He still loves blending, but now with edible ingredients. The Maloufs are from Lebanon and his mother and her mother are dedicated cooks. He recalls lots of extended family meals. So for him there was never any question about his career. "Before I left secondary school I knew I wanted to cook, but my parents were against it. I worked as a surveyor for twelve months and hated it, and then I worked for my father for twelve months in the rag trade and hated that, and took off for a while to Sydney. I remember writing a letter to my father at the time, saying that when I come back from Sydney I wanted to be a chef, and I think I wrote 'chief'."
He worked as a kitchen hand in a Mexican restaurant, didn't much like pot scrubbing, but enjoyed the social life and the staff food at the end of the night. Greg then did an apprenticeship at Hagger's, at the time a little restaurant in the city. "I learnt a lot from Dennis Hagger. He was flamboyant and crazy and his personality came out in that restaurant a hell of a lot: Denis was groomed immaculately, and so was the restaurant, the kitchen was well equipped and so was Denis - he had all the latest little bits to trim his beard. I think I took a leaf out of that".
At the time he thought that people came out for the food but says that, "over the years you understand that that is not quite it, there really is a bigger picture." It was Hagger who helped Greg achieve that perspective by organising work in France at Meaux. Just before going Greg was part of a cook-off competition at William Angliss where, despite being totally unprepared and presenting his dishes over an hour late (for which you lose mega points), he came second. He recalls being the only apprentice who had been able to source asparagus (in February) for the dish, and whose friend had raided a nursery to get him the fresh herbs for the hollandaise. "I think I knew from there that there might be a reasonable career. I also knew that I would somehow have a relationship with Middle Eastern food."
Then it was off to France, an experience which came to a traumatic end. After months of eating cream, cheese and butter, his cholesterol level skyrocketed and he found himself in hospital in Paris with a triple bypass. He came back to Melbourne and the next year, 1982, applied for a job at Mietta's, Fitzroy. "I bluffed my way in, if you are determined enough you get by. I was really lucky I had Fred Chalupa (now owner of Il Vicolo) there, because he was a mentor, he trained me up very quickly. Then working with Winston (Chung), and Franco (Biencotto) as well. I think my knowledge in food and cooking tripled in a matter of months and I really started to enjoy it. It was an exciting team, but it was an exciting time in Melbourne as well, great experimental years."
Then back to Europe where Greg met up with Fred (who was doing a stage organised by us at three-star chef Gualtiero Marchesi's). Fred then found work for Greg in Austria. "Fred was a great help, I had to learn very quickly the cuisine of the area, and the language, and it all came together. Now I make sauerkraut at O'Connell's every winter, and a juniper berry cream dressing. Neither of these have anything to do with Lebanon, but they are part of my repertoire".
Though Greg's health remained OK he became homesick and returned to Melbourne where he was able to work, briefly, with Hermann Schneider (Two Faces) and Gloria Staley (Fanny's and Glo Glo's). Wanderlust prevailed and he took up a job offer in Hong Kong at what was then Restaurant 97 - "My menu skills were still pretty young, I was 24, and in this day you just don't do that. Now I wouldn't even employ a second chef of 25. But I had enough courage and skill, I think, to pull it off for a while."
At 97 Greg worked with Michelle Garnaut as front of house, "she inspired me to write better and to change style. I had a brigade of Chinese cooks and I started to utilise them, doing Cantonese duck salads, and spring roll with avocado and stuff."
Greg and Michelle decided to start their own restaurant, but before settling into that they wanted to spend some time in Italy where Greg worked at several restaurants. Back in Hong Kong with the stress of trying to set up and finance their new venture which became Michelle's at the Fringe (now Michelle Garnaut also has the very successful Michelle at the Bund in Shanghai), Greg became desperately ill. After being near death he returned to Melbourne and received a heart transplant in 1989. "I got back into the kitchen very quickly, working casually with Fred at Il Vicolo, it took me two years to work up to full strength."
He started at O'Connells in 1991, and says that changing a pub restaurant into being a restaurant in a pub was tough. Though O'Connell's is still a very successful hotel in its own right, Greg's cooking has brought it real fame. He has also just published a book on Middle Eastern cooking with his wife Lucinda. The book documents some of the couple's journey exploring Middle Eastern cuisine, as well as giving many of the recipes which Greg does in the restaurant.
He really likes to reflect and consider his menus and recipes, taking several days off to make changes. Greg feels that chefs need to get out of the kitchen environment in order to think creatively. Too many of them write menus by "scribbling a couple of dishes down and asking their second chef 'How does that sound?' It really is a real creative process and it is the best part of being a chef." Greg has always referred back to his family memories and to the dishes he saw in Europe and in Hong Kong. Most of the books he uses are Mediterranean and Middle Eastern.
He admits to having written menus with too many ingredients and cooking techniques, but with time and experience he feels that he has learnt restraint. There are a number of chefs in this book who talk about the virtue of restraint. Some of them refer to Gay Bilson, whose dishes would be worked and re-worked until anything extraneous was eliminated. It's relative of course. Greg's dishes are still complex. He has been used to eating at family tables groaning with different dishes all complimenting each other. This makes it hard to present a plate with just one, it really doesn't fit within the Middle Eastern framework. However, he feels that he is gradually acquiring the age old wisdom, 'less is more'. At least in his menu writing style, he leaves out the extra words now.
Fred Chalupa, Rudi Farrell, Michelle Garnaut, Dennis Hagger, George Hill, the Malouf family, Hermann Schneider.