George Calombaris outside court after admitted to assaulting a teenage football fan. Picture: AAP
George Calombaris outside court after admitted to assaulting a teenage football fan. Picture: AAP

The downfall of George Calombaris

It took just a little more than a decade for George Calombaris to go from hotel apprentice chef to internationally acclaimed culinary genius.

The kid from Melbourne's suburbs was always destined for big things and made an impression early in his career, sending him on his way to stardom - both in the kitchen and out of it.

But this week, it all came crashing down. Public fury over the systemic underpayment of several hundred staff, his exit from a lucrative TV gig and the loss of some endorsements paint a shocking picture of the meteoric rise and stunning fall of Calombaris.

How did it all go so wrong for the darling of Australia's food scene and one of the biggest names in television?

 

CULINARY GENIUS ON THE RISE

Food was always a dominant part of life for Calombaris, who said he was attached to his mother's apron strings from the moment he could walk.

With two siblings and 21 cousins, family gatherings and celebrations revolved around feasts of Greek dishes.

So it was no surprise when Calombaris enrolled in culinary studies at Box Hill TAFE in Melbourne after finishing high school.

 

George Calombaris pictured when he was an apprentice chef at Sofitel in Melbourne.
George Calombaris pictured when he was an apprentice chef at Sofitel in Melbourne.

 

The childhood home of celebrity chef George Calombaris.
The childhood home of celebrity chef George Calombaris.

 

His first job was as an apprentice chef at the Sofitel Hotel in Melbourne, under the guidance of the famously tough-as-nails but supremely talented Raymond Capaldi.

"It was a real food-focused hotel back then, with 130 chefs and lots of departments so you did six months in one section and six months in an other. There was lots of learning," Calombaris told Hospitality Magazine in 2009.

Two years in, after earning his stripes and demonstrating an impressive work ethic, he earnt the opportunity to work at Sofitel's Le Restaurant, which held two hats from the famed Good Food Guide.

It was here a young Calombaris met sous chef Gary Mehigan. A friendship formed and set the foundation for the next 20 years of both men's lives.

 

Melbourne chefs George Calombaris and Gary Mehigan met while working together at Sofitel.
Melbourne chefs George Calombaris and Gary Mehigan met while working together at Sofitel.

 

The chefs teamed up with Capaldi to open Fenix, where he honed his craft and learnt more about the business side of food.

It was a successful experience for two years, before he took time out to compete in the famed Bocuse d'Or in Lyon in France, where he placed an admirable 16th.

Calombaris was 24 when he came home and was named Young Chef of the Year while heading up the kitchen at Reserve in Federation Square.

RELATED: Can MasterChef Australia survive the exit of all three star judges?

 

George Calombaris pictured at Reserve Restaurant at Federation Square, where he was head chef.
George Calombaris pictured at Reserve Restaurant at Federation Square, where he was head chef.

 

It was a kind of experimental dining experience using molecular gastronomy and the eatery was awarded two hats.

But after a few years, Calombaris was lured back to the food of his heritage. He wanted to bring his own spin to Greek cuisine and offer something above and beyond the dips and haloumi of cheap eateries.

And so, he went out on his own and The Press Club was born.

 

A CHEF SENSATION

Just as quickly as its doors opened, The Press Club became the place to eat in Melbourne and was named The Good Food Guide's best new restaurant in 2008.

He told Hospitality Magazine that his menu combined "soul, elegance, substance, technique and, above all, respect and understanding of the product".

The space itself was also the epitome of cool. Who was sitting at the table over was almost as exciting as the food experience itself.

 

George Calombaris outside The Press Club in 2006 ahead of its launch.
George Calombaris outside The Press Club in 2006 ahead of its launch.

 

Calombaris became a celebrity in Melbourne's restaurant scene, which saw him open a number of other endeavours.

One of them was a risky venture on the Greek island of Mykonos, Belvedere, which he opened in 2008 inside a local hotel.

Juggling his huge workload in Melbourne with an international endeavour on a congested and expensive European tourist island seemed like insanity.

But it worked. It won a major dining award and shortly after, Calombaris was named among the 40 best chefs in the world.

 

George Calombaris became the hottest figure in Melbourne’s restaurant scene.
George Calombaris became the hottest figure in Melbourne’s restaurant scene.

 

Just over a decade into his career as a chef, Calombaris had discovered something rare.

He had stumbled upon a way to make Greek food into a fine dining experience, to make his restaurants commercially viable and, along the way, to turn himself into a star.

 

SMALL SCREEN STAR

Ready, Steady, Cook wasn't exactly a high-end television production.

In a simple but brightly coloured studio, ordinary people would team up with talented working chefs to create dishes using a few ingredients bought from a supermarket with a set budget.

Then, with the clock ticking, two teams would battle it out to create the tastiest and most inventive dish, decided by a modestly sized studio audience.

