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Contractual Disputes: Replacing Monster Chefs on MasterChef

The show is pompous, condescending and shallow. It was designed to mock the lowly non-cook, the ignorant, and, from high culinary summitry, grace the winner after munching, gratis, what was promoted. The winner would then be nurtured, cared for in an entrepreneurial way. Little master chefs would, in turn, become big ones, owning restaurants, starting a line of cookery books and wind up with face, cooking implements and all, on television.

The MasterChef idea, unsurprisingly born in a country where grub takes precedence over cuisine, was always an obscene way of stirring the lowly heart. The plebs want their fare and fun, so let us give it to them via a Pygmalion effect. Inspire “the ordinary Briton”, or “the ordinary Australian”; cultivate the ignorant, encourage the confused mangler in the kitchen, and let’s have a damn good laugh about it.

Now, the last gastro laugh is being had on the Australian version of the program and its cocksure hosts. The fattened, smug trio of George Colombaris, Matt Preston and Gary Mehigan are no more – at least in terms of being judges on the program. For a decade, these Monster Chefs have not so much graced the screens as saturated them with judgements.

The Monster Chef trio had become so confident they made the only cardinal error that matters: presuming their own immortality. Accordingly, they saw themselves as irreplaceable, able to continue reigning in broadcasting heaven for a twelfth season. In doing so, the inner brat was enlivened. They could negotiate hard – and harder – over their contract of renewal. They could push terms, and get rewarded. But it was not to be.

The question on every food boffin’s lips is: What did they want? More pay, more entitlements, came the response, to the tune of a 40 per cent increase. (All three receive over $1 million in salaries). In the words of Chief Executive Officer Paul Anderson, “Despite months of negotiation, [Network] 10 has not been able to reach a commercial agreement that was satisfactory to Matt, Gary and George.”

This fact left a certain stench in the air, given the payment problems of one of the judges, who works in an industry seemingly incapable of understanding the merits of a fair wage. MAdE Establishment, which steers the Colombaris restaurants, was found by the Fair Work Ombudsman to have been derelict in its payment obligations to staff to the tune of $7.83 million. The 515 current and former employees involved in the dispute duly received a backpay order and a mild “contrition payment” of $200,000.

In a bland, unconvincing statement, Colombaris insisted that the company was “committed to acting as a force for change in the industry and leading by example when it comes to building and promoting supportive, healthy and compliant hospitality workplaces.”

The response from fellow Monster Chef Preston on ABC Radio Melbourne was less humble than apologia spiced with bitchiness. “George genuinely loves the staff, that’s why he wants to pay them back.” He was in agreement with the principle that staff had to be paid what was owed to them (astonishingly novel); besides, Australia’s national broadcaster, the ABC, was also in the soup regarding underpayments to casual staff. To each his not so gallant own.

Even the network producing MasterChef Australia was happy to offer Colombaris their backing, despite a petition seeking his sacking from the program garnering over 20,000 votes. According to an untroubled spokeswoman from Network 10, “George and MAdE Establishment have reached an agreement with the Fair Work Ombudsman in relation to this matter.” The chef had “the support of Network 10.”

The hospitality industry can be a truly unhospitable one, and Colombaris exemplifies this. His group was also responsible or underpaying 162 employees in 2017, coughing up backpay totalling $2.6 million. Other hefty names in the chef business are also tainted by a seeming inability to understand, let alone measure the concept of fair pay. Big egos make for bad payers.

Heston Blumenthal, another beast of the chef’s television circuit, has also established an imperium that underpays its workers even as it maximises profit through offshore tax havens. The means of doing so are delightful: the Caribbean island of Nevis features, less for the scenery than its zero tax rate. The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists was particularly scathing of Nevis in their Paradise Papers trove. Tipsy Cake Pty Ltd, the entity behind Blumenthal’s Australian restaurant, is registered and incorporated via an office suite and post office box on the island.

