A ‘horrible’ year for MasterChef’s George Calombaris is about lessons for the future, he tells Kim Knight on the eve of his Auckland tour.

This story was four lemons and a free-range chicken in the making.

Me: "What food says 'family?'"

George Calombaris: "It's a comforting bowl of egg and lemon soup. You've got a spoon, and you're holding the side of the bowl which is warm, and there's crusty bread in the middle of the table, and your family... that, for me, evokes a real sense of presence. Time, place, nostalgia, warmth, security. All the things you look for at birth."

Me: *drops phone, runs to egg and lemon store.


Food as the beginning, the middle, the everything: "Food is the common language we speak across the world," says Calombaris. "Black, white, French, Muslim, Catholic, Buddhist, Orthodox... "

The 39-year-old chef and MasterChef Australia judge was born and bred in Melbourne. His father is Egyptian, his mother a Greek Cypriot who came to Australia, aged 12.

"She arrived with her mother and sisters and little else, apart from a big case half-filled with cooking equipment," Calombaris writes in his book Greek. "My grandmother told me the people at Customs didn't know what on earth a mortar and pestle was - they thought it must have been some sort of weapon so they confiscated it. My mum had to work straight away - there was no choice as the family needed money, so she spent many years working as a seamstress."

By the time Calombaris was 14, he knew he was going to be a chef or a soccer player. Today, his empire includes 11 restaurants, from fine-dining flagship The Press Club, to a string of souvlaki bars called Jimmy Grants (rhyming slang for "immigrants"). A further five eateries will open in the next three months, filming has just started on season 10 of MasterChef, and from November 16-19, he'll be in New Zealand, headlining restaurant, food and drink festival, Taste of Auckland.

Calombaris is bringing fish and chips to the party - but the potato will be hangi-cooked and the fish will be whitebait because, he says, Kiwi whitebait is the best in the world.

"There's no right or wrong with food," he proclaims. "I say it all the time - don't come to The Press Club and expect to like every course. You don't walk into the National Gallery of Australia and love every painting. That's the whole idea of creativity. It's potentially sometimes putting question marks on what the so-called artist has done."

Calombaris is speaking to Weekend at the better end of a very bad year. It's just days since his conviction and $1000 fine for assaulting a 19-year-old man at an Australian A-League football grand final (in court, Calombaris said he thought the man had made comments about his mother. He pleaded guilty, but has appealed against the recording of a conviction). Back in April, his company announced it would be reimbursing A$2.6 million in underpaid wages, an error blamed on "historically poor processes".

"A hell of a year," says Calombaris. "Probably the toughest year of my life."

But, on the staff payment issue: "I self-reported. I didn't get caught out. We overpaid 50 per cent of our staff and underpaid 50 per cent. We didn't go back and ask for money from the people we overpaid... I could have just shut up and said nothing and given all my staff a pay rise, but I chose to stand up like a human being and go 'hey, you know what, I've made a mistake and I'm fixing it'."

And on the assault: "That was definitely the wrong thing to do. I'm remorseful and I've said sorry. For me, that's done and dusted and I've learned a lesson. I'm an ambassador for [Australian charity] Bully Zero and bullying starts from the verbal... I'm pretty thick-skinned and I can take a good verbal joust but there's a time where I just go 'nah'."

After last month's sentencing, his phone ran hot. It included a text of support from Gary Mehigan - fellow MasterChef judge and one of Calombaris' first bosses, post his hotel kitchen apprenticeship.

"I love that man so much. Gary and Matt [Preston] are both beautiful men. Ten years is a lot of episodes of television, but more than anything, that's a lot of episodes of making people happy."

But MasterChef Australia, he says, is not what he wants as his legacy.

"Don't get me wrong, it's made millions and millions and millions of people around the world very happy, but for me, it's the legacy of how can I change the landscape of the hospitality industry?

"I don't want to talk about sustainability, food miles and all that stuff. That's not interesting to me. I don't want to talk about 'I've got a garden that grows my greens' - we just do all that stuff without talking about it. All I keep talking about is staff sustainability.

