But while Bacon and Egg Ice Cream – named for one of Blumenthal’s signature dishes – was extracting as much as $A7.9 million over four years in licence fees from Crown, the highly-skilled chefs who created the food were being underpaid at least $4 million. It is not suggested that the Copseys or Blumenthal were personally involved in the business’s underpayments.
Dinner by Heston will not trade beyond this Friday night, The Sunday Age and The Sun-Herald have confirmed, and the company behind it, Tipsy Cake, is expected to be placed into liquidation this week, owing another $435,000 in accrued entitlements to staff, according to a creditors report. Considering the size of the business, it is the worst case of underpayment uncovered as part of The Age’s investigation into the high-end restaurant sector and an inglorious end after all the initial hype.
Every week was at least 60 hours … and a lot of times it was into the 80s.
Dinner by Heston Chef de Partie Michael Green
As for the millions in licensing fees, their final beneficiary is difficult to determine, and Mr Copsey through his old accounting firm, Copsey Murray, did not respond to a request for comment.
Representatives of the London-based Dinner by Heston did not respond directly to questions on that issue but released a statement criticising Crown for the collapse and its “deeply disappointing” decision to terminate its lease “which put jobs at risk”.
“As a foreign company, Tipsy (Cake) relied from the outset on the advice given by advisors in Australia and our partner Crown Melbourne, who were responsible for advising on the staff remuneration blueprint for the restaurant,” a Tipsy Cake spokesperson said.
Tipsy Cake said neither itself or its holding company were able to fund the repayment of money owed to staff and it was “left with no option but to appoint provisional liquidators” after Crown did not agree to contribute to a bail-out plan.
Crown has defended its actions and a spokeswoman for the casino said Tipsy Cake “was a tenant of Crown” and “responsible for its own operations and employed its own staff”.
Dinner by Heston, through Tipsy Cake, on paper has run at a loss and paid no company tax since arriving in Australia, according to corporate filings. It is part of a tangle of corporate structures in various jurisdictions globally. The Melbourne-based restaurant itself was owned directly through the notorious Caribbean tax haven of Nevis through which tens of millions of dollars have flowed since 2015. The Copseys’ company was a “related” entity to this global network receiving fees for Blumenthal’s intellectual property.
And as for Blumenthal, he is no longer a shareholder in the business and restaurants that bear his name, though the company itself says he remains linked as chef patron and is “integral” to their operation. He is paid by another part of the empire, the UK-based Fat Duck Group.
The problems for the group emerged after a Sunday Age investigation in late 2018 showed the Melbourne eatery had been significantly – and unlawfully – underpaying their staff, many of whom were working 20 hours to 30 hours a week unpaid.
What appears to have hastened the end of Dinner by Heston’s Australian experiment was a subsequent investigation by the Fair Work Ombudsman and demands they repay staff. Just before Christmas the company appointed provisional liquidators. When Crown recently said it would terminate its lease there was no way for the restaurant to trade its way out of trouble.
With an offshore owner based in a tax haven with few assets it is unclear how much the workers will ultimately receive.
Chef de partie Michael Green, 30, has worked at Dinner by Heston since it opened and now faces losing his job and has little choice but to return to Canada in a few weeks.
“So many of us are going to have to leave,” said Mr Green, whose application for permanent residency was tied to his employment.
Mr Green wanted to make a life here and as recently as last month volunteered to cook for firefighters at Bright, Victoria. “I love Australia, I love the life here, I love the people,” he said. Before he leaves, he most wants to be paid what he is owed which, according to a conservative estimate by his union, is at least $60,000.
For the young Canadian chef, working at a Heston Blumenthal restaurant was a “dream come true”. But the excessive work became too much over time. “Every week was at least 60 hours … and a lot of times it was into the 80s (hours a week),” he said. He’d experienced nothing like it back home where a busy week would be 45 to 50 hours.
The question of who pays – if anyone – what is owed to people such as Michael Green might be settled in the courts.
BRI Ferrier, in its creditors report, claimed Crown was in effect in a joint venture with the company that owned the restaurant, Tipsy Cake, charging it rent of $1 a year and offering it a range of financial and administrative support.
A Crown employee had set up the “blueprint” for how most staff were initially engaged, the report said, and that blueprint was “applied over several years resulting in the underpayment”.
Recent changes to the Corporations Act may allow landlords such as Crown to be included in any clawing back of employee entitlements, according to Natasha McHattan, legal director at the Australian Restructuring Insolvency & Turnaround Association.
The new laws targeted transactions that attempted to prevent, avoid or reduce payments of employee entitlements, she said, including “targeting intentional or reckless actions where two or more entities get together with the effect of, essentially, ripping off employees’ entitlements.”
The changes were primarily designed to target illegal phoenix activity, but there is potential that they could be applied to third parties such as landlords. “They may be broad enough to encompass something like this but as they are new they have not been tested,” she said.
The liquidator also has an investigatory role to uncover whether there has been an attempt to transfer assets with the intention of “defeating creditors,” she said.
For workers such as Michael Green it could be a drawn-out process to see what they get. Further complicating it is that as a temporary visa holder – as are many of his colleagues – he is ineligible for support under the Fair Entitlements Guarantee, a government program that pays out some worker entitlements in a corporate collapse.
“I had more good times than bad times at Dinner by Heston,” chef Green said. “But I’d like to be paid for the hours that I did.”
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Ben Schneiders is an investigative journalist at The Age and has reported extensively on wage theft, corruption, business, politics and the labour movement. A three-time Walkley Award winner, he has been part of The Age’s investigative unit since 2015.
Royce Millar is an investigative journalist at The Age with a special interest in public policy and government decision-making.