George Calombaris has been a key figure in Melbourne’s dining scene since he opened Reserve at Federation Square in 2003.
Foams, gels and odd combinations ruled – one dish matched blue cheese with chocolate and crab – and the spiky-haired chef was named the Good Food Guide’s Young Chef of the Year in 2004.
After Reserve folded (Calombaris was an employee), the chef started to reconnect with his Greek heritage. He opened fine-dining Press Club in 2006, melding high-concept dishes with Hellenic flavours – think baklava souffle and calamari carbonara.
In 2008, the first Hellenic Republic opened in Brunswick East, a vibrant tavern at the vanguard of a northern suburbs revival. Series one of MasterChef Australia aired the following year.
The chef became a celebrity. The restaurant empire expanded, with ultra-fine dining at a new iteration of Press Club, and next-gen souvlaki joint Jimmy Grants at the other end of the spectrum.
Endorsements flowed. Money came in. But it seemed at core, the chef was always about the food and the hospitality experience.
His partners in Made were steel magnates Joe Calleja (Calombaris’ first wife’s boss) and Tony Lachimea and restaurant veteran George Sykiotis.
These men were barely a footnote when the underpayments came to light under new director Radek Sali, a businessman who cashed out of Swisse, bought into Made and, as he soon found out, a $7 million underpayment debacle.
When I interviewed Sali in November 2019 he was stoic about the wages scandal that continued to bedevil his baby.
‘‘We’ll have tough times and good times,’’ he said. ‘‘It’s a long-term journey and I’m excited about the future.’’
As administrators now pick over the Made carcass, Sali’s future as a restaurateur looks less exciting than it did, although no-one is staking out his home. Calombaris is the tall paparouna [poppy in Greek]: he’s ridden the highs and he’s fallen hard in the lows.
Calombaris ceased being a director of Made Establishment in 2018, though he remained a significant shareholder and figurehead. He and his fellow judges wound up their MasterChef tenure in 2019 and Calombaris retreated to Hellenic Republic Brighton, restyling himself as a suburban chef, albeit one with 439,000 Instagram followers.
Four of his restaurants were rebranded to distance them from their creator including Crofter Dining at the original Hellenic Republic location in Brunswick, which only opened last month. The writing on the wall must have been scrawled in invisible ink.
It’s not easy to run restaurants at the best of times and these are not the best of times. Wage costs are high, especially when you’re playing by the rules. Produce is expensive and climbing, with the drought squeezing supply. Rents are relentless.
Diners can be resistant to paying prices that keep businesses in the black and they love the convenience of delivery services which take a savage clip from restaurants.
Add to that the public backlash against Calombaris that kept many customers away from restaurants he touched and things became impossible. It’s difficult to imagine what the chef’s next step might be.
In 2009, I interviewed his mother Mary while researching a magazine profile.
She told me her youngest son had always been keen on food but Mary had never encouraged his desire to work in kitchens. Indeed, when he was 16, Calombaris’ parents invited a restaurateur friend to come over to dissuade him.
To their dismay, after listening to the horror stories about late nights and bad conditions, Calombaris asked for a weekend job.
After a couple of pot-washing shifts, Mary begged her son to rethink.
She told me, “He comes with his fingers waterlogged and I said to him, ‘Go in an office, get a tie and a suit.’
“He said, ‘Mum, I tell you one thing: everyone starts at the bottom of the ladder and I’m going to climb that ladder. I’ll prove it to you.’”
He did prove it. And now he’ll have to prove it again.
Dani Valent is a Melbourne writer and restaurant critic.