Recently opened ... Jimmy Grants.
Recently opened ... Jimmy Grants. Photo: Simon Schluter

Michael Harry

Australia's queen of rice-paper rolls has attacked souvlaki king George Calombaris, accusing him publicly of stealing her concept for his new restaurant.

Nahji Chu, best-known as Miss Chu, took to Facebook to accuse Calombaris of ripping her off in setting up his new Melbourne souvlaki bar, Jimmy Grants.

It's really annoying when you do something original and it's mimicked like this 

“Now I know why George Collumbaris [sic] and his gang were so often seen at my Sth Yarra store,” posted Chu yesterday. “His new souvlaki venture owes a lot of its concept and design inspirations to misschu imho [in my humble opinion].”

Miss Chu in Melbourne.
The 'tuckshop' concept ... A Miss Chu in Melbourne. Photo: Simon Schluter

Chu continued her spray, writing: “It's good to know that I have inspired others to start telling stories of our histories and to give food its rightful context. It's also good George to thank those whom you draw inspiration from; it's just what well researched and good people do.”

Calombaris soon responded on Twitter. “Wow. Sorry I haven't thanked you for jimmy grants. I should also thank u for hellenic, press club, MamaBaba, st Kats,” wrote the MasterChef host, finishing with a gripe about his misspelt name. “@misschutuckshop pps. It's Calombaris. GC.”

Nahji Chu aka Miss Chu at her Sydney home.
Nahji Chu aka Miss Chu at her Sydney home. Photo: Tamara Dean

Calombaris told goodfood.com.au he was surprised by the outburst.

“I had a lovely little chuckle when I read it, it was completely out of the blue,” he said. “You know what? We're all working our arses off in the industry at the moment - we're working harder than we've ever worked before. And what amazes me is that rather than sticking together, we're just bullying each other. I've got bigger fish to fry, honestly.”

Calombaris's anger rose when asked about cashing in on his Greek heritage. “My culture is just so important to me, and I've been celebrating my culture, my family, my history, my parents for years now. To claim I've stolen that idea is absolutely ridiculous.”

Chu insisted that all she wants is recognition for creating the casual "tuckshop" eatery. “I don't claim to own anything, but if you understand English, you'll know from the Facebook post that it's me calling Calombaris out for being influenced by me," she said. "It's really annoying when you do something original and it's mimicked like this... in Finland there's a business called Ruler that has a footnote on its website “with thanks to Misschu”. It's just polite, common decency to attribute your sources. It's like writing an essay.”

Chu admits she has never been to Calombaris's St David Street store, but has seen photographs of Jimmy Grants online. “It looks like my designer Kano Hollamby has been in there and designed it. I even rang him up and asked him if he had done the design, because it had our signatures all over it. He said 'Nahji, you're outrageous.'”

Calombaris said he has been to Miss Chu's Vietnamese tuckshop “loads of times”, but strongly disputed plagiarising the chain. “I live in South Yarra, and my son loves it. It's healthy, it's a great concept. I think [Nahji] is a legend,” he said. “But will I go back? No way. Once you get me on your bad side, you've lost me. I'll tell you what it is, it's publicity. She knows she's going to get a reaction. Mission accomplished.”

Chu denied publicity was her aim.

“Facebook is a forum for bitching, attacking and being informed,” said Chu. “People can attack me, that's fine. I'm not doing this for media attention, but I will not suffer quietly… George is far more powerful than I am, but he's doing what I've done.”

Online commenters also weighed in on Chu's Facebook post, with opinions ranging from: “U tell him girl” to “I've gone from wanting to marry you to be a little embarrassed for you. Maybe have a chat to George first before posting something like this? It's a bit arrogant.”

Laos-born Chu came to Australia as a refugee in 1975. After growing up in her parents' Vietnamese restaurants in Melbourne, she launched her first rice-paper roll tuckshop and catering business in 2005. There are now eight venues in Sydney and Melbourne, which have a cult following for their simple, no-fuss soups and dumplings and sharp branding. Calombaris's Jimmy Grants (rhyming slang for "immigrants") is the chef's take on the classic souvlaki bar with compact, healthy-ish souvas.

“Just wait and see what's on the Jimmy Grants menu on Monday,” said Calombaris. “A Vietnamese-inspired souvlaki with Vietnamese coleslaw and spit roast chicken. I might call it the Jimmy Chu. And I hope a dollar from every sale can go to an immigration charity.”

It’s not the first time Chu has vented her feelings on social media. Scott Bolles reported in The Sydney Morning Herald in May 2011, that Chu publicly criticised Thai restaurant Longrain for opening a 'canteen and shop'. "The tuckshop word is generic [but] it was never used in the mainstream, outside of the school zone, until Misschu decided to use it instead of restaurant or cafe," Chu told Bolles. She also criticised its army-print aprons: "You either survived the Vietnam War or you didn't, Longrain. It's not a... fashion statement." Longrain co-owner Sam Christie suggested Chu pulled her head in.