everything. I want to always be a role model to them. But also the incredible team who have been with me for a long time – some of them since day one – I owe it to them.
“Also, I’m a role model in society,” says Calombaris. “I don’t own myself anymore; the public own me. I chose to put myself out there – they didn’t – I chose to put myself on a TV screen and to be on the biggest-rating cooking show in the country for the last 11 years, so I’ve got to stand up and be a role model. I have to accept failures and own up to mistakes, but also show that you can get past them and you can get better through your mistakes.
“I fly close to the sun, there’s no question about it, and occasionally I’ve gotten burnt. Not out of wanting to, but I don’t want to die thinking I didn’t try or I didn’t push. I want to dream big and have my head in the clouds constantly, but also have my feet on the ground.”
Jimmy Grants + Yo-Chi
Westfield Bondi Junction, Shop 3025, 500 Oxford Street, Bondi Junction
(02) 8066 7888