News National Shannon Bennett’s staff lost their tips if they broke things or failed tests, ex-employees say
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Shannon Bennett’s staff lost their tips if they broke things or failed tests, ex-employees say

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Shannon Bennett opened Vue de monde in 2000. (Vue de monde) Photo: ABC
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Former employees of celebrity chef Shannon Bennett say their share of tip money was regularly confiscated by managers — for breakages, being late to work, or getting answers wrong in a so-called “tip test”.

The allegations follow reports earlier this month of widespread underpayment of staff at Vue Group venues, including at the flagship restaurant Vue de monde.

The Fair Work Ombudsman has since launched an investigation into those claims.

Those reports prompted other former employees to come forward, saying they were not only underpaid, but that the tip money they relied on to supplement their incomes was regularly taken from them by managers.

“It just felt like they were trying any way to get rid of our tips,” said Sally*, a former waiter who quit her job at Melbourne’s Vue de monde earlier this year.

“Most of the tips went to the managers. If we came in one minute late, they took our tips,” she said.

If you didn’t have good enough knowledge of the venue, or about Shannon Bennett, then you would lose tips.”

The ABC has seen an internal email requiring staff to take the “tip test”. Another email confirmed the restaurant had a three-strike system for late arrivals, with the loss of a week’s tips as the penalty.

“Most of the tips went to the managers. If we came in one minute late, they took our tips,” she said.

Several other former Vue staff alleged that tips were also confiscated to cover breakages.

Brandon Difiglio, who was a chef at Vue Group from 2013 to 2015 and now works in Los Angeles, said:

“If the chefs broke a cona (coffee percolator), the whole station wouldn’t get their tips that week.”

Jamie*, who was a chef at Bistro Vue until 2012, remembers being penalised after a shelf broke.

“I can remember going into the cool room. I took something off a shelf, and the whole shelf fell down,” Jamie said.

“About 10 or 15 plates broke. And the response was, ‘No tips for six months’.”

In a statement, Vue Group conceded that a “small percentage” of tip money is allocated to cover the cost of breakages, “in accordance with standard industry practice”.

But it did not respond to questions about the “tip test”, or whether tips were from staff who had “three strikes” being late to work.

Others have also claimed they were required to work long hours of unpaid overtime.

Martina Ricci worked double shifts alone on the ground floor of the Rialto Tower, greeting restaurant guests before they took the elevator 55 floors up to Vue de monde.

She says she struggled to get a break — even to go to the toilet.

“When I asked for my break, or 10 minutes to go to the toilet, they always said, ‘Stop drinking so much water, we don’t have anyone to replace your position’.”

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Martina Ricci says Vue de Monde management told her to drink less water. Photo: ABC News: Michael Barnett

‘No such thing as a free meal’

Mr Bennett is one of Australia’s most successful chefs. His original Vue de monde restaurant has spawned numerous new projects under the Vue Group banner.

He is a regular guest on TV’s MasterChef, and last year bought a $17 million dollar house in the Melbourne suburb of Toorak.

Even those staff who are bitter at the way they were treated at Vue Group restaurants maintain respect for Mr Bennett’s skills and achievements, and say they also remember him as the encouraging mentor figure they see on MasterChef.

“He is the only boss I’ve ever worked for who will come to everybody, shake their hand, and ask them how they are,” Sally said.

“When you’re working that hard, and the big boss acknowledges you as a person, that makes you feel fantastic.”

Jamie said Mr Bennett would eat dinner with the staff every night, but claims there was a downside.

“When I worked it all out, I was effectively working for $5 an hour. We got a signed cookbook and a half bottle of Moët for Christmas as a reward,” the former chef said.

“We got fed one meal a day and he made sure it was a good one. It was great for morale.

“But he would also rip shreds off his staff, and in front of all the other staff. It was humiliating.”

“Shannon says, ‘OK — you can forget about your tips for the next month’.

“He looked at me, and said, ‘What?’

“I said, ‘Nothing, chef’.”

Mr Seisun alleges he was sacked after an argument with Mr Bennett over pay, after his wages were docked for not attending trade school on his day off, even though the school was closed for the term break.

“I said, ‘This is absolute bulls—‘.

“I’d f—ing had it. I never let loose on anyone like I did then, and he sacked me on the spot.

“I didn’t even know how I was going to pay my rent that week.”

In the statement to the ABC, Vue Group denies Mr Bennett withheld tips from the kitchen staff, or that Ms Ricci was denied toilet breaks.

It said Mr Bennett has not publicly humiliated staff members in front of their colleagues.

Mr Seisun now works in Chile, where he cooks for the Australian Embassy in Santiago.

He said the industry back home in Australia was “not right” at the moment.

“I don’t know if that’s because there is so much competition in Melbourne, if it’s because there’s so much going on … so much variety that everyone’s trying to get ahead.

“I get that. But at the same time, you want to be getting ahead in the right way, I think.”

*Some names have been changed.

-ABC