It’s been three years since high-profile chef and former MasterChef Australia judge George Calombaris stepped away from Ten’s reality TV cooking show, after a wage scandal saw him close his 21-restaurant empire and require him to pay back millions.
Now, the 44-year-old is back – returning to the same network on November 26, with a new six-part docu-series Hungry he co-hosts with former MasterChef contestant Sarah Todd.
Hungry is less competitive, more conversational and sees the once tough Greek boy in a softer shade of azure blue.
Calombaris’ comeback sees him swap the judging hat for a taxi ride around Melbourne to talk food and racism with a Punjabi driver, scoot past his childhood family home in Mulgrave for nostalgia’s sake, and round up Melbourne’s top baristas to discuss everything from oat milk lattes to ponder what makes 7/11’s $1 coffee the most popular drink of choice for Australians.
“I definitely have the bug for television, it never left. But I wanted to make sure my next step was an authentic one,” says Calombaris who for the past 12 months has been working as a Culinary Curator at Hotel Sorrento.
“Regardless of how the show rates, I am proud of what we have filmed. It’s good television – a bit gritty and honest and we aren’t scripting anything,” Calombaris says.
“I spent a lot of time thinking about how my nieces, nephews and own children saw me.”
When he voluntarily left the TV gig of a lifetime at MasterChef Australia after 11 years, hindsight taught him not to take his fame and status for granted.
“It all came to a standstill and I got through those days with the love and support of my family, friends and manager,” he says.
“Despite being the toughest years of my life, nobody could ever take away my desire and love for cooking. I am a chef and I will die a chef,” Calombaris says.
These days he volunteers at Port Phillip Prison, teaching first-time offenders how to make chocolate mousse for Christmas and playing table tennis with them.
“The scary thing is they are big boys, but I want to do my bit to help. When the shit hits the fan for me personally, it’s nothing in comparison to these prison experiences,” Calombaris says.
He admits it was the younger generations in his family he felt most responsible for.
“I spent a lot of time thinking about how my nieces, nephews and own children saw me. They loved it when their dad and uncle George was on TV and doing well, but I was determined to show them how you get up again when it everything falls apart too,” he says.
“That’s what drove me. My comeback is tough but it is inspirational for me because I want to make my family proud – to show the younger ones you can get back up again no matter what life throws at you.”
Occasionally he’ll scroll through the many texts he received when his life hit rock bottom in 2019 – one from Australian businessman Lindsay Fox offering emotional support. “I had never met the man in my life. That was a nice surprise and he reached out to check I was okay,” Calombaris says.
Calombaris hints there’s a good chance he’ll open his own restaurant again, but for now he’s putting his energy into a new tech start-up Culinary Wonderland which launches early 2023.
“There are always haters – there always was. That’s what comes with being on TV,” Calombaris says.
“And it’s not really my job to convince them. I just get up and do what makes me happy.”
Hungry airs at 6.30pm on Saturday 26th November on Network Ten