Celebrity chef Michael Chiarello responds to salacious sex harassment lawsuit
San Jose Mercury News – By Matthias Gafni
SAN FRANCISCO — Two former servers at an acclaimed San Francisco restaurant have sued celebrity chef Michael Chiarello on allegations of sexual harassment, claiming the Coqueta owner and other managers created a sexually charged, hostile and abusive work environment.
The women, who served such VIP customers as Russell Crowe, Kim Kardashian and Kanye West, painted a sexualized atmosphere where Chiarello and his management made crude comments, homophobic and ethnic slurs, mimicked sex acts with food and inappropriately touched employees, according to the 20-page complaint filed in San Francisco Superior Court on Tuesday.
In a separate lawsuit, Katherine Page and Asja Sever, both of San Francisco, filed a wage and labor class action lawsuit against Chiarello and his companies, claiming it was company policy to not pay wages for all hours worked, in addition to not paying overtime, manipulating time clocks and time sheets, and forcing pooling of tips with kitchen staff.
“Coqueta management either participated in the sex harassment directly or allowed it to continue unabated by turning a blind eye toward the egregious, unlawful sexual misconduct of the restaurant’s more prominent employees,” the women allege in the suit.
An unidentified woman who answered the phone Tuesday afternoon at Coqueta declined to comment on the lawsuit. Chiarello owns the James Beard Award-nominated Coqueta — Spanish for “flirt” — which serves tapas-style food at Pier 5 in San Francisco. He also owns Bottega Ristorante in Yountville and the Chiarello Family Vineyards.
The women’s attorney Kelly Armstrong said the servers, who quit their jobs at the restaurant last week, were courageous for coming forward in an industry rife with workplace issues. “This type of behavior to women is not acceptable and cannot be tolerated,” Armstrong said. “Unfortunately, restaurants are a hotbed for illegal activity of all different types.”
The women described a salacious past year working at the restaurant, painting Chiarello as a bully and crass boss. They said they complained multiple times, but nothing was done. In November, the women claimed Chiarello held a baguette up to his crotch and stroked it with his hands in a sexual manner. The women also allege the chef would often tell staff: “Martinis are like (breasts). One is too few, three is too many.”
In another instance, Chiarello compared a new sandwich on the menu to a vagina by saying it looked like a “woman’s underparts,” making a triangle with his hands and placing it over his crotch, the suit alleges. He told managers of his hiring policy for women: “If you don’t want to (have sex with) them, don’t hire them,” the women claim.
Page alleged Chiarello, who would brag to staff about being well-endowed, shoved her once, telling her he owned the restaurant and to “stay the (expletive) out of his way” or words to that effect, and she felt unsafe around him after that.
Another night, Chiarello berated a male bar manager and grabbed and squeezed his genitalia for several seconds, the lawsuit alleges.
The two female servers claimed they saw Chiarello “inappropriately touch, caress and stare at women in a sexual manner.” The women claim Chiarello and other management would openly discuss the “sexual acts that they have engaged in and/or would like to engage in with the female guests of the restaurant.”
In their suit, the women also say that other managers engaged in abusive activity.
In a statement released late Tuesday, Chiarello’s spokesman Terry Fahn said Chiarello is “very upset” by the allegations. “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. …
“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.”
Chiarello hosts his own cooking shows on PBS, Food Network and the Cooking Channel, and has appeared on the popular food competition shows “Top Chef” and “Top Chef Masters.” He’s also a regular contributor to NBC’s “The Today Show,” CBS’s “The Early Show” and “Martha Stewart Living Radio.”