WASHINGTON • Was the manager fired by celebrity chef Mike Isabella - or did she opt not to return to work after a quarrel? That issue is now part of the debate after Ms Chloe Caras sued Isabella, head of a US$30-million (S$39.5-million) culinary empire based in the United States' capital, on Monday.
Claiming that he and his partners repeatedly sexually harassed her in the workplace, she is seeking US$4 million in damages from the Top Chef alumnus, his company Mike Isabella Concepts (MIC) and his four business partners.
In the lawsuit, she said the chef and his partners called her a "whore", commented on the size of her buttocks and touched her without permission.
"Women generally do not make it into the higher management ranks of Mr Isabella's establishments and when Ms Caras did, she became the target of... hostility and abuse," the lawsuit said.
She said she reached her breaking point on the night of Dec 5 when she was sitting in a booth with the chef just before the launch of Isabella Eatery in McLean, Virginia.
A male sous chef asked to join them. "Mr Isabella had consumed numerous drinks throughout the day and appeared visibly intoxicated," the lawsuit said.
Ms Caras, in an interview with The Washington Post, said he told the sous chef: "'If you sleep with Chloe, you can.' I told him to stop and he immediately got angry."
In the lawsuit, she said she tried to walk away and he followed her into the kitchen. As she reached the door to exit the restaurant, "Mr Isabella chased after her and tauntingly shouted: 'Love you, Chloe. Nice working with you.' Then he fired her".
Two male chefs who worked for MIC said in interviews that they witnessed Isabella yelling at Ms Caras and following her on the night she said she was dismissed.
Isabella's lawyers disputed her account that she was fired, saying in a statement: "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."
The lawyers said 60 per cent of the firm's "management and leadership personnel" are women and described her as a co-owner of MIC.
Ms Caras told The Post she invested US$15,000 in Isabella's Yona restaurant in 2015.
Separately, Ms Sara Hancock, who worked for Isabella as a pastry sous chef from July last year to February, told The Post that he had kissed her cheek without consent in late December, saying that he would make her a superstar.
She told her boyfriend about the unwanted kiss on Dec 31 by text message, which she showed to The Post.
After The Post contacted Isabella, his lawyer sent names of women who wanted to talk about working for the chef.
Ms Janelle Serianni, general manager at Isabella Eatery, said he and his partners do drink in the restaurants "but I've never witnessed negative name-calling or touching". Ms Dhiandra Olson, assistant general manager at Requin at the Wharf in Washington, said she had never witnessed any harassment of women.
Since Isabella competed a decade ago on the Bravo show Top Chef, he has opened 11 restaurants in Washington and the Maryland and Virginia suburbs, published a cookbook and received regular national press coverage.
The restaurateur, whose patrons have included Lady Gaga and Mrs Michelle Obama, recently purchased a US$2.19 million condo.
In the United States, men tend to dominate the culinary world. Only one-fifth of the chefs and head cooks are women, according to data from the Department of Labour, and men own two-thirds of restaurant businesses.
In the star-studded food scene, Isabella gained a reputation for brash commentary.
During a televised clam-shucking event in 2009, he said "a girl shouldn't be at the same level that I am", sparking Internet outrage.
He called the line "a joke" in a live chat that year with Post readers and said: "I was raised in a broken family by my mother and my sister, so I have plenty of respect for women.
"It was sarcastic."