Pastry chef and TV host Johnny Iuzzini is the latest food-world celebrity to be accused of sexual harassment. Four former employees have come forward anonymously with allegations of sexual harassment and abuse while working under Iuzzini at New York City restaurant Jean-Georges, Mic reports.
The former employees, two pastry chefs and two externs, described the Jean-Georges pastry kitchen as an environment rampant with sexual harassment. According to these women, Iuzzini could be verbally abusive and “did things to make people uncomfortable, and to see what he could get away with.” In addition to making sexually explicit remarks and lewd gestures, he allegedly demanded shoulder massages from female employees at the end of shifts.
One pastry chef, who worked under Iuzzini for two years, tells Mic that the chef approached her at her station and put his tongue in her ear on multiple occasions. An extern cited in Mic details a consensual relationship with Iuzzini that began the night before her interview with the chef when she was just 19. “He was 36, I was 19 and he had all the power,” she says in the report.
Iuzzini denies some, but not all, of the allegations. In a statement to Mic, he says he’s “shattered and heartbroken at the thought that any of my actions left members of my team feeling hurt or degraded.” He also notes that “I began working in kitchens when I was 15 years old, back in a time when it was rare to see women in the kitchen, and behavior was more bawdy than professional... And it was wrong.”
Iuzzini left Jean-Georges in 2011. By this time, Jean-Georges appeared to be aware of some of Iuzzini’s misconduct, according to Mic, but the women who came forward don’t believe chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten and director of operations Philippe Vongerichten were fully aware of the extent of the abuse. Although the women say they did not know of an official channel for reporting abuse at the restaurant, a spokesperson for Jean-Georges confirmed that the restaurant group has had a “human resources function” in place since 2003.
Iuzzini currently does not work in a restaurant kitchen, but in the mid- to late aughts, during the time the alleged harassment occurred, he was one of the nation’s top names in pastry. Iuzzini won the 2006 James Beard Award for Outstanding Pastry Chef, acknowledging his work at Jean-Georges, and he propelled that recognition (and his image) into television roles and appearances: Bravo tapped him as the head judge for its Top Chef: Just Desserts spin-off, and he popped up as a talking head on several Food Network/Cooking Channel shows, like Rewrapped, The Best Thing I Ever Ate, and Sugar Showdown. Most recently, he was tapped to co-judge The Great American Baking Show, ABC’s spin-off of the British reality classic; its third season is scheduled to debut December 7. Iuzzini is also a frequent face on the food festival circuit.
The women in Mic’s story say they did not come forward for fear that speaking out against this powerful figure in the pastry world would damage their careers. “He knew everybody,” one woman says. “And if I ever wanted to get a job in a restaurant, I’m going to burn every bridge that I have. And when you’re surrounded by that, you don’t [report it], you bitch to other people.” In 2011, Philippe Vongerichten reportedly asked one pastry chef to file a report on misconduct she witnessed, but she declined to file paperwork because she had plans to resign and did not want Iuzzini to see it.
The allegations against Iuzzini are the latest in a wave that’s swept several industries ever since the New York Times revealed a history of abuse and harassment committed by Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. In late October, a Times-Picayune expose revealed a systemic culture of harassment in the kitchens of New Orleans chef John Besh; he later stepped down from his role as CEO of the restaurant group. Many have pointed out the Besh expose should hopefully foster what Toronto restaurateur Jen Agg called “a Harvey Weinstein moment for the restaurant industry.”
Eater has reached out to Iuzzini and reps at ABC for further comment. In his statement to Mic, Iuzzini says he hopes “that anyone who felt wronged by me will reach out to me and give me the opportunity to apologize to them personally.”
Update 4:56 p.m.: A spokesperson for Jean-Georges provided the following statement:
Jean Georges and the entire restaurant group is troubled and frankly sickened at the thought that anything like what was described in the article could have occurred in our restaurants. We have long had an anti-harassment policy and reporting procedures in place and all employees have been provided with the policy and been made aware of the reporting mechanisms at the time of hire and again and at various intervals during employment. While we have certainly improved and fine-tuned our HR function over the years we have been committed to the underlining principles since the beginning of our organization. We are proud of our overall track record of responding to employee complaints and concerns when they come up and have certainly taken prompt and appropriate action when circumstances have warranted. Fortunately, to our knowledge they have been few and far between. However, we are distressed that some employees may not have felt comfortable coming forward at the time. It is not and has never been our policy to tolerate the type of behavior described in the article. Whether directed at women or men, yelling, berating, touching, or harassment of any kind is not how we operate our restaurants. Mr. Iuzzini has not been a part of our restaurant group for some time and does not represent our philosophy towards dining and more importantly, to our working environment.
Recent events and media attention has caused us to only look further inward as to how we can better serve our employees and even further integrate our human resources function and insure that our employees understand that workplace harassment has no place in our workplace culture.