Blumenthal, as with many of his fellow chefs, likes doing things the small portioned, indiscernible way, and that includes proper payments to staff. Dinner by Heston found itself in a spot of bother in 2018 when the Fair Work Ombudsman received information from two chefs alleging unremunerated overtime. The figures were far from negligible. One submitted estimates showing underpayments up to $25,000; the other, $35,000.

The Colombaris payment scandal, and the troubles with MasterChef, go to the same problem. The celebrity chef believes himself divine, a gastro deity unaccountable and egomaniacal. The food is less important than the figure; the show, more significant than the substance. Those studying the food industry have done a disservice in their encouragements of the Big Chef-turned-judge phenomenon, formulating such empty terms as “culinary cultural capital”, a body of skills and knowledge supposedly attributable to MasterChef.

Food should be eaten and savoured, not contrived and made the stuff of a blood sport. The great food texts are themselves poetic guides of mystery urging us to consume in the freest of ways. The celebrity chef as television judge performs a different function. In the MasterChef model, the judge plays social worker and helpful instructor, supposedly encouraging creativity in a competitive setting. But what the format has done is drag the monster out of the kitchen and restaurant business and place him in a position of judgement. Be done with them to lunch in grotesque, small portioned luxury.

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8 comments

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  1. Keitha Granville

    The world is too full of tax havens. There need to be laws that tax must be paid in the country of existence ie if the business is conducted in Australia it should not be possible to have it registered in the Bermudas to avoid tax.
    This is how the obscenely wealthy remain obscenely wealthy.

  2. Carol Taylor

    I have felt that this show was working it’s way into superiority irrelevance. Where to for MasterChef when fewer and fewer Australians can even afford to buy the ingredients..sorry fresh out of quail and blue swimmer crab, much less afford to dine in such establishments. And then came the irony..it seems that neither can their employees.

  3. totaram

    Keitha: Once again, remember who makes the laws, and the uninformed people who vote for them thinking they are the people who know how to “look after the economy”. How do these people vote for them? Because they have been told, 24/7 , that these are the people who can look after the economy and “the other mob cannot because all they do is tax and spend” (as if that is not good for the economy, but who is to dispute that?).

    I do apologise, if it seems like I am always pointing things out to you, but I am just commenting in the spirit of discussion.

  4. Phil

    The culinary delights of Australia.

    Our national dish ‘ Pie and Sauce ‘

  5. mark delmege

    It would be a fitting end if these purveyors of supermarket goods could be sentenced to an evening of gluttony as in La Grande Bouffe I’m sure ratings would peak for the year and we could be done with them forever.

  6. wam

    I found the contests keenly fought, the contestants hard working and generous to each other
    They were ordinary workers with a love of cooking. They were given access to ingredients that they were unlikely to ever afford.
    The trilogy of chefs are, to watchers, pretty insignificant.
    Our regime was to tape the show and about 9am after our exercise to ff the adverts.

    Scummo has a george mentality to workers and welfare recipients we provide for you and we make the rules.

  7. Zathras

    It’s not just overseas tax havens that the wealthy enjoy. They have access to a variety of entitlements (ie rorts) that most do not.

    For example, much was made of Turnbull donating all his PM salary to charity – very magnanimous.

    However it went (tax free) to The Turnbull Foundation which only needs to pass on a minimum of 4% to other charities each year to maintain it’s charity status. Other than not being used to run a company, the balance has few restrictions and can be used for “other purposes” – such as paying yourself Directors Fees and so on.It’s a legacy from the Howard years, probably to replace the “bottom of the harbour scheme” he unwittingly uncovered and had to close down while chasing Union matters.
    As a bonus, that donated salary then becomes fully tax deductible from other income so it’s a win-win.

    Let’s see a PAYG person try the same thing.

    The Masterchef judges were dissatisfied with $1million each per year and wanted $2million but rejected $1.4million.

    The show has become a symbol of elitism and contrived human drama and has nothing to do with the work of real chefs and reaching the end of it’s use-by date.

  8. whatever

    These socialites really do try to emulate the Gatsby style of decadence, Prohibition-era opulence complete with constant bribery, corruption and crime.
    The totally shonky excuse for a Stock Market we have is another Roaring Twenties flashback.

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