Calombaris breaks down over wages scandal


CELEBRITY chef George Calombaris has broken down on camera days after his career came to a crashing halt.

In a preview for ABC's 7.30, set to air tonight, Calombaris speaks publicly for the first time since his horror week that included a $200,000 fine for underpaying workers $7.8 million, losing a lucrative sponsorship deal with WA Tourism and being dropped from MasterChef.

Things took a turn for the worse for Calombaris on July 18, when the Melbourne chef was slapped with a $200,000 "contrition payment" after admitting he'd underpaid more than 500 of his current and former employees $7.83 million - and he has apologised for it all.

"It takes a long time to build a reputation, in your case 25 years of work, and you can lose it in a week," ABC's 7.30 host Leigh Sales says to the celebrity chef. "What has been the toll of that on you?"

Bowing his head for a long period of time, Calombaris finally faces up to the camera with tears in his eyes.

"I love this industry, I really do, and I love every opportunity that it's given me," he said, his voice shaking.


Calombaris struggled to answer some questions. Picture: ABC/7.30
Calombaris struggled to answer some questions. Picture: ABC/7.30


George Calombaris held back tears as he spoke about the scandals. Picture: ABC/7.30
George Calombaris held back tears as he spoke about the scandals. Picture: ABC/7.30

The final figure of $7.8 million dwarfed the previous number when the underpayment scandal first emerged in 2017.

It had been estimated that 162 staff at Calombaris' MAdE Establishment group of restaurants were underpaid $2.6 million.

"I won't forget that afternoon in 2017 when we sat there with my new business partners after we'd done a full audit for the business and discovered the underpayments," Calombaris told 7.30.

With a broken voice and holding back tears, Calombaris apologised on camera for the $7.8 million underpayment, again calling it an "oversight".

"I want to apologise to all my team, both past and present, for the effect I've had on them, we've had on them. I apologise to them," he said.

"I'm not here to blame anyone ... I take full responsibility for this. I'm sorry."


Calombaris apologised. Picture: ABC/7.30
Calombaris apologised. Picture: ABC/7.30


Despite paying the fine and agreeing to repay his workers in full, the pile-on could not be stopped.

A petition calling for Calombaris to be fired from MasterChef was signed by more than 25,000 people and on social media, the chatter was even worse.

MasterChef had made Calombaris and his fellow judges Gary Mehigan and Matt Preston household names after 11 seasons and the channel stood by its stars.

But by July 23, less than a week after Calombaris' fine, the judges were gone.

"Despite months of negotiation, Ten has not been able to reach commercial agreement that was satisfactory to Matt, Gary and George," the network's CEO Paul Anderson said.

Network Ten said the split was due to a contract dispute and it was reported the three, each on $1 million a year, had each demanded between $400,000 and $1 million extra.

Both Mehigan and Preston have denied they parted ways with the show over money.

Gary Mehigan, Matt Preston and George Calombaris
Gary Mehigan, Matt Preston and George Calombaris

Calombaris maintains the $7.8 million mistake was related to the speed at which his restaurant empire expanded, telling 7.30 there was "no sophistication" in his business's back end.

"The thing about 13 years ago, you're a young chef, 26 years of age, you want to open your first restaurant, you get together with three other partners at that point, and you open the first one, then the second one opens, the third one, the creativity is flying, the ideas are flying, the dreaming is there," Calombaris said.

"But the sophistication in the back end wasn't there.

"There was no CEO, there was no people culture manager, there was no elite finance team like we've got now, that can make sure that mistake that we made will never happen again."


One of Calombaris’ underpaid workers Orlaith Belfrage in front of Hellenic Republic. Picture: Stuart McEvoy/The Australian
One of Calombaris’ underpaid workers Orlaith Belfrage in front of Hellenic Republic. Picture: Stuart McEvoy/The Australian previously reported on the struggling trade of Calombaris' restaurants across Melbourne, some of which sat eerily quiet.

But despite the celebrity chef being embroiled in a PR scandal, Calombaris was adamant he won't be closing his restaurants.

Instead, the hospitality juggernaut promises to be a "voice for change".

"We're multiple restaurants. There's single restaurants out there, I understand it's hard, they haven't got the opportunity where they can have CEOs and infrastructure, but it doesn't mean they can do this," Calombaris told 7.30.

"They have to seek advice, they need to make sure they're on top of ... the food, the service, the great wine, the great dishes, that at the back it needs to be just as delicious.

"Right now there's 642 team members that I absolutely adore. We aren't closing our restaurants, we're here. And it's my job as their leader to keep pushing forward and keep speaking this message, not shying away from the mistake we made, but also acknowledging that we fixed it."

Calombaris will speak with Sales on ABC's 7.30 tonight.