Matt Preston and Gary Mehigan have stood by their embattled MasterChef co-host and "lifelong" friend George Calombaris, amid the rising controversy and backlash surrounding his company's gross underpayment of staff to the tune of almost $8 million.
But one well-placed insider tells Woman's Day that it was their efforts to try to save George's job that ultimately led to them leaving the show after 11 years – after Ten called their bluff and stopped the contract negotiations on the spot.
"TV bosses had known about George's wage theft accusations for a while," a MasterChef source says of the disgraced chef's Fair Work Commission scandal, which resulted in a $200,000 fine.
"He had gone to them early so they could get across it and get behind him once the court case started but they were worried this scandal would affect their ratings."
Some reports say the judges were disgruntled after trying but failing to secure a 40 per cent increase on their alleged $1 million salaries. But our insider claims that when Gary, 52, and Matt, 58, were told about the network's concerns about George, 40, they closed ranks – telling bosses they were a one-in, all-in package deal.
"They made that ultimatum and the decision was made to clear the decks in a matter of hours," says the source. "Ten and Shine [the production company that produces MasterChef] agreed by phone.
"The judges didn't expect them to call their bluff and were shocked and devastated that it had backfired. They had no back-up plan and didn't even want to leave."
In a press release sent out just hours before the season 11 finale went to air, Ten released a statement saying an agreement could not be reached.
WATCH: MasterChef's George Calombaris is the butt of the joke on Have You Been Paying Attention - and Matt Preston is unimpressed. Story continues after video...
But while Matt and Gary's departures came as a shock, the insider claims George was not a favourite among show staff due to his "rude" behaviour.
"He has been increasingly difficult to work with," says the source. "George was also prioritising the show less and less."
Ten has denied that George's axing from MasterChef was a direct result of his company's wage dispute and the ensuing backlash – but 20,000 people signed a petition requesting he be sacked from the show.
George was also sensationally let go as the face of Tourism WA, after he featured in TV advertisements and online content to "design your own gourmet escape" in the state.
At the time of print, the judges were still standing by George, with Gary tweeting, "It was never about the money."
And according to some reports, the "three musketeers" already have lucrative projects in the works.
This year, the trio started their own company, GGM Pty Ltd, and according to one report, have plans to front an as-yet announced new cooking show on a streaming network.