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.