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Big question from George Calombaris’ teary interview

George Calombaris and Adam Liaw. Images: AAP, ABC Q and A
George Calombaris and Adam Liaw. Images: AAP, ABC Q and A

Celebrity chef George Calombaris has broken down as he apologised to staff following his much-publicised $7.8 million underpayment scandal.

In his first interview since the news broke earlier this month, the MasterChef judge told the ABC’s 7:30 program he was “gutted” over the failure.

Citing inexperience and no pay-roll staff, Calombaris said that the “creativity” was there in the business, but not the sophistication.

"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," he said.


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

Apologising, he said that his next goal is to promote change in the industry.

As an ambassador for the Fair Work Ombudsman, Calombaris will be required to promote good pay and workplace practices.

But, the question in recent weeks has turned to whether Calombaris’ punishment has been harsh enough, and whether restaurant managers and owners require more support in paying staff correctly.

Appearing on the ABC’s Q and A program earlier this week, MasterChef alumni and fellow chef Adam Liaw said that while jail sentences should be considered for dodgy bosses, there was a bigger problem that needed to be addressed.

“If the goal is truly to resolve systemic underpayment of staff and hospitality, we need to look at other issues where we can help businesses to do this as well,” Liaw said.

“The awards for hospitality are difficult. We can look at simplifying that and making it more accessible for people who don't have large payroll facilities and large payroll operations.

“The carrot and the stick will have an effect here and it will be the way we need to go.”

It’s an argument accepted by the Fair Work Commission.

"I do think we can do more to assist small business to meet their obligations and I agree with the proposition that most small business owners do try and do the right thing," Fair Work Commission president Justice Ian Ross told Fairfax.

However, others haven’t been so understanding.

The fall-out of the revelations saw Calombaris dumped from an endorsement deal with Tourism WA, and Calombaris and fellow MasterChef judges Gary Mehigan and Matt Preston have since left the show following a failure to reach a commercial agreement with Network 10.

Before their departure, however, ex-employees took to Twitter to launch a petition demanding Calombaris be removed from MasterChef.

“I’ve been fighting to get back pay from my time working for Hellenic Republic for over two years,” the petition started by former employee Orlaith Belfrage read.

“I sent emails, made phone calls and sought legal advice. Still MAdE Establishment, George Calombaris’ company, refused to pay me for all of my work.

“Wage theft is a business model and George Calombaris has built his career on it.”

At the same time, unions have continued to call for tougher penalties.

“Bosses can steal millions from workers and all they have to do is pay it back if they get caught. Nothing will change if dodgy bosses do not fear the consequences of wage theft,” Australian Unions said.

The underpayment has since been paid back, with Calombaris’ company MAdE Establishment also receiving a $200,000 fine from the Fair Work Ombudsman.

Calombaris also said he won’t be closing his restaurants.

"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."

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