George Calombaris chokes back tears in first TV interview after scandal

Penny Burfitt
·Lifestyle & Entertainment Producer
George Calombaris on ABC's 7:30 holding back tears while talking about wage theft scandal
George fights back tears as he apologises for the wage theft scandal. Photo: 7:30

Former MasterChef judge George Calombaris has had no end of bad press in recent weeks, and now he’s finally confronting his demons head on.

The celebrity chef was found to have underpaid staff in his many restaurants by $7.8 million over the years, and now he’s spoken publicly about the messy affair, fighting back tears to deliver an apology.

A sneak peek of the former judge’s sit-down with the ABC’s Leigh Sales, which will air tonight on 7.30, shows the judge struggling to hold back tears, before delivering an emotional apology.

"I'm not here to blame anyone," he said. "I take full responsibility for this. I'm sorry.”

The disgraced restaurateur maintained that the wages were an oversight, not a deliberate attempt to cut corners.

He explained that the explosive popularity of his first restaurant - which quickly spawned into a lucrative chain - meant that back end priorities like wages were overlooked.

George Calombaris in a black suit
George has been feeling the heat in the wake of the wage scandal and Masterchef exit. Photo: Getty Images

While creativity was said to be at an all time high between himself and his partners while they kicked off what became an extremely successful business, they lacked the ‘sophistication in the back end’ which would have prevented the underpayments.

"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,” he said.

Weeks of controversy

Gary Mehigan, George Calombaris and Matt Preston on MasterChef's 11th season
The MasterChef judges have called it quits after 11 years. Photo: Network 10

George has been dogged by the fallout of the payment controversy, dumped from a lucrative tourism deal, and forced to make a $200,000 “contrition payment”, in addition to back-paying 515 workers who were underpaid a total $7.83 million while employed by his restaurant empire.

“I love this industry, I really do. And I love every opportunity it’s given me” he said through a wavering voice and wet eyes.

The interview comes on the back of not only the business fallout, but the explosive news that George along with fellow MasterChef judges, Matt Preston, and Gary Mehigan, would be leaving the acclaimed series after 11 seasons.

There is debate over what exactly prompted the mass exodus, but it’s understood it is not related to George’s recent case.

George’s restaurants also look to be copping the flak for the outrage, with photos of his restaurants almost completely empty of customers making headlines in the wake of the news.

Who will fill the MasterChef shoes?

New judges have yet to be announced, but one popular choice, Poh Ling Yeow told Yahoo Lifestyle that she would love the opportunity to return to the show that launched her career.

“Of course it would be amazing, hell yeah I’d be keen,” she said.

Other favourites include Maggie Beer and Curtis Stone as well as a host of names thrown in by participants and fans of the show.

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