Starting over

Hot off the Press: George Colombaris turns start-ups into success stories.

Hot off the Press: George Colombaris turns start-ups into success stories.

Life isn’t often easy for a restaurateur. So why do so many keep upgrading their business challenges? Miles Clarke goes looking for answers.

There must be something in the water that restaurateurs quaff which makes them look to fresh ventures once their immediate challenges are met. In one of the toughest of industry sectors, they often think nothing of selling up, moving town and starting up all over again.

Building on their success with The Press Club in Melbourne, foodie partners George Calombaris and George Sykiotis have launched another Middle Eastern-style restaurant and bar.

The Press Club opened in 2006 and quickly secured two chef hats and a Best New Restaurant gong in its first year. Calombaris has been one of the top food faces in the city since completing his apprenticeship in 1999 at the Sofitel Melbourne.

Joining the team at the new venture—which opened in March and is called Maha Bar and Grill—is Shane Delia, another young superstar in the Melbourne food scene. Located in a basement in Bond Street, Maha Bar is named after Delia’s wife, who is of Lebanese Australian extraction. Delia’s family is of Maltese origin and his team reflects a full sweep of the Australian community.

Delia comes to Maha from a long stint as the head chef at Chateau Yering in the sedate surrounds of the Yarra Valley. He was picked for that position at just 21 years of age, a note-worthy achievement considering the prestigious Relais and Chateaux status of Chateau Yering.

“It was a great experience doing contemporary fine dining, but I certainly was more than ready to move on from what had become ‘egotistical cuisine’ for me. I wanted to get back to the Melbourne food scene and leapt at the chance to work with George, with whom I’d been a contemporary during my apprenticeship years and we’d also competed in many competitions.”

For Delia, the Press Club association has been immensely useful in getting Maha up and running. The fit-out of what was previously a 380 square-metre Asian restaurant was long and complicated, but satisfying in the end. It can now accommodate more than 130 guests across the restaurant, bar, private room and courtyard area. One feature is the collection of Middle Eastern water pipes in the courtyard, which guests are welcome to enjoy.

“All the services to our building—electricity, water and gas lines—originate in the basement, so we had to have just about everything reconfigured. We’d have between 30 and 40 tradies on the job, six days a week.

“The past experience of the partners in opening previous ventures made an enormous difference. We had top architects who ensured that every element—from the kitchen equipment to the interior design—was completed to the very highest level. Everyone took such pride in their contribution and it’s really shown in the result. As a basement venue with little natural light, the lighting system is really sophisticated and helps create different ambiences at various times of the day. We’ve also invested heavily in a Bose sound system.”

The most important element of starting over for Delia was establishing his kitchen team, while one of his main challenges is that expectations are running high after the association with The Press Club.

“We’ve had to hit the ground running,” he says after four weeks of trade. “I have six chefs, most of whom I’ve worked with before. I’m able to get on with the business of running the operation because I have total trust in my sous chef, and my junior sous chef.

“The kitchen is secure. Our apprentice had already completed two years of his apprenticeship, but we found his training was just not up to scratch, so he went off and had his first two years’ apprenticeship officially cancelled and is now starting out with us as a first-year. That kind of gesture shows amazing commitment and a willingness to give us his all.”

Maha has a diverse offer to ensure they can reach a range of price points for their market. They offer a bar menu which comprises a range of Middle Eastern small dishes such as mezze, moajanet (pizza), bel foren (from the oven) and helwayet (sweets). Everything is less than $10. The lunch menu ranges in price from $9 to $36 per dish, plus a $55 Soufra, which is cooked in a hot pot on an open table and served with cold dishes and a range of Lebanese sweets. A dinner service and supper menu also operates Thursday to Saturday from 11pm to 3am.

Delia takes a hard-headed approach to the produce his kitchen consumes, drawing on specialist producers such as Jason Elob of Select Providore in Melton for Middle Eastern vegetables and fresh spices superior to those provided by general vegetable producers.

“I use the regular Chinese garlic for the base dishes, but will pay up to three times that price for the Lebanese or other Middle Eastern garlic or herb with which we finish the dish. We have upwards of 20 people working here. We’re a new business and we look really hard at both quality and price in our purchasing decisions.

“We aim to provide good, simple Middle East fare that is appealing to the Australian palate. We do not aspire to classic Middle East food, because there are people already doing that very well,” he says. “Greg Malouf has certainly opened the door in this regard.”

The same Greg Malouf is also starting over with his own restaurant reinvention in a matter of months, when a second version of the renowned MoMo is relaunched in Melbourne’s swish Grand Hyatt. He was head chef at MoMo for some six years, creating a strong demand for high-end Middle East cuisine.

Malouf has used the past 18 months since MoMo closed to travel, write and produce his legendary Arabesque lunches at Stones in the Yarra Valley. He’s also done Southern Italian feasts and celebrated the fare of the Mediterranean.

The new MoMo in the basement at the Hyatt will comprise a bar area with capacity for 700 guests, plus a separate sound-proofed restaurant for 100. It will initially open just for evenings five nights a week and include a retail outlet featuring Malouf’s books, spices and Middle Eastern homewares.

“We feel the market simply isn’t there in Melbourne for high-end Middle Eastern food at lunch, and so we’ve opted to open for dinners only. The bar will have its own stone ovens for the preparation of pizza and we’ll be serving various mezze plates there as well.”

Malouf is confident there’s been sufficient consultation for the design and manufacture of the kitchen, but admits it’s virtually impossible to create the perfect kitchen.

“We get the input from the people who will work in the kitchen, but I’ve been into some of the top kitchens in the world and have never seen one where there isn’t something in the design that’s not quite right. I’m certainly talking with my pastry chef and sous chef about the equipment we’re providing and how the various elements will fit together.

“While it’s difficult to get, the new MoMo kitchen is pretty close to the chef’s dream. We’ve got induction points in the pastry area, chill blasters, marble bench tops, some great stone ovens for Arabic pizza and the Khobz flat bread which is baked to order when the customer arrives.”

Malouf says his travels to Europe and the Middle East will impact the new menu, but says the food will still retain the integrity of the original.

“There are plenty of flavours and techniques that I recall from my childhood and ideas I’ve gathered along the way, but my range of cooking will always evolve—that’s just the nature of the business and the way I like to work.”

Malouf says while he has to rely heavily on imported dried spices and other exotic ingredients, he’s making an effort to source fresh produce from local Victorian sources as much as possible.

“We’re reducing our energy and water consumption as much as possible and it’s certainly an approach that our younger chefs appreciate. The sustainability path is something we all have become more aware of. I will also be working to devise menus to reduce food wastage. Our industry wastes an enormous amount—more than 30 per of the produce we receive—and we need to learn to work smarter in this regard.”

Malouf plans to continue his Sunday Arabesques at Stones of the Yarra Valley until MoMo returns, and has not ruled out an ongoing association with them. He admits to being very fond of the operation at Stones and is looking to cultivate a herb garden in the venue’s spacious grounds.

It all seems perfectly obvious: there must be something in the water.

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