Chef Michael Chiarello Sued Over Sexual Allegations

Napa chef Michael Chiarello sued for sexual harassment, labor issues by SF servers

Chef Michael Chiarello in 2011, PD File

Celebrity Chef Michael Chiarello is being sued by two former female employees alleging serious sexual harassment by Chiarello’s restaurant management and the chef, himself.

Chiarello, who lives in the Bay Area, is best known for his television appearances on Top Chef, Food Network and ownership of restaurants in the Bay Area including Yountville’s Bottega and Coqueta in San Francisco.

The lawsuit, filed March 15, names Chiarello, his hospitality group and several individuals who worked as chefs and management at SF’s Coqueta in the lawsuit. The complaints for damages in the lawsuit include a variety of salacious allegations about sexually charged incidents at Coqueta. A separate class-action lawsuit includes allegations of labor code violations including falsification of time and attendance and failure to pay into required employee health funds.

The two female defendants were high-level servers assigned to wait on high profile VIP guests including Kim Kardashian, Kanye West and Russell Crowe.

According to the suit, Coqueta chefs and managers have engaged in “a pattern and practice of inappropriate sexual comments, touching and other sex-related abuse towards Coqueta employees…management either participated in the sex harassment directly or allowed it to continue unabated,” the suit said.

Chiarello is specifically named for making inappropriate statements (we’ll let you read them below rather than getting gritty here) including allegedly holding a baguette to his crotch and making “stroking motions over the bread with his hands in an overtly sexual manner.” (And that’s the tame stuff.)

The suit goes on to describe inappropriate touching and staring at women (including restaurant guests) within the last 12 months preceding the complaint. Coqueta’s chef is also named in the suit for allegedly using both racist and misogynistic language.

The suit is disturbing to read, with allegations that including requiring the women to take care of menstrual hygiene issues in stairwells and openly hostile comments with demeaning terminology toward females and minorities.

“Sexual harassment and abuse of employees is so endemic at Coqueta that multiple female managers have resigned as a result of the oppressive work environment…stating she could not tolerate (the executive chef’s) disrespect for women and view of female employees as second class citizens,” the lawsuit states.

The Mercury News reports that Chiarello’s attorneys have released a statement saying Chiarello is upset by the allegations and that neither Coqueta or Chiarello had seen the lawsuit before the media was notified. The lawyers statement to the Mercury News also said that Chiarello planned to “defend himself, his reputation and his team against these unfounded claims in a court of law”.

In SF.Eater, Chiarello publicists made the following statement:

Mr. Chiarello is very upset by the allegations made by two former employees. The allegations are not only upsetting to him, they are also against his core beliefs.

Mr. Chiarello strongly believes that a great restaurant cannot really be great without an outstanding team. Throughout his career, he has served as a mentor to the people who work with him and helped them climb the ladder in their careers. This claim flies in the face of who Mr. Chiarello is and how he has lived his life. Mr. Chiarello is the son of immigrant family, a true American success story, who became the acclaimed chef he is today by using the skills he learned from watching his mother cook when he was a young boy and caring about the people with whom he worked.

We are also disappointed that neither Coqueta nor Mr. Chiarello were provided a copy of the lawsuit prior to the former employees’ attorneys sending it to the media. Mr. Chiarello intends to vigorously defend himself, his reputation and his team against these unfounded claims in a court of law.

This lawsuit, if founded, is not an isolated case, or even the worst I’ve heard of. Restaurants are notoriously hostile work environments for women, and sexual harassment (often disguised as “joking around”) is endemic. Maybe epidemic is more appropriate.

Restaurants can be high stress workplaces with high demands. Anyone watching Hell’s Kitchen has a window into the histrionics that some chefs can display. Kitchens have very clear hierarchies, which are often enforced with bullying and boys’ club put-downs. Lower ranking employees (including servers) often take the brunt of the kitchen’s stress, and an accepted tradition of smack-talk and misogynistic/racist epithets often go on without recourse.

It’s horrifying to know this goes on in restaurants we patronize, and unacceptable in modern society. If nothing else, I hope that this high profile lawsuit will shine a light on the abuse that women and other minorities often face in the restaurant industry and elsewhere.

Update: Here’s what the Lawyer Herald had to say.

FEHA Complaint by EllenVzw7796531

Note: While I appreciate discourse and comments about the suit, anonymous comments regarding hearsay that could be construed as libelous toward Chiarello or his restaurants will be deleted. Fair is fair. Reporting on publicly filed lawsuits against public figures is standard practice in journalism, and (as written) all of the statements in the lawsuit are allegations at this point. 


32 thoughts on “Chef Michael Chiarello Sued Over Sexual Allegations

  1. Read the whole thing as a 20+ year kitchen alum… sounds like they worked in a restaurant. That stuff happens everywhere, every day.

