Serving justice

No dessert has entered the Australian public consciousness more aggressively than the towering croquembouche. George Calombaris called it one of the hardest challenges ever put to MasterChef contestants. Built on little more than air and sleight of hand, it foiled many an aspiring chef and seems to have inspired the Melbourne business operations of the celebrity chef’s sprawling restaurant empire.

On Wednesday night, with no sense of irony, Calombaris gathered the latest MasterChef hopefuls for another challenge, this time at his Melbourne restaurant The Press Club. It was to be the restaurant’s final night of operation, he told them, and they would be plating up a five-course tasting menu.

No mention was made of the restaurant’s actual kitchen staff, or of their whereabouts.

By Thursday morning, at the behest of the Fair Work Commission, Calombaris would be issuing an apology to his staff at this and his other restaurants.

At The Press Club though, he regaled the five contestants with his origin story. “Twelve-and-a-half years ago, I embarked with a small team on creating a Hellenic fine-dining restaurant with total Aussie heart.”

Then, for most of those years, Calombaris proceeded to underpay his team at this restaurant and the staff at Gazi and Hellenic Republic to the tune of $7.8 million.

The scale of the greed, over so many years and establishments, affected 515 workers. On average, they each lost more than $15,000.

In this time, Calombaris became a household name as a MasterChef  judge – amassing a fortune from the show, its associated promotional gigs and the influx of diners.

He never hid his disdain for paying workers fair wages. In 2012, he slammed penalty rates, saying they “greatly exceed the opportunity for profit”.

“It’s not like they’ve had to go to uni for 15 years,” he said of hospitality staff.

He is not alone, of course. Wage theft plagues the hospitality industry at all price points – from Domino’s Pizza to the restaurants of Neil Perry.

For all, the calculation was simple: the potential for their margins outweighed the risk.

Calombaris has made the first of his public mea culpas and will have to pay a $200,000 fine. There are calls for him to be dumped from MasterChef, though Network Ten has given him its support. Charges appear unlikely.

In May last year, Premier Daniel Andrews pledged to criminalise wage theft. “Employers who deliberately underpay or don’t pay their workers will face up to 10 years’ jail … Too many Victorians are being exploited by unscrupulous employers.” Little has been done since.

Perhaps Calombaris himself said it best in 2012: “Our labour laws are something that need to be looked at.” 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 20, 2019 as "Serving justice".

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