Top Chef star and Washington D.C.-based chef Mike Isabella is being sued for sexual harassment, Danielle Paquette reports in the Washington Post. The lawsuit, filed by Chloe Caras, a former Mike Isabella Concepts employee who worked as a manager, alleges that the chef and his partners repeatedly sexually harassed her. Caras names Isabella, the group Mike Isabella Concepts, and the chef’s business partners Taha Ismail, Yohan Allender, George Pagonis, and Nicholas Pagonis in the suit.
[UPDATE: The Washington Post previously reported that Caras was seeking $4 million in damages, but has since updated its story to reflect that she seeks unspecified damages. Eater has removed the $4 million figure from this story.]
Isabella has opened 11 restaurants in the Washington, D.C., area since competing on season six of Top Chef, including multiple Kapnos restaurants and a massive food hall. The lawsuit states: “Women generally do not make it into the higher management ranks of Mr. Isabella’s establishment, and when Ms. Caras did, she became the target of extraordinary sex-based hostility and abuse.” The chef’s lawyers claim 60 percent of the firm’s “management and leadership personnel” are women.
According to the Washington Post, after Caras was promoted to director of operations and tasked with the launch of the Isabella Eatery in Tysons, Virginia, she was allegedly subjected to sexist comments, unwanted touching, and inappropriate text messages from both Isabella and his partners. Isabella denies these allegations.
Caras says she left the company after a December 2017 incident at Isabella Eatery in which she claims she asked Isabella to stop making sexist comments. “I told him to stop, and he immediately got angry,” Caras said to the Post. “I tried to walk away, and he followed me into the kitchen, calling me a ‘bitch.’” Caras says Isabella then fired her. An email from Caras’s direct supervisor in the days following the exchange said Isabella did not fire Cara and characterizes their exchange as a miscommunication. The Post has additional sources who confirm they saw Isabella yelling at Caras and following her from a booth into the kitchen on the night she says she was fired.
But Isabella’s lawyers say that Caras’s departure had nothing to do with harassment, stating: “After years of working for MIC and never before raising these allegations, in December, she stormed off the job and refused to return, insisting she had been fired.”
Paquette also quotes a pastry sous chef who confirmed that Isabella and his partners created a hostile work environment. Sara Hancock described the environment at Isabella Eatery as “degrading” for women and told the Post that Isabella kissed her cheek without her consent. Other employees who spoke to the Post say that although they have seen Isabella and his partners drink while at work, they have never witnessed harassment by Isabella or his partners.
The #MeToo movement has forced the restaurant industry to confront a toxic working culture, and Isabella is just the latest chef to be accused of sexual misconduct and harassment. Since the Times-Picayune’s Brett Anderson broke the news of allegedly rampant harassment at John Besh’s restaurants, chef Mario Batali, restaurateur Ken Friedman, pastry chef Johnny Iuzzini, and others have been accused of sexual misconduct in investigative reports.