    1. Oddly enough, being a jerk to everyone without regard to gender, race, etc. is a kind of defense in this type of case.

    2. There probably a time during your 20+ years when a hostile work environment was not considered unlawful. It is now.

  2. While I am horrified (but not at all surprised) by the allegations, having been asked for blow jobs by a sous chef at a very high end SF restaurant on a daily basis, complaining about sharing tips with kitchen staff is CRAP. If kitchen staff weren’t doing their job for lousy pay (minimum wage or often less, no insurance, crap hours), you couldn’t earn several hundred $$ on up serving guests. In my experience, FOH staff routinely made bank, snorted it up their noses DURING SERVICE, and treated kitchen prep as their personal snack shack. Um, NO.

  3. Why would these girls work there so long if the behavior was that bad? Sounds like they were on the outs and seeking revenge. Hell has no fury…

    Of course if you are biteclub and you read the suit it must all be true!

    1. Maybe they had something they needed money for? I’ve heard that there is this thing called “rent” and something called “bills” that sometimes people work to pay off on a weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly basis. I could be going out on a limb here, but I think that most people like to do their jobs without without being called the C word and the B word and having baguettes stroked at them and hearing their disgusting pig of a boss tell stories about his conquests.

      1. From the tone of the comments, I can see misogyny isn’t limited to any particular industry. Thanks for proving the point that we’ve got a long way to go, baby.

        1. Well, glad you’ve seen all the evidence and made the conviction. I don’t see much here other than pointing out that someone is presumed innocent, baby.

      1. Get another job, you serve food in the bay area. Tons of jobs out there….And Biteclub, you are tool. I can’t believe you write for a paper. My guess is not for long when the PD is gone. And it will be soon!

    2. 1. If you note, they were clearly at the top of the server hierarchy seeing as they were being tapped to wait on A-list guests. This is one of the most lucrative positions you could hope for and faced with your suggestion of quitting, would mean a significant reduction in wages (easily 25% or more based on my experience. Consequently you learn to put up with a lot of sh*t so you can pay your bills.

      2. Having worked in one of Chiarello’s restaurants, I can truly say that the behavior described in the lawsuit are consistent with his past behavior. He has a furious temper and is known to berate and belittle whomever he feels has earned his ire. Take this as you will, those were my direct observations. Plus, he’s just a douche even outside the kitchen.

  4. Means nothing till proven. I could file the same lawsuit but it wouldn’t make it true. Reputations are being ruined by the way you’ve reported this. Innocent till proven….

      1. While clearly adorable (though I may sue for objectifying me but I’m flattered enough to overlook the matter), clueless I’m not. You’ve decided that the outcome is guilty without any evidence and trial. Should there not be a trial somewhere along the way before the hanging? Hmm…

        1. Ron, does this mean we’re friends?

          True story: One of my favorite friends was a commenter who kicked my ass regularly in the comments.

          1. Ah, well, who knows…

            Perhaps I am one of your friends keeping you on your toes. Or perhaps not 🙂

  5. This Chef has been in the business for three decades without something like this being written.
    A Lawyer wrote the the suit, a lawyer. My guess is there was bad behavior all around, but you really jumped on reporting this. Innocent until proven guilty goes out the window when this paper reports the news(?).

    1. This is a civil offense so the standard is the preponderance of evidence. It looks like a colorable claim to me.

      1. This should have been referred to “Restaurant Stakeout” for investigation prior to the lawsuit. The baguette stuff and octopus tentacle stuff would have made pretty salacious TV.

      2. Biteclib with a side of Social Justice Warrior.

        Stick to food. Leave the politics to the Opinion section.

          1. I think the point of your column is food, not social justice to your particular taste and the comment is that is what biteclub is about, If this is true, personally, I hope he gets reduced to begging on the streets, or worse still, an etiquette course led by Gordon Ramsey, but there’s that pesky justice thing to consider before we get the rope.

          2. When did writing about a public record regarding a high-profile chef in our region become social justice? It’s about food. It’s about restaurants. It’s also about something that affects millions of other women a daily basis — sexism and hostility toward women in the workplace. You know my name, not my story. I am reporting on a public document filed in court against a high profile chef which I have quoted directly and attributed any acts as “allegations”. Chiarello’s people have offered up his side, which I have included. This is straight up reporting, which I actually know something about. What I am more busy doing is deleting comments from others which slander the chef and his staff without attribution. That’s injustice and unfair.

          3. I’m 100% with you on deleting the comments that I can’t, obviously, see, so perhaps you should adjust your public comments to reflect those published then you won’t get comments like mine pointing out the innocence issue.

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