 

George Calombaris was a standout star on Ready, Steady, Cook.
George Calombaris was a standout star on Ready, Steady, Cook.

 

Calombaris set himself apart from the other roster of guest chefs thanks to his exuberant personality and high energy.

For three years, he was a regular guest, decked out in chef whites emblazoned with The Press Club branding, feverishly rushing around the small TV set kitchen, encouraging the Average Joe or Jane who was helping him.

"Yes, that's perfect!" he'd cheer as a bank teller or schoolteacher madly chopped an onion.

He appeared to be the kind of bloke you'd enjoy having a beer with.

Those watching on were impressed - not just those home during the day, but television powerbrokers in offices in Sydney.

 

George Calombaris with his grandmother, who along with his mum instilled in him a love of cooking from an early age.
George Calombaris with his grandmother, who along with his mum instilled in him a love of cooking from an early age.

 

Calombaris was just 30 when executives at Network 10 presented him with an offer to judge a prime time cooking competition that would air six nights a week.

Few in the hospitality and small screen industries thought MasterChef Australia would make much of an impact.

Who could possibly be bothered tuning in to watch people cook? Almost everyone, as it turned out.

 

AN UNEXPECTED HIT

MasterChef debuted in 2009 to huge ratings, incredible buzz and rave reviews from critics, cementing it as an instant hit for Network 10.

Despite being on air almost every night for 16 weeks, and against all early expectations, Aussie were hooked on the format.

 

Matt Preston, Gary Mehigan and George Calombaris become household names as the judges of MasterChef Australia.
Matt Preston, Gary Mehigan and George Calombaris become household names as the judges of MasterChef Australia.

 

Everyday home cooks came together in a massive warehouse decked out with cooking stations to craft increasingly complex recipes under the watchful eyes of Calombaris, his early career buddy Mehigan and British food critic Matt Preston.

To mainstream Australians sitting in their living rooms, the three were initially unknowns - unless you'd tuned into Ready, Steady, Cook on a sick day.

But within months, they were massive stars.

Four million people tuned in to watch the very first winner of MasterChef, Julie Goodwin, be crowned.

 

MasterChef Australia became the biggest show on Australian television.
MasterChef Australia became the biggest show on Australian television.

 

It's the kind of ratings figure usually reserved for Olympic Games, football grand finals and particularly competitive State of Origin matches.

MasterChef made Calombaris a household name and he demonstrated his business prowess by spinning the notoriety into millions of dollars.

Countless cookbooks were authored. He became a brand ambassador for food stuffs and appliances, and fronted television commercials and tourism campaigns.

His business empire expanded with successful new ventures and he was a frequent guest star at food festivals.

 

Over the past decade, George Calombaris has rapidly his expanded his restaurant empire across Australia. Picture: Nigel Hallett
Over the past decade, George Calombaris has rapidly his expanded his restaurant empire across Australia. Picture: Nigel Hallett

 

He, Mehigan and Preston were among the biggest stars at Network 10 and the firm friends knew it.

They decided early on that when it came time to renegotiate their deals for MasterChef, they would do so together. They came as a package deal.

And that suited everyone fine. The trio were such valuable assets - especially Calombaris.

 

CRACKS BEGIN TO EMERGE

In early April in 2017, Calombaris revealed that his hospitality empire Made Establishment had underpaid 200 staff by $2.6 million over a six-year period.

Workers at The Press Club, Hellenica Republic and Gazi were not paid the correct rates or overtime and he blamed a breakdown in processes for the error.

 

Calombaris apologised for the underpayment and insisted it was an error. Picture: Andrew Tauber
Calombaris apologised for the underpayment and insisted it was an error. Picture: Andrew Tauber

 

In an email to staff, Calombaris said he was devastated by the revelation.

"You, our amazing team, are the key to our success. I am so sorry we have messed up and let you down on a fundamental issue," he wrote.

"I am devastated by what has happened and we have been working extremely hard to fix this.

"I want to be clear that getting it right means ensuring that every single one of our team members is paid what they are entitled to under the industry award, and that any outstanding money owed to staff is rectified."

 

Despite the underpayment declaration, business remained good for Calombaris, who signed on to design the in-flight menu for Qatar Airways.
Despite the underpayment declaration, business remained good for Calombaris, who signed on to design the in-flight menu for Qatar Airways.

 

It was a self-declaration and Calombaris was initially praised for owning up to the error and for vowing to repay those who were left out-of-pocket.

But in reality, he'd known about payroll issues for almost two years.

Fair Work had flagged complaints it received from current and former staff at Calombaris' businesses and was told to investigate.

But it didn't until the end of 2016 when corporate advisers KPMG were finally brought in to go through the books.

"Regrettably, our attention to detail at that time wasn't at a level it should have been, but we now have a CEO and human resources manager in place," Calombaris said.

