Greg Malouf

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 May, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 02 May, 2010, 12:00am

HOME IMPROVEMENTS Melbourne now is great, culturally. It has grown from being an awful part of the world to quite a beautiful part of the world. I left [Australia] in the early 1980s to travel, when I was 20. I'd had this 10- year plan to travel, to see as much as I could, come back to Melbourne and investigate Middle Eastern food. I was in Europe for quite a while and Hong Kong for many years as well. Melbourne's now as good as Sydney, which has more high-end restaurants that focus on Eurasian cooking, while Melbourne is a lot more European and more earthy.

RESTAURANT REVOLUTION Melbourne was a bit like Hong Kong 20 years ago: there were about four free-standing restaurants [that] were all pretty awful. I was here in the mid- 80s and Lan Kwai Fong had four restaurants, this area [around SoHo's Olive restaurant] didn't exist; there were small garages, ceramic shops and crazy hole-in-the-wall outlets. Michelle Garnaut of [now closed] M at the Fringe took the food scene to a different level. In those days, Post 97 was probably the pioneering restaurant. I worked with her there back then. I was running a kitchen at 24 and a lot of it was running on mistakes and learning by them - but I enjoyed every minute of the three years. Had I had better health and a normal heart, I would probably be in Shanghai working with Michelle. At [Melbourne restaurant] MoMo, I'm on the stove and it's my responsibility to make sure what comes in and out of the kitchen is at a certain level. My day is filled with writing menus, creating dishes, doing functions and cookbooks. I'm lucky in that we're open five nights a week - no lunches - and that gives staff days off to have a life. Here, it's different: six days a week and split shifts, which is a lot of hours. I used to do that as a kid and you burn out.

MORTAL MEMENTOS I took a little bit out of every country I visited. In Paris, that was a lot of cholesterol and triple-bypass surgery. I was 21. My cooking career has gone through stages because of my health. In 81, it was bypass surgery, in 88, I was here and had severe angina and a ballooning procedure done where they expand your arteries. In 89, I had a heart transplant then I had another in 2003. I'm good now. My new wife helps, she's gorgeous.

OUT OF THE FLYING PAN As you see in some of the reality shows there's a bit of abuse going on [in kitchens] and it's all real. I've seen people hit; I've seen tiles come off kitchen walls; I've seen a pan flung and missing a couple of cooks. I think these chefs have got serious problems because you don't need to do that. A lot suffer from depression, the fear of failure, especially at the high end; it is very competitive. You're always judged and I think chefs find it very difficult to pull back and to be true to what they do. I'm a milk-fed lamb in the kitchen by comparison. If I see a [substandard] dish go out, I'll say, 'Look, I know you can do better with that, can you do it again?' Or if I'm not happy about something I'll explain to that person why and will always try and show them the proper way of doing something, to be encouraging.

The celebrity-chef phenomenon has been around for about 10 years. It's good for the kids to see what's happening with ingredients and how to use a knife but then you cross the line. It's about the personalities and often that's not a pretty picture, either. But I really like Anthony Bourdain, he's a nice guy and I've met him a few times. But I've also met guys who are just appalling. I think people like to watch these programmes because it's like watching a road accident. They're probably 20 per cent cooking - the rest is tripe.

TWISTING TRADITION I thought I needed some European training because Middle Eastern food is steeped in tradition and it doesn't budge. Hummus is hummus and has been that way for thousands of years: my mum's recipe is her mum's, and her mum's. But you can sprinkle paprika on it, refresh it. You keep the integrity of the dish but it deserves a lot more than velvet curtains and napkins folded up like a swan. Before MoMo I was at a restaurant called the O'Connell's Hotel. It already had a good name but when I accepted the job and started to put Middle Eastern food on the menu, the food journalists came in slowly, then it just blew out of the water. It was nine years of press and accolades.

My childhood memories probably make the strongest part of my repertoire but that's more about the palate, about eating things that are sour, like yogurt, or refreshing - mint. They're ingredients I'm used to using and as a kid ate so much of, that that's all I think of. That has expanded through travel - the use of spices and aromatics. Most of the food comes from the home, so [in] a country like Iran, where there isn't a big restaurant culture - a lot of the great food we ate was street food or cooked in someone's home. We'd go to a pistachio grove and the owner would invite you in for lunch, you go to pomegranate fields and one of the pickers invites you to their house for a bite. You hit the ground and doors just open.

Greg Malouf will be the guest chef at Olive (32 Elgin Street, Central, tel: 2521 1608) until May 16.