The Restaurant Pay Reckoning

“I wish I could steal $7 million dollars and only get fined $200,000,” said a friend of mine when the scandal broke. If you’ve been on the news or Aussie Twitter recently, you might have seen that George Calombaris, one of the judges on the popular reality TV cooking competition Masterchef Australia and restauranteur of Press Club, Gazi, Hellenic Republic and others — has been fined a relative pittance for wage theft. Ironically, on the day of the finale, as activists were trying to get the #MasterTheft hashtag trending, news broke that all three judges wouldn’t be returning for 2020. Their pay negotiations had fallen through, apparently. Despite currently being on million-dollar salaries, they’d asked for a pay raise of 40%. Twitter was briefly overstimulated:

I confess I’ve tried every one of George’s restaurants, even the Press Club, which is probably the most pretentious restaurant I’ve ever been to. If you know me, you’d know that’s a real achievement. Yes, it was more pretentious even than Attica, which when I visited during the first year of its opening, had a little print-out essay of Ben Shewry’s “food philosophy” that you had to read before looking at the menu, where near the end you’re chivvied out into the freezing night and made to walk around the tiny backyard garden poking at herbs. More pretentious than Michelin restaurants in Europe, or even Quintessence in Tokyo, whose menu is literally a blank slate that’s passed to you at the start of the meal. In the Press Club, my guest and I were shown a basket of potatoes still in their jackets. “Cool,” we said, puzzled. “Now the kitchen will transform the potatoes,” announced the serving staff. “Ok,” we said. At the Press Club, your seats are against windows that look down into the kitchen. We watched the serving staff take the potatoes to the kitchen, where sauce was slathered on top. It was served as it was.

We laughed then, but now that I’m aware of the wage theft, I kinda understand.

Free Labour and a Fine Dining Restaurant

It’s now Rockpool Group’s turn to be hit by the wage scandal, before which it was Vue de Monde. To be honest, we’d be completely unsurprised if every high-end restaurant in Australia is underpaying its staff. After all, underpaying — or not even paying — staff has been a staple of fine dining restaurants for a long time. The latter is called ‘staging’, a sort-of free labour internship that is the backbone of fine dining across the world. Via Eater:

What is unfair, underneath the veneer of awards, and the steady flow of international reservation requests they come with, is an ugly economic reality. Because many of these temples of culinary artistry cannot function without the work of stagiaires, their unpaid labor force.

A stage (pronounced: stajh, taken from the French word for “trainee”) is like a cooking internship, and the practice is much more common in elite, destination restaurants than local faves. Some cooks do this for a few days, but often the unpaid work lasts for weeks or months; depending on the kitchen, a stage might see themselves chopping up produce for mise en place or running entire stations during a night’s dinner service. Ostensibly, a cook who has already been in the field a few years, is staging to learn, to absorb new skills and knowledge from the kitchen’s full-time staff — because to be the best, you’ve got to learn from the best. I know a chef who staged at the French Laundry in California, and he doesn’t regret the unpaid, 14-hour days for a minute. It made him who he is. And for those who are able to do this, the experience is figuratively priceless. But in a literal sense, it does have a cost.

“Pursuing your dream and doing whatever it takes to work for the best restaurant, you put up any sacrifice,” says Abigail Ainsworth, a Toronto filmmaker currently shooting a documentary, tentatively titled Stage, about staging in the world’s best restaurants. “We’ve met people who sell their cars, break up with loved ones, really do whatever it takes to live their dream and work for these chefs.”


In 2015, when Noma was ranked at number three, the Guardian reported that the Copenhagen restaurant employed about 25 paid cooks, with another 30 unpaid stagiaires. A memoir from a former stagiaire, published in Los Angeles Magazine, described 17-hour days. When El Bulli was in the number one spot, I interviewed Ferran Adrià, who told me that he had 25 stagiaires, a workforce that outnumbered his paid staff.

It’s all very well to claim that staging is going to cooking school for free, but unpaid labour is illegal across many countries for a good reason. Besides, people who can afford to stage would themselves be a privileged few — people who don’t have medical debts to pay off, for example, or families to support. That’ll contribute to a lessening of diversity across the industry, which you can see in the spread of the Best 50 Restaurants list this year too. It lauded itself for being “female-forward“, when there were only 5 women-led restaurants in the top 50, and there’s still, hilariously, a “Best Female Chef” award, as though women can’t compete at the same level for Best Chef.

Free staging isn’t legal in Australia — but underpaying staff in general while overworking them is still the go. When Ben Shewry of Attica implemented the 48-hour working week for his staff, it was lauded:

“48-hour work weeks at a top 50 restaurant is amazing – this should be the Australian standard.”

However, not everyone is receptive to a shorter work week – chefs included. Dan Puskas of Sydney restaurant Sixpenny tried to implement a four-day system six months ago, but failed.

“I pitched it to our staff and none of them wanted to do it,” he says. “We’re lucky here because we don’t do Sunday dinner and we close Mondays and Tuesdays so our chefs get Sunday nights off and then two week days.”

“There’s this old idea that if you want to survive in this industry, you have to work these crazy hours. Maybe it’s exaggerated but on the other hand, we couldn’t afford to be open if we worked eight hours a day. We’d need to double the chefs, our prices would go up and we’d have no customers,” says Puskas.

It’s a hard life. We can only hope the Attica staff are also being paid what they’re worth. The last time I was in the restaurant, the chef’s essay was gone, but the garden walk remained.

Masterchef 2020

To be honest, I don’t particularly care that three middle-aged guys have lost a job that they held with intermittent success for 11 years. I used to love watching Masterchef. I learned how to quarter a chicken watching the show, among other things. I’ve gone to restaurants or tried bakeries because they featured on the show. I wish it the best. Unlike a lot of reality TV out there, much of Masterchef is feel-good TV where you can actually learn something. Yet every year, having to watch George struggle to eat spicy food got less and less funny. And each time the judges (other than Matt Preston the food critic) was faced with something beyond the norm, I usually held my breath to see if they were going to handle it badly.

Notwithstanding the top 10 for this year, the show has become more diverse over the years — last year’s winner was Singapore-born Sashi Cheliah. It was an absolute trip to turn on free-to-air Australian TV five days a week and listen to the accent from the country of my birth boom out over everyone else (Sashi used to be a police officer and it shows). TV is changing. This year, one of the most-watched shows on Netflix was Ava Duvernay’s incredible When They See Us, about the Central Park Five. Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians have made silly money at the box office. The new 007 is Lashana Lynch.

Here’s hoping that Masterchef Australia and Channel 10 will see the way the wind is blowing, and bring in judges that reflect the huge variety of food that Australia is now home to. It’s a new world now, hungry for new things. To Matt and Gary, thanks for the entertainment, even though it’s been 11 years and I’m still not entirely sure why Gary was even there (does he even have a restaurant?). As to George… pay your staff more, man. And the potatoes were weird.

Image from 7news.

Scroll to Top