George Calombaris says he 'cried a lot' after $7.8m underpayment scandal

·Lifestyle & Entertainment producer
·4-min read

George Calombaris has opened up about the “brutal” period in his life where he went from a MasterChef judge to the “poster boy” for underpaying employees.

In 2019 the 43-year-old chef admitted to underpaying 515 current and former workers by $7.83 million after a four-year investigation by the Fair Work Ombudsman, which also saw him fined $200,000.

George Calombaris.
George says he ‘cried a lot’ after going through a wave of scandals in his personal and professional life. Photo: Getty

During the investigation and while his public image shattered, George was also charged with assault after an incident with a 19-year-old fan at the 2017 A-League grand final.

“It was brutal and I cried a lot,” he told Sam Newman and Don Scott on the You Cannot Be Serious podcast.

“I drank a lot, I really did. When I drink I don’t get aggressive, but when I drink excessively like I did in that period, I’d just be an emotional wreck.

“I probably should have opened up more because I was trying to fix it all behind a closed door and I was literally fist-punching myself internally and emotionally.”

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George also spoke candidly about how the pay scandal first emerged, explaining that his hospitality company was “going from a $30m business to a $50m business” in 2015 and they “weren’t sharp enough”.

After his accountants discovered the discrepancies, they decided to come clean and self-report the issue.

“At that point, I’m in the media, I’m known, we should just come out,” he detailed.

“We went to Fair Work and said, ‘Guys we’ve found this issue, we’re paying up, every cent, but we also want to give it to a journalist to talk the story and hopefully that will get everyone else in this industry that is rife with payments under tables and all this stuff like that, for everyone to pull their socks up.”

MasterChef's Gary Mehigan, George Calombaris and Matt Preston.
George wishes he and his MasterChef co-stars ‘parted ways with hugs’. Photo: Instagram/gcalombaris

‘It went disgustingly bad’

“That turned,” he continued. “That became George Calombaris the wage thief. George Calombaris in his Toorak mansion living the big life, blah blah blah. It went disgustingly bad.”

“Unfortunately, the name George Calombaris, when it was high everyone was flying and loved it, everyone wanted to be around it, but then when they did that list I became this poster boy as ‘the wage thief’, it punched us right in the face.”

While Channel Ten initially stood by him during the scandal, George said that he learnt he had been let go from MasterChef via “a screenshot of a message on Instagram”.

“In hindsight, we should have all just parted ways with hugs, because we had 11 f**kng amazing years,” he said. “What I’ve learnt is, gee TV, it’s a dog-eat-dog business.

“I’m sad with the way MasterChef ended because I would’ve loved it for us to hand the baton over to three new judges and for the world to go, how cool is that? Because we were on in 130 countries.”

Plate Of Origin judges.
George says he wasn’t invited to join Plate Of Origin on Channel Seven. Photo: Channel Seven

‘The three of us were an incredible package’

Things went from bad to worse when it was announced that his former co-stars, Matt Preston and Gary Mehigan, had jumped ship to Channel Seven for Plate Of Origin, whereas George wasn’t invited.

“Channel Seven wanted us over but then my shit hit the fan with the restaurants and at the time the boss said ‘We don’t want George, he’s on the nose’,” he recalled, adding that he understood why the network did what they did.

“Seven came over and they were knocking the door down and the boys made a decision they wanted to go to Seven and Seven didn’t want me.

“I think they [Matt and Gary] did what they needed to do for themselves and their families.”

Although he admits he hasn’t spoken with Matt in a while, he has stayed in contact with Gary and looks back fondly at the trio’s time on MasterChef.

“I think the three of us were an incredible package,” he said.

“We, sometimes including myself, we’d think we’re bigger than each other. That’s a lesson we all should learn from it. When it’s good just celebrate it and respect it, and know there’s also an ending time on things.”

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