Last week, I got a taste of how popular Masterchef Australia judge and chef George Calombaris is. I had arrived five minutes early at Hotel Jen Singapore (formerly Traders Hotel) for the sold out Hubalicious dinner hosted by Lifetime Asia, and the line for getting in was already snaking out the function room area.
People showing up early for dinner in Singapore always raises eyebrows. We are famous for being wedding dinner late. Or at least fashionably ten minutes late. Being early means all pretenses are out the window; they really want to see George!
But it was easy to see why. George Calombaris is as funny and entertaining in person as he is on TV.
He's only 35 but so accomplished. Voted one of Top 40 Chefs of Influence in the World by Global Food & Wine magazine. He owns five restaurants in Melbourne, which have won awards. His latest is Jimmy Grants featuring George's take on what a real take-away souvlaki should taste like.
This dinner was sold out in two days flat. Even the organisers were taken by surprise at how fiercely popular George was in Singapore.
My friend had messaged me from California in the US, to ask if I could help get tickets for a 10-year-old girl Sarah in Singapore who is a tremendous fan (Sarah herself is a budding culinary genius). Sadly, try as I might, I could not get seats. I would have given her mine and just cover the event standing, but it was a press table. So the best I could was get George to autograph something for her (first photo). Sarah, I hope this will do for now, and I really hope you get to meet George himself someday.
George was indeed very likeable. The room came alive each time he entered. We learned how he is into "whole food, real food" and "clean living".
Someone asked if organic food was worth its price tag (e.g. $5 apple?), he says he grew up where produce that was just grown naturally, and stresses that it's important to know where your food comes from.
He gave two demos from the four course dinner. But first came our appetizer.
Chicken Parfait, bitter chocolate baklava, coffee, kumquat, pickled onion, pumpkin seeds
This was a very pleasant chicken liver mousse with crunchy baklava pastry. Baklava playing a role in a savoury dish instead of being the traditionally supersweet dessert? Awesome.
He's testing the heat with just the back of his fingers held over the skillet. I love it when chefs do that. That bit of kitchen magic gained from years of experience. It was still funny - "No, it's not hot enough. Let's have some questions from the audience!" and then later he announces, "OK, yes, it's hot enough now!" when oil fumes start becoming visible!
And as a nod to the TV show, he had a member of the audience play the judge while he came up with his dish - a green Greek salad - and presented it for "judging". The lady could not stop saying, "It's...green!"
Well, it really was. Very green. When we got our share of the dish, we had to blink a few times.
Green Greek Salad with stir-fry abalone
Your eyes will feel like someone has given you a green monotone filter. But flavourwise, this unusual salad was not one-dimensional at all. It's a burst of crisp vegetal freshness bound together by an incredible herbed feta dressing, and peculiar kale puree, while the slices of flash-fried abalone provided a mild hit of umami. That was the Asian ingredient we would all identify with.
Next, George put together the main course. He's spooked by the size of the tweezers, "Clearly not mine, and I hope not someone's nose tweezers either!"
Poached chicken, miso hummus, green mango salad
George loves green mango, but the highlight in this ensemble is really the miso hummus. Beautifully delicate and coy, it keeps you wanting more and more. His inspiration for this was from hummus made by an 80-year old man in the Middle East. The secret was blending chickpeas with ice cubes and adding corn oil, lemon juice and tahini, no garlic. It was so tasty, he had to recreate it and add his own touch.
He says hummus is one of the three things always in his fridge. The other two are pickled cucumber and Kewpie mayo.
Dinner took four hours, and by the time dessert appeared, it was almost bedtime for me. Chocolate cake for serotonin? Not a bad idea.
Our table clearly had fun. Nick and Seth (middle two seated) were taking crazy Instagram shots, which would later win them an autographed book! Dang, I want that book! I also met Chef Ryan Hong, and found out our fathers came from the same "village" in Malaysia! Where food is still old school and amazing. My dad was a huge foodie.
Meanwhile here is the recipe for the Green Greek Salad courtesy of George, should you like to recreate this dish at home.
You can click to see or download the full-size photo.
Catch MasterChef Australia Season 6 on Lifetime Asia (StarHub channel 514) weeknights at 7pm and 11pm. This season Sydney chef Kylie Kwong joins them as a regular guest mentor.
Many thanks to Hotel Jen for extending the invitation to this lovely event.