"Pressure is a privilege and we shouldn't shy away from hard work and pressure and stress, but it's got to be balanced... the success of my industry comes from the people I put around me."

This horrible year? "I look at it as lessons to make me a better person... I'm not going to hide and pretend it didn't happen."

In 2008, Calombaris was named one of Australia's Top 100 Most Influential people. He's written six cookbooks and has his own cookware range, but, these days, is more likely to be plating at the restaurant pass than standing at a stove. At home, his wife Natalie cooks.

"She's the king of that domain - sometimes when she's not looking, I glug in an extra bit of olive oil. Actually, last night I did chop up a salad because she was bathing the kids, and I did the salad instead of washing my daughter's hair, which is quite frustrating at times. "

Did he ever anticipate TV fame? "I didn't get the opportunity to do MasterChef because I was bad at my craft. I got the opportunity, because I was obviously okay... "

But: "Has my life dramatically changed? Do you see me at a bar having drinks at 11pm on a Saturday?" Aussies love a drink, he says, "and once we have a drink, we like to open our mouths. I just remove myself from opportunities where it could potentially get me in trouble."

MasterChef Australia is now syndicated from Afghanistan to Vietnam; one of its biggest audiences is India.

"I'm still living in, I think, one of the most racist countries in the world. I'm not proud of that. I'm an Aussie, and I'm not proud of [that racism]. It's up to us to stop it.

"I think that's the success of MasterChef Australia. It's got rid of all the slight tendencies to be racist and accepted everything as either delicious food or not delicious. 'Your dream is real and we can help you achieve that, or it's not'. It's pretty straightforward."

Last season, for example, the judges were served tulip bulbs - a first-time food experience for them all. "I love the fact that Ben was proud of his Dutch heritage and he wanted to showcase that."

Chefs, says Calombaris, can become blinkered.

"We do our own thing and that's all we believe in...

"I'm very lucky that I get to travel the world now... travel has given me the opportunity to open my eyes and my mind and my heart and not just [experience] new ingredients, but people. People make great food."

That egg and lemon and chicken soup? It was a pale yellow cardigan of comfort for the soul.


Taste of Auckland

November 16-19, Western Springs, Auckland

From Artwok to the Vodka Room, multiple restaurant kitchens decamp to Western Springs for a programme that includes a gourmet hangi, live music and cooking demonstrations. Tasteofauckland.co.nz

Night Noodle Markets
December 1-10, Victoria Park, Auckland

Twice as many dumplings with an extended season of the pop-up hawker-style markets. More info via Facebook (nightnoodlemarketsnz).

F.A.W.C! Summer Series
Till November 12, Hawke's Bay

75 events over 10 days. High teas, goats cheese-making workshops, sunset barbecues and 72 more events over the next 10 days. No-ticket-required events include next Saturday's Donnelly St Park Up, a collaboration between five street food vendors, a DJ booth and the Advintage car park wine bar. Fawc.co.nz

Eat Auckland Food Tours
Various dates, Sandringham, Balmoral and beyond

There's more to Dominion Rd than dumplings, and there's more to Ponsonby than pinot - although you can probably order one of those too, at an all-eating, all-walking food and history tour of the trend-setting suburb. Eat Auckland is an insider's guide to the city's tastiest streets. Eatauckland.co.nz

Gourmet in the Gardens
Every Sunday until April 25, Hamilton

Music plus poutine plus pizza plus paella (byo picnic rug) and more on the Rhododendron Lawn at the Hamilton Gardens from 4-8pm. hamiltongardens.co.nz

Fashion on Federal and other long lunches
November 7, various, Auckland

Frock up for the best-dressed Melbourne Cup lunches and dinners at various restaurants throughout the isthmus, including Regatta Bar in Takapuna, and the city's Pilkingtons, the Botswana Butchery, Mr Toms and most of Federal St, where a 400m fashion runway will have its finale at The Sugar Club, on level 53 of the Sky Tower. Eventfinda.co.nz and Skycityauckland.co.nz