Sales’ question that floored Calombaris
George Calombaris wasn't often lost for words when he was on MasterChef. But one question from Leigh Sales stopped the celebrity chef in his tracks tonight as the 7.30 host grilled him on what's been a horror fortnight in both his TV and restaurant career.
Calombaris's head sank as he was asked what the wage underpayment scandal has done to his carefully curated reputation.
The teary Channel 10 star said the reason why his restaurants underpaid staff by almost $8 million was due to problems in his firm's "back end" - but there were "no excuses" for the crisis that has engulfed him and his company. He urged punters not to "punish his people" by boycotting his restaurants.
In the same interview he also failed to deny that he and his fellow former MasterChef hosts asked for a 40 per cent pay rise on top of their already healthy wage packets.
Tonight's interview was the first time Calombaris has spoken publicly since both the scale of the underpayments came to light and he was dumped from the television show that made him a household name and a very rich man indeed.
Earlier this month, the Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO) found Calombaris' MAdE Establishment company had underpaid 515 restaurant staff by $7.8 million in wages and superannuation. Calombaris has already apologised and the firm has said it repaid the money to staff.
Separately the firm was fined $200,000 and Calombaris committed to become effectively an ambassador for the FWO.
Then last Monday, Ten announced Calombaris and his co-hosts Matt Preston and George Mehigan would not be returning to MasterChef in 2020. Calombaris has since lost a lucrative sponsorship deal with WA Tourism.
WE MADE A TERRIBLE MISTAKE
Calombaris told Sales he first twigged something was wrong with the firm's wages in 2015 but thought processes had been put in place. However, an audit undertaken in 2017 discovered underpayments of more than $2 million. A subsequent investigation by the FWO saw that figure rise to $7.8m.
He said he was "gutted to the point where I'm like, 'oh, my gosh'" when he discovered his firm had failed to pay people the money they had earned.
"We found the problem, we self reported. We're the ones that went, 'Hang on, we made a mistake here, a terrible mistake'," he said.
Asked by Sales how it was possible to underpay staff by $7.8 million, Calombaris said he was focused too much on the food and not enough on the finances.
"You're running a million miles an hour, being creative, being someone who can inspire the team with the food that you're cooking, with the way we're serving and all that stuff and you assume that in the back end things are happening at the same speed, but they weren't," he said.
Sales paraphrased this as Calombaris saying he was "not paying enough attention to detail" and that could be interpreted as "a systematic effort to avoid paying people what they really deserve."
Calombaris replied: "There's a whole myriad of stuff that needs to be ticked and checked and checked and tripled-checked that weren't being done.
"There is no excuse for what I did, no excuse. But I truly believe that we've owned up, we paid up and we did that two years ago.
"We went to Fair Work; we owned up. Obviously the investigation finished last week with Fair Work but we paid our team members back two years ago."
But it was when the questions became more personal that Calombaris began to tear up.
"It takes a long time to build a reputation, in your case 25 years of work, and you can lose it in a week," Sales said to the chef. "What has been the toll of that on you?"
Calombaris bowed his head and for a full five seconds couldn't speak. When he did his voice faltered.
"I love this industry, I really do, and I love every opportunity that it's given me," he said.
"I love the people that have worked for me and I don't want them to suffer right now."
He alluded to observations in the past week that his restaurants, that include Hellenic Republic, Jimmy Grants, Gazi and Press Club, have seen a steep drop in diners.
"Great restaurants are voted by bums on seats. Don't punish my people," he said.
"Just know when you come into one of our restaurants, know when you pay the bill, that my people are getting paid and paid correctly."
Sales moved onto his departure from MasterChef along with Preston and Mehigan - the news dropping just days after the FWO handed down it's findings.
Rumours had swirled that he and the other hosts had wanted a steep pay rise to remain on one of Ten's biggest franchises - a particularly bad look after the underpayments came to light. He didn't deny it when asked by Sales if 40 per cent was the rise the trio demanded.
"The dollars were all signed off. That was all done and dusted," he said.
"What I can say is that the sticking point that we got to with MasterChef and with Channel 10 was simply time. Time for Gary to do more of his own stuff, Matt to do more of his stuff and for me to be in my restaurants more. It takes up a long time. It takes, you know, six, seven months of our year and we just needed more time. And that's all it came down to."
What would he do now, asked Sales?
"For me right now it's a real deep breath. It's been tumultuous, I'm not going to lie. It's been tumultuous for my team," Calombaris said.
"Right now I need to be around them and also around my family. I'm not thinking about anything else but those two important things in my life that I and adore."