Celebrity chef George Calombaris says he is sorry for underpaying his restaurant staff and hopes he can now be a “voice for change” in the hospitality industry.
Speaking publicly for the first time about the matter, the former MasterChef judge told 7.30‘s Leigh Sales he was “gutted” when he realised he had underpaid staff at a number of his restaurants $7.8 million.
His company MAdE has since back paid current and former employees, and will make a $200,000 “contrition payment” under a court-enforceable undertaking made with the Fair Work Ombudsman.
“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.
“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 the underpayment was an oversight and that his employees “are everything to us”.
“I’m not here to blame anyone,” he said.
“I take full responsibility for this. I’m sorry.
“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.
“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.”
‘We aren’t closing our restaurants’
Calombaris said he wanted 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,” he said.
“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 was dumped from a major West Australian tourism campaign after the underpayment scandal broke.
Soon afterwards Network 10 announced that Calombaris and fellow judges Gary Mehigan and Matt Preston would not be returning for the next season of MasterChef, after the parties failed to reach a deal “despite months of negotiation”.