Since the sale, Bennett’s stake in the company has been whittled down from 35 per cent to about 20 per cent.
The celebrity chef said he was being paid a salary as creative director but Vue’s majority owner, Far East Organisation, refused to confirm Bennett’s position or salary, instead describing him as “a consultant”.
Industry sources with direct knowledge of the situation say Bennett and the Ng brothers are at loggerheads, with the Singaporeans angry at Bennett’s hands-off approach since he moved to Byron Bay in 2018 and the chef disappointed at the owners’ unwillingness to expand into Asian markets.
Some of Melbourne’s top restaurant group owners say they have been offered Bennett’s suite of restaurants in the last month.
“Most of their businesses are being shopped around for next to nothing,” claimed one owner, who declined to be named.
“We were offered Iki-Jime for $1. They wanted it to be a quick sale, done on the same day.”
Mr Bennett and Vue Group’s CEO, Andrew Skinner, confirmed the building that houses Iki-Jime and Benny Burger was for sale, and that the group would be “open to a commercial arrangement for a sale [for the restaurants] to go through as vacant tenancy”.
However, Mr Bennett said suggestions the restaurants were for sale was “absolute rubbish” and that those who said otherwise were “f—ing liars”.
Mr Bennett confirmed he had been speaking to prominent restaurant broker Tony Eldred, but did not disclose the nature of those conversations. Mr Eldred said he was familiar with matters at Vue Group, but declined to comment on them.
“The restaurants are not for sale at all in any capacity whatsoever,” said Bennett, but “if someone comes and makes a great offer for Jardin Tan or something like that, then great, happy to talk about it.”
Skinnersaid the company had been in conversations with potential buyers who had approached it, but strongly denied the restaurants were being actively shopped around.
“The company is fully solvent and able to meet all its obligations … [and] Vue de monde is not for sale – it is the crown jewel in our suite of brands,” he said.
A spokesperson for Far East Organisation said the company was “not in negotiations with any potential buyers”.
Any sale is likely to be complicated by an ongoing Fair Work Ombudsman investigation into allegations of underpayment at Vue de monde, which if proven could lead to fines in the millions of dollars – a possible future financial liability likely to frighten buyers.
It was reported last year that some chefs at the Rialto Tower restaurant, a favourite of Melbourne powerbrokers, allegedly worked 30 hours of unpaid overtime per week, leaving them hundreds of thousands of dollars short over the life of their employment.
Mr Skinner said the ombudsman had been investigating for a year and had found “nothing”, adding that Vue Group had done “everything completely correctly” in staff payments.
A spokeswoman for the ombudsman said the probe was ongoing, and urged any workers who believed they had been “underpaid or treated unfairly” to submit their complaints.
One of the restaurant group owners who had been offered the chance to buy one of the venues said Vue’s financial woes were compounded by the fact that “they are probably paying proper wages for the first time ever”.
“When you’re talking about high-end restaurants doing degustation menus where they have about 20 chefs working at one time and there’s 25 touches on every plate – there’s a lot of labour and a lot of high-cost items going on the plate.”
Bennett’s cluster of restaurants has been hit hard by a slowdown in Melbourne’s high-end “experience” dining.
The restaurant’s tasting menu starts at $250 per person, a price point that has struggled against a wave of venues offering fine dining at less extravagant prices.
In June, Bennett told The Age that Vue de monde was altering its business model to cater for diners seeking a quicker meal, rather than an hours-long degustation.
The Vue Group of restaurants includes flagship Vue de Monde, Iki-Jime, Jardin Tan, Lui Bar and Cafe Burnham.
Bennett hoped to open a dozen burger restaurants in Melbourne and Sydney. Earlier this year, one of his two Benny Burger restaurants shut its doors after struggling to attract customers.
In recent years, the former Masterchef star split with his wife of 13 years, Neighbours and Underbelly star Madeleine West.
Since establishing his first restaurant in 2000, Bennett and West amassed a property portfolio including multi-million dollar mansions in Toorak, South Yarra and his beachside residence at Byron Bay.
Paul is a reporter for The Age.
Senior Crime Reporter