Public sentiment surrounding Calombaris was eroded further when he was caught on camera in May assaulting a 19-year-old football fan at the A League Grand Final.

 

George Calombaris attacked a soccer fan at the A League Grand Final.
George Calombaris attacked a soccer fan at the A League Grand Final.

 

Someone in the stands yelled at Calombaris as he strode along the sidelines of the pitch: "Pay your staff, you dodgy bastard."

Clearly enraged, he walked to the fence and struck a man.

Calombaris later said he'd heard slurs about his family and that's why he reacted the way he did, but he apologised in any case.

"I was genuinely shocked when post-match football banter turned into personal abuse about my family," he said.

"I regret the way in which I reacted, I am disappointed that I let it get to me, and I sincerely apologise for offending anyone. While I am not proud of my reaction to the situation, I was offended by a spectator yelling out abusive and derogatory comments about my family."

 

The hotel apprentice chef who became one of the biggest names in hospitality and television, George Calombaris, faces an uncertain future. Picture: Adam Ward
The hotel apprentice chef who became one of the biggest names in hospitality and television, George Calombaris, faces an uncertain future. Picture: Adam Ward

Calombaris was charged, convicted and fined $1000, but won an appeal in January last year when a judge found there was some provocation and the "blow was not very forceful".

Network 10 maintained its support for its star and grumbles from the public seemed to die down.

Last year's season of MasterChef performed well in the ratings and production on 2019's instalment began in October.

But just as it was airing a few months ago, a new drama emerged.

 

A SCANDAL ERUPTS

Fair Work's investigation of Made Establishment's underpayment of staff was never going to be a walk in the park, but few could've anticipated how bad it would be.

Last week, it declared that Calombaris' empire had actually incorrectly paid more than 500 workers by a staggering $7.8 million.

 

The Fair Work investigation and subsequent $200,000 contrition payment sparked fury. Picture: Nicole Cleary
The Fair Work investigation and subsequent $200,000 contrition payment sparked fury. Picture: Nicole Cleary

 

It was totally at odds with the image Calombaris has presented since his career took off - one of the ambitious but humble celebrity chef who treats his staff like family.

"I have 130 staff and I treat my staff like family," he told Hospitality Magazine in 2009.

"My core staff have been with me for a very long time. They really work hard together and have the same commitment (to the business) that I do."

The $7.8 million swindling of workers' pays - unintentional or not - dwarfed his initial self-declared assessment of the saga dramatically. But the scale wasn't what sparked fury.

Calombaris was ordered to make a contrition payment of just $200,000, which unions and former staff slammed as woefully inadequate.

Attorney-General Christian Porter dubbed the underpayments "deplorable" and said it amounted to a "theft of wages".

Mr Porter promised a review of the penalties framework given the Fair Work fine was clearly "light".

 

Network 10 initially stood by George Calombaris — until this week.
Network 10 initially stood by George Calombaris — until this week.

 

Hospo Voice, the union for hospitality staff, and Unions Australia rolled out a campaign demanding that Calombaris be sacked by Network 10.

As pressure mounted, WA Tourism dumped him as the face of its latest food and wine travel campaign, following intervention from the West Australian Government.

His television bosses insisted he retained their full support until late on Monday night.

Less than 24 hours later, he was gone as judge of the reality juggernaut after 11 seasons - but he wasn't alone.

He, Mehigan and Preston all walked after Network 10 abandoned ongoing negotiations for the trio's contracts, which once again were being nailed out as a bloc.

"Despite months of negotiation, Ten has not been able to reach a commercial agreement that was satisfactory to Matt, Gary and George," the station's chief executive officer Paul Anderson said.

 

 

So sudden was the decision that senior production insiders who news.com.au has spoken to were unaware of the trio's exits.

"I don't think it'll be the same," one shocked staffer said.

 

AN UNCERTAIN FUTURE

Calombaris will nurse a severely damaged public image for a while yet, with the task of rehabilitating it proving immense.

He has lost a lucrative TV gig that fuels and boosts the rest of his businesses and equally profitable endorsements.

The WA Tourism decision shows that brands are nervous about their association with him while the stink of the Fair Work saga hangs around.

 

 

What happens next for George Calombaris remains uncertain. Picture: AAP
What happens next for George Calombaris remains uncertain. Picture: AAP

 

Calombaris, Mehigan and Preston are preparing to develop new concepts under the banner of their own production company GGM, which they will pitch to streaming service giants Netflix and Amazon.

But the damage done to Calombaris' brand, which has hurt his two MasterChef co-stars, could dwindle their appeal here, and the celebrity chef scenes in the United States and Britain are very congested.

And as news.com.au illustrated yesterday, the lunchtime rush at Calombaris' eateries in Melbourne in the wake of the scandal has been anything but.

How he rights the ship remains to be seen. Whether his brand can return to the lofty heights it reached is also unclear.


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