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Mike Isabella Remains in Control of His Restaurants Despite Sexual Harassment Lawsuit

The D.C. chef is unlikely to step away from operations, according to the Washington Post

Mike Isabella on Top Chef
Mike Isabella
NBCU Photo Bank/Getty Images

This week, D.C. chef Mike Isabella settled the lawsuit alleging sexual harassment at his restaurants for an undisclosed sum, and as part of the settlement, promises to improve sexual harassment training. And today, the Washington Post reports that this may be the extent of the consequences for his alleged actions. Unlike other chefs implicated in the #MeToo movement, like Mario Batali and John Besh, Isabella is still firmly at the head of his expansive restaurant group Mike Isabella Concepts, not even “stepping away from day-to-day operations” as Batali, Besh, and restaurateur Ken Friedman have done.

The Post points out that because Isabella denied former director of operations Chloe Caras’s accusation of harassment from the get go, the lawsuit played out in such a way that Isabella will be able to continue on at his restaurant group in the same capacity as before. “The denials forced the burden of proof on Caras and her lawyers... and turned serious accusations into yet another case of she said, he said,” writes the Post. “The denials also potentially calmed investors, employees or managers who may have been looking to jump ship.”

Investors in Isabella’s Graffiato restaurants are divided into two groups: Those with Class A shares can control business operations; those with Class B shares don’t. Only Isabella, partner Hilda Staples, and a third silent partner have Class A shares in Isabella’s Graffiato restaurant. The funding for most of Isabella’s restaurants after Graffiato was set up with Isabella as the only Class A shareholder, the Washington Business Journal reports — making him the only person with any influence over restaurant operations.

Investors could potentially band together to confront Isabella and hold him accountable, but even this is unlikely. As Staples — who says she is no longer involved in the day-to-day at Graffiato — tells the Post, Isabella does not have an employment contract with a morality clause, at least among investors in the Graffiato restaurants. (That’s one type of agreement, if in place, that could be used to oust co-owners accused of bad behavior.) One former investor indicated to the Post that it’s not worth it for investors to get involved, given the “small amounts” — around $25,000 or less — most have bankrolled to the group.

Isabella remaining in charge is an outlier in the recent wave of #MeToo. Most restaurateurs accused of misconduct have savvily implemented a vague promise to “step away from operations” phrase to suggest a rupture, that their on-the-ground (if not financial) removal will help foster a better work environment. With Isabella remaining publicly, actively involved in his restaurants, there’s no real guarantee the restaurant’s culture, described in the original complaint as “hostile” and “degrading,” will change.

And as Eater’s Meghan McCarron argues, that mostly meaningless “stepping away” action is still not enough to create the industry-wide change some bad actors purport to support: “No apology will erase a majority share, and no HR consultant can undo ownership’s power and control,” McCarron writes. “For this reckoning to truly change restaurant culture, these men should give up their ownership — their capital, in every respect — to more deserving parties, whether that’s their partners, employees, or the people they have hurt.”

For Isabella, the allegations have resulted in some negative consequences. His publicist left him, the Washington Nationals cut ties with the restaurant group, and Isabella restaurants are no longer eligible for certain awards, best-of lists, and dining guides, including at Eater. Isabella also closed a location of Requin in Fairfax, Virginia, although it’s unclear whether the closing was impacted by the lawsuit. But, given Isabella’s denials, it would appear he doesn’t believe there’s anything in need of fixing at Mike Isabella Concepts.

“He wasn’t going to apologize, and he wasn’t going to admit it,” Staples said to the Post. “I think that was his strategy, and I think that it has worked. . . . He got some bad press. But I think that in a year, no one is going to talking about this. Maybe not even in a year.”

Why Mike Isabella may escape the fate of other celebrity chefs accused of sexual harassment [The Washington Post]
Mike Isabella Settles Lawsuit Alleging Sexual Harassment at His Restaurant Group [EDC]
D.C. Chef Mike Isabella Sued for Sexual Harassment